Apartment hunters love Craigslist because it’s easy and free, but there’s a big downside: You’ve got to wade through loads of ads — and avoid scams — to find a gem.
Here are eight do’s and don’ts for finding a fabulous apartment on Craigslist.
1. Pick a neighborhood first.
If you’re moving to a new city, get the lay of the land before starting your search. Deciding on a neighborhood helps you focus your search and learn about apartment rents in that area, said Maurice Ortiz, director of operations for Apartment People, a free apartment-finding service in Chicago, IL.
Fair-housing laws prevent licensed agents and brokers from steering you toward or away from a neighborhood, so ask coworkers, friends or even folks on the street what they think of various neighborhoods, Ortiz said.
2. Take stock of the photos.
Click away from those sketchy listings don’t have photos. At the same time, be wary of listings that feature photos that look stunningly slick or too good to be true. Some scammers will use stock photos — or even steal photos from legitimate real estate listings — to lure unsuspecting renters, Ortiz said.
3. Be suspicious of low rents.
If you’re seeing lots of apartments in a certain price range, then you see a similar one that’s dramatically lower, watch out. It could be a sign that something’s wrong, said Lee Lin, CEO of RentHop, which scores apartment listings based on criteria like accuracy, completeness and how long an apartment has been available. For example, some landlords actually will install a partition to turn a one-bedroom apartment into an enticingly cheap “two-bedroom” apartment, Lee said.
4. Check out the contact details.
Avoid any listing that doesn’t include a phone number. “That’s a huge red flag,” Ortiz said.
Legit listings should contain a company name, an address and a phone number, he said. “The more complete the listing, the better,” Ortiz said.
Also, run away from anyone claiming to be a broker but using, say, a Gmail or Hotmail account instead of a company email address, Lee said.
5. Sniff out scams.
Unfortunately, Craigslist scams abound. Just one example: Police in New York City, NY, are looking for a fraudster who posed as a real estate agent to con three apartment hunters out of more than $5,000 by posting a fake Craigslist apartment ad and asking for deposits.
To avoid a scenario like that, do some research on the name of the company advertising an apartment. “You should always Google a landlord to make sure they really are who they say they are,” Ortiz said.
Also, check with the Better Business Bureau for the company’s rating and complaint history, he said.
6. Meet the landlord.
Don’t fill out any applications, agree to a credit check, hand over personal information or pay a penny before meeting the landlord in person. Some apartment hunters have handed over their bank account information to put down a deposit or pay a credit check fee, Ortiz said, and then have arrived at their destination only to find that the apartment doesn’t exist.
7. Look for hidden downsides.
Before you sign a lease, it’s a good idea to find out a little more about the building and area, according to New York real estate website BrickUnderground. You can start by typing the address into AddressReport.com. Also check into details like elevator wait times, building violations and area crime rates, BrickUnderground recommends.
In addition, find out whether there are any additional costs, Ortiz said. For example, you don’t want to learn after you move in that you’ll have to pay $200 a month for a parking spot, he said.
8. Visit the apartment.
It’s never a good idea to rent an apartment sight unseen, Ortiz said. “We highly advise against it — we’ve heard too many horror stories,” he said.
If you can’t make it to your new city, the second best option is to ask a friend or colleague to check out the place for you — and, if possible, do a FaceTime call with you he or she is there, Ortiz said.
Photos just don’t give you the whole picture, according to Ortiz. For example, a place might look airy and spacious online, he said, but “then you get there and realize, ‘Wow, I rented a shoebox.’ And you’re stuck for a year.”