Almost everyone who has been new to a city has experienced the nightmare of apartment hunting. There are brokers who charge hidden fees, and agents who are unprofessional. Half of New Yorkers rent apartments. Over 40% of people in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Dallas, and Houston are apartment renters.
What to Do Ahead of Time
1. Know your own needs.
In any negotiation and contract, it’s important to identify what you need. Do you have any dealbreakers (e.g., maximum budget, close to work, laundry on-site, dishwasher, specific neighborhood)?
Figure out your top priorities. Your awareness will start the process in a grounded way.
2. Empower yourself with information.
You can research the average market rate and general inventory ahead of time. By talking to more people, or checking out websites like Streeteasy or Padmapper (depending on your city), you begin to build an understanding of reasonable rates and neighborhoods. Some aspects might be difficult to find out online, including how quickly inventory comes on and off the market. Such issues are better to find out by word of mouth from people who live in the area.
3. Some aspects are not within your control, and that’s OK.
You may not have a choice as to when you are moving—it may depend on your job situation or your prior lease. Rates and availability in cities often depend on the season. The busiest season is between May to September, which means you’ll find more options but higher rates and more competition since more people are trying to move then. Demand is lower in the winter months, but you may have fewer options.
4. Prepare your paperwork and your bank account.
Organization can make your life easier when things get hectic. Now that you know your priorities, you can create a spreadsheet or checklist. This will help you keep track of apartments and compare them during the search. Your memory will likely not be able to hold all the detail from the dozens of apartments you see, so it’s helpful to use this list to keep track.
You can also prepare the necessary paperwork to move forward on an apartment. These typically include:
- A signed letter of employment on official company letterhead stating position, length of employment/start date, and annual income.
- Three recent pay stubs.
- Recent federal tax return.
- Landlord reference or letter.
- Three recent checking account bank statements.
- Letters of reference.
- Photo ID.
Your bank account will also need enough to cover the application fee, broker's fee, first month’s rent, and security deposit.
During the Search
5. Being discerning is helpful.
Unfortunately, fraud and deception are common in real estate. There is little regulation of apartment listings in most cities and a lack of enforcement when deception happens. An investigation by The Council of the City of New York found that nearly 1 in 3 brokers (31%) admitted that they would charge a broker fee for apartments they posted as “no broker fee.” Most of these agents charged one month’s rent or between 10-15% broker's fee. Others tried to camouflage the fee by increasing rent numbers or adding in other hidden costs.
Referrals to brokers or management companies/ landlords via trusted friends and family are ideal. Going directly to deal with landlords and management companies also helps. But if you don’t have access to this, don’t be afraid to ask for credentials or verification of their real estate state license before agreeing to work with someone and checking on the state online database of licensed brokers.
You can also always negotiate the broker's fee before you start working with them (to lower the typical 15% broker fee).
6. Listen to your gut if something feels wrong.
Chances are, your gut will know when someone is being deceptive. Trust yourself. Common signs of deception are that they might be inconsistent, have nervous body language, talk too much, feel insincere, or ask for something unexpected or different from your original agreement.
If your gut detects something is not quite right at any time, you can walk away. There are over 16,000 brokers in New York City alone and thousands of brokers in other urban cities. Politeness and loyalty are excellent qualities, but, in real estate, it can feel one-sided. Other common bait-and-switch tactics are when agents use a listing that is not available in order to attract new clients. This means when you call, you will hear, “Sorry, that listing is gone, but let me show you some other listings.” Other potential red flags are when a broker shows an apartment that is no-fee, but he or she tries to make you pay a broker's fee. Other agents try to get clients to immediately sign exclusivity agreements.
7. Don’t be afraid to be thorough. You deserve to take up space and time.
The devil is in the details. Don’t be afraid to check the plumbing, open closets, ask about typical utility bills, or inquire about any potential pests or problems like leaks. Often agents will rush you through a showing and into a decision. Take your time, take pictures, and ask any questions that you feel are important.
8. Bring a trusted friend.
A trusted friend can be an important source of support during the apartment search. Someone who understands your priorities can reduce stress and give you the ability to take a step back from the sense of urgency.
9. Flow with the uncertainty.
Not everything will go according to plan. Apartments that you really liked may no longer be available. Part of the process is to allow yourself to flow with the events as they unfold.
During the Deal
10. Take a moment to check in with yourself.
Before making any binding decisions, it is important to check in with your original priorities and needs. Does this fit what you needed at a minimum?
11. Harness your power of negotiation.
If you are an ideal tenant, you can try to negotiate a better rent, for example, if you offer a longer lease. Try to find common ground and a win-win situation for both you and the landlord.
12. Read all contracts prior to signing them.
Details matter in leases. Any verbal agreements that you may have made with the landlord (e.g., improvements, ability to paint the walls) should be in writing. It helps to read through all terms of your lease, including conditions such as renewal terms, notice of termination, repair costs, and any fees incurred if you needed to move out before your lease ends.
After the Deal
13. Know your tenant rights.
Landlord-tenant laws and real estate laws vary state by state. Every state has basic requirements of landlords and the apartment that they provide to be liveable and safe. State law also regulates issues like returning security deposits and your right to withhold rent for repairs. If you feel like there are issues or concerns after you’ve signed your contract, it is important to know your rights as a tenant.
14. You have the option to report unethical behavior.
If during the process you feel you have dealt with unethical or unprofessional behavior, states have regulatory divisions that investigate complaints regarding the behavior of agents or landlords.
Here are some examples:
Once you get through this process with awareness and flexibility, you can let go and enjoy your new home.
Copyright Marlynn H. Wei, MD, PLLC © 2015.