Smarts
Charlotte Hannah
March 21, 2013

How to Score the Apartment of Your Dreams


So, you want to rent an apartment. Maybe you want to escape your parental units, or the upstairs neighbors with an affinity for playing Dance Dance Revolution at all hours of the night. Maybe you’re just looking for a change. Whatever your reason, you’re in the market for some new digs.

Moving from one home to another isn’t all that easy. Like Charlie Day would say, you can’t just strap on your apartment helmet and squeeze down into an apartment cannon and fire off into apartment land. Before you get the opportunity to be anywhere near a lease, you’ve got to decide what you want, do your research and sell yourself to the folks that own these apartments.

Whether you’re a seasoned renter or this is your first time, I’ve got some advice for you. Take it from someone who has lived in three different apartments in less than three years (and is about to move again). I know a thing or two about renting.

Know what you want

Before you even start looking at rentals or contacting landlords, there are two things you need to do.

Determine your budget

First, and most importantly, determine how much you can spend. I’m not going to tell you how to do this, because the answer will vary depending on your expenses and debts and what you’re comfortable with. I do recommend using a site like Mint.com to track your spending over the course of a few months so you can get a really good handle on what you can afford. You can’t pay your rent with IOUs.

List your wants and needs

Once you’ve got your budget, make lists of your wants and needs. There’s no sense in signing a lease on a place you’re going to hate immediately unless you’re renting the apartment as a venue for your newest performance art piece, “Sadhaus.” Knowing what you want from the get-go is just good sense.

So, start by figuring out what you absolutely can’t live without. Depending on your situation, this might include things like affordable parking for two vehicles, a location close to your workplace, an extra bedroom to store your huge, creepy doll collection or a pet-friendly landlord.

Needs aren’t everything – you’ve got to be comfortable too. Once you’ve determined your must-haves, make a list of your wants. Things like a dishwasher, an eat-in kitchen or a kickass Ghostbusters fire pole might fit into this category. An in-suite washer and dryer might be considered a strong want – something you really want, but could give up for the right place.

You can’t always get what you want

Like the Stones said, you can’t always get what you want. If money’s tight or the rental market isn’t great, you’ll have to be flexible with your wants and maybe even get a little creative with your needs. For example, perhaps you can consider renting an apartment without a washer and dryer if it has hookups for them and it’s cheap enough that you can afford to buy your own appliances. Or maybe you’ll be willing to give up the kickass Ghostbusters fire pole for a place in the right neighborhood. Just be careful with your concessions – a shared bathroom might sound liveable when you’re desperate to move in somewhere, but you might feel differently when Lord of the Endless Showers is hogging the washroom at 7am again.

Reality check: it’s unlikely you’ll find a place with everything you want for exactly the price you want. Figuring out what you can compromise on ahead of time will save you a lot of time and hassle when you start your search in earnest. Oh, and it goes without saying that if your renting plans include another human being (roommates, a boyfriend), you need to make these lists together. This can be a good way to test out whether you’re going to make good housemates. If you can’t agree on whether or not multiple bathrooms are a necessary feature of your future home, maybe it’s not meant to be.

Start looking

This should be the easy part. Use sites like eBay Classifieds (Kijiji if you’re Canadian), Craigslist, and rental websites to check out what’s available in your area. You can also use the Yellow Pages to look up property management companies in your city, and then contact them directly.

Or, if you want to get really old school, you can try perusing your local newspaper (or, more likely, your local newspaper’s website) for For Rent ads. Pounding the pavement in neighborhoods you like and searching for For Rent signs certainly couldn’t hurt either.

Keep in mind that once you’ve looked at lots of listings and gotten an idea of what types of rentals are available and for what prices, you might have to take another look at your lists of needs and wants to make some adjustments. Perhaps it’s simply not possible to get the Victorian mansion complete with piranha-infested moat you’ve been dreaming of for less than a grand a month (utilities included). Be realistic with your expectations.

Go see a place

You didn’t think you could do all of this from your desk, did you? Time to venture out into the world and convince a landlord of your awesomeness.

Get prepared

Pick a place that looks promising, set up an appointment and go check it out in person. You might want to do a little preliminary research by Googling the address, as well as the name of the landlord or property management company. If it turns out every previous tenant has mysteriously disappeared, or the landlord has a reputation for being slow to respond to maintenance requests, move on to the next one.

Assuming everything checks out, you’re ready to go see the apartment in person. At this stage of the game, you should have two goals: determine whether this place will work for you and, if it will, to apply for it immediately. That means you need to go to every showing fully prepared to submit an application right then and there. The sooner you apply, the sooner a landlord can check your references and decide whether or not to rent to you.

Every time you go see a place, bring along your checkbook in case you need to put down a deposit, along with relevant letters of recommendation and a full list of any information a landlord might want. That includes bank account numbers, contact info for your references, employment information – the whole shebang. Some people like to organize all this info into a “rental resume” that they can give out. I’ve found that most landlord and property management companies just want you to fill out the damn form like a good little applicant, so I recommend you just have your info jotted down in a notebook so you can quickly transfer it over.

It also goes without saying that you should look like a responsible adult when you attend a viewing, whether you are one or not. Brush your hair, wear your “meeting the boyfriend’s parents for the first time” outfit, don’t smell like smoke. Anything you’d do or not do at a job interview applies here as well.

Ask questions

Before you sign anything, make sure you’re going to love this place for as long as your lease dictates. Remember, this isn’t just about a potential landlord deciding whether you’re worth renting to. It’s also an opportunity for you to make sure the place (and the management) isn’t going to make your life a living hell for the next 12 months. Even if you’re excited and the place seems perfect, ask lots of questions. Here are a few examples:

  • What are the neighbors like? Do they enjoy Dance Dance Revolution?
  • Why are the current tenants leaving?
  • What’s that funky smell?
  • How old are the appliances/furnace? (This is particularly relevant if you’re paying for your own utilities – older appliances are probably less efficient, meaning they’ll cost more for you to run.)

You don’t have to be pushy for the sake of being pushy, but make sure you don’t leave before you have all your questions answered. Not only does it help you decide whether the place is worth it for you, it makes you look like a savvy tenant.

Fill out an application

If everything goes well, fill out an application right then and there. None of this, “I’ll take it home and get it back to you on the weekend” crap. Fill out the application form as close to completely as you possibly can – nothing says “I’m a huge, sketchy sketchbag” to a landlord like unexplained gaps in rental or employment history.

Follow up

Practice the lost art of the follow-up letter. Nobody follows up anymore (fools!), so just sending a quick “thanks so much, hope to hear from you soon” email to whoever showed you the apartment will make you seem super suave. Like, black tie dinner party suave. So suave, they’ll automatically read it in an upper crust British accent. Follow the frig up, you guys.

Mitigate your disappointment

You probably won’t get the very first place you go see. You may even find yourself head over heels for a place you think is perfect and get rejected without even so much as an explanation.

It can be hard not to get discouraged when you fall in love with a beautiful apartment, only to be hit with the crushing “We’ve decided to go with another candidate” phone call. But it works the same way as a breakup, or getting passed over for a job you really wanted: if you wait long enough, something better will come along. Buck up, champ.

Really. I wouldn’t lie to you about this stuff. Have some wine and ice cream (stellar combo, by the way), bid farewell to the home that never was and get on with your search. There are other apartments in the sea (they might even be cheaper if you’re willing to deal with algae-covered windows).

Keep searching, keep applying, keep being as thorough as possible and you’ll get a bite eventually.

Get an offer

Huzzah! After much searching and several failed attempts, you’ll get an offer. Now it’s time to break out the rest of that Disappointment Wine you opened after you got rejected and, as the French say, “ball out.”

Now, all you’ve got to do is give your notice to vacate, get tenant insurance, reroute all your mail to your new address, change your address on your driver’s license and other pieces of ID, obtain a ton of boxes, pack up all your stuff, plan your moving day, rent a truck and move into your new place! That’s all beyond the scope of this article though, so good luck.