Tips on a Succesful Long Distance Apartment Search
Finding a great new place to live can be a stressful, time-consuming task even in the best of circumstances, but when you have to and/or want to relocate to a city that's far away, a place you've maybe only been a handful of times, or maybe never even seen? That's just adding a layer of uncertainty to a process already fraught with unknowns.
But don't worry! Tens of thousands of people happily and successfully move across the country, often sight-unseen, and there's no way ALL of them are somehow "better" at this than you. That said, there are certain basic steps you can take to ensure that your long distance apartment search is a fruitful one, and that you find a terrific new home with a minimum of anxiety.
Checklist for Finding a Home from Out of Town:
1.) Ask for Help, Even from People You Barely Know
If you've built up a lot of far-flung friends and followers on your social media networks--Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn--now's the time to see what they can do for you. Remember: people with apartments or rooms to rent want to get their space filled with a minimum of advertising and hassle, and would be thrilled to have someone they "know", even if it's just from the internet, to sign the lease. You also never know whose Uncle owns a building in the city you're moving to, and just happens to have a unit available.
Sure, you'll need some luck and good timing for your requests sent into the ether to yield solid results, but it's free to ask, takes almost no time on your part, will not bother anyone, and is potentially the easiest way to land a home, no middleman involved. It might help to have a profile up somewhere, too, so people can pass it, and your housing search request, along to friends, and friends of friends.
If you have a friend, or friend of a friend, already in they city, ask if they'd be willing to look at some of the apartments with you. They will have a better idea of what is normal in the market, and what isn't.
2.) Research your Neighborhoods
These days you can get a pretty good feel for a place without ever having to walk the streets. If you know nothing about a city, first look into the neighborhoods with the easiest commute to your new job/school, especially in cities with a good subway system. (Note: walking distance isn't always the dream come true.) Can you get to work or class on one subway line, no transfers? If there is a transfer, is it at a busy hub? That sort of thing.
Most real-estate listing services (including this one) and local newspapers and magazines have "neighborhood guides" on their websites, but zipping around quickly on Google Streetview will also give you a good, if incomplete, feel for a community. Again, though, don't be afraid to ask over social networks about specific neighborhoods, or even specific blocks, once you've narrowed it down. Just take what people say with a grain of salt--I've seen people fight over the relative attributes of any number of perfectly fine neighborhoods. Everyone's needs and priorities are different.
3.) Fly Out for the Weekend to Tour the Area
If you can swing it (or if your new company is footing your re-lo bill), spending a couple of days seeing as much as possible is certainly the smart move. However, make sure you do all the above research first (why waste precious time in a neighborhood that will never be right for you?), have all your viewing appointments lined up, make sure you confirm exactly what sort of paperwork your future landlords might require, and bring it all with you. As always, especially if you're moving to a city with a tight market, you need to be ready to sign on the spot if you find something you love.
Keep in mind that some landlords, especially in certain cities, will not rent an apartment to you sight unseen. Some states have laws that will allow you to move out within 30 days if you don't like the place, and you rented it without seeing it first. So, you may be forced to start researching before you move, secure a temporary place to live before you move, and then find your permanent place once your arrive (see point #7 for more on this).
4.) Research the Cost of Living
You may not be able to afford as much as you can in your current city, so do your research and temper your expectations. Often new residents experience sticker shock when moving to cities such as New York City, San Francisco, etc. That doorman building with all the amenities, and centrally located in Buckhead in Atlanta that you can afford now, may translate into a smaller apartment in a walk-up building in Manhattan. Or, it may mean giving up on living in Manhattan, to get a nicer and bigger apartment across the river in New Jersey, or Queens. Also, keep in mind that housing is not your only expense. Groceries, parking, restaurants and drinks at the club have different costs in different cities.
The bottom line is, if you're moving to a more expensive area, unless your salary fully makes up the difference (and often, it doesn't) be prepared to COMPROMISE. Decide what is most important to you. If having a doorman is #1, then understand that you may have to live further from the city center than you do in your current location. On the flip side, if location is #1, then be prepared to possibly live in a building with less, or even no, amenities.
Also, understand what your total monthly outlay will be. If you live in an area where all utilities are typically included in the rent, you may be in for a surprise when you get that first heating or cooling bill. Of course, if you're buying, find out how much taxes and, if applicable, any condo or HOA fees are. They can vary wildly from city to city.
5.) Take a Sublet, or Short-term Rental
Sure, no one likes to move twice, but it might be in your best interest to look for a short term rental, or a sublet, before committing yourself to a regular lease, or buying a place. This gives you several months to find a "permanent" home, without the stress and pressure of finding something quickly, and it gives you a chance to better acclimate yourself to the various neighborhoods and suburbs. Perhaps you put most of your belongings in storage during this period of time, eliminating the need to unpack, and then pack and unpack again. Sublets and short term rentals often come furnished (although lease assumptions rarely do). Just don't fall in love living in a neighborhood you can't afford on a long-term basis!
6.) Don't be Scared by Review Sites
In my experience, you should take apartment review sites with a grain of salt... if that. While they can, in some cases, provide you with a warning about potentially bad landlords or buildings, in other cases they are just places for someone with an ax to grind to complain. In my experience, I find that buildings are seldom as bad as they are made out to be. Why is this? First, happy tenants rarely write reviews... the majority of reviews are written by people who had a bad experience. Even the best management companies get bad reviews -- you can never please everyone.
Remember, there are two sides to every story, and you're only hearing one side. While in some cases the complaints are 100% legitimate, in other instances people just have unrealistic expectations, and/or are the source of the problem themselves. Someone who claims they were harassed by management and forced out of the building, may not be telling you that it was because they stopped paying the rent.
Someone who complains about noise may be someone who is used to living in a rural area, in a single family home, and not in an apartment complex. News flash--while you shouldn't hear every detail of your neighbors life, no building is 100% soundproof. You will hear your neighbors from time to time, or smell their cooking on occasion. So, read the reviews, but remember that your experience may vary -- then go check out the building or complex yourself.
7.) Remember -- Everything will be Fine!
Even if you can't fly out and for some in-person long distance apartment hunting, just do your research on neighborhoods, on specific buildings (again: Google Streetview!), and, if applicable, on management companies, and you'll likely find someplace that will, at a minimum, be totally fine. Trust your instincts, don't waste time (and money) on anything that sounds too good to be true, and remember, rental apartments are by definition temporary. Short-term sublets, even more so.
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