Finding the perfect apartment for rent can be a lengthy, time-consuming process. When I first started renting, I drove by every apartment complex in an area, requested a pamphlet, and repeated the entire process for other areas. Then I picked up the print version of Apartment Guide and a newspaper, headed home, and tried to sort the mess out. It took way too long and I missed out on all the great private owner apartments because I didn’t know where to look.
Thankfully, I discovered apartment hunting on the Internet. And once I made the switch, I never looked back. I’m sure those printed property rental ads still exist – but not in my world. Apartment hunting online takes less time, let’s you streamline the process, and opens doors to several great rentals you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to make the process relatively painless, as well as a list of the best websites to find your next perfect home.
How to Find an Apartment Online
1. Get Organized
First things first – get organized. Figure out how much rent you can pay each month and how much you can afford for deposits. Next, make a list of all of your “must have” features. Mine included an updated kitchen, washer/dryer hook ups, and an apartment that allows dogs. Then, make your wish list. This list includes anything your perfect apartment would come with (i.e. hardwood floors, granite counter tops, built-in book shelves, and a fireplace). Finally, pick one or two neighborhoods that you would like to live in and zone in on those. Having areas in mind will help you quickly weed out apartments on websites like Craigslist that typically post by neighborhood.
2. Start with PadMapper
Now it’s time to start looking at some actual ads. PadMapper makes a great starting point because the site pulls listings from a number of property rental websites. It won’t catch every ad, but it will catch some ads that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Most notably, PadMapper seems to catch the mis-categorized Craigslist ads you don’t normally see in the apartments for rent section.
Once you log in to PadMapper, click the “Filter Listings” section. This section allows you to narrow down your search by what you want, including price, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and pet-friendly apartments. If you want to get really specific, click the link for “Super-Secret Advanced Features.” This section includes options for commute time, crime ratings, the walking score, and nearby bars, restaurants, groceries, and gyms.
Select every feature you want from both sections, enter in your city or zip, and hit search. PadMapper will pull up every recent listing in your area using Google Maps. Review the listings you want and bookmark them.
Hint: If you hit the “zoom in” option you’ll see more listings. You can view each listing by clicking the icons.
3. Check ApartmentGuide.com
ApartmentGuide.com held up to its print standards when they went online, and it’s one of the few apartment listing websites that stands out from the pack. When you open the site, it will detect your location and auto-fill it into the search box. If you look just below that, you’ll see a list of neighborhoods in your city. If you want a specific area, this is the way to go. If you don’t, just click the search button to see the results.
You have a few options for reviewing the search results. I find the easiest way is to sort the results by lowest price first. This way I can weed out the apartments I could never hope to afford. You can also search by property name, distance, and number of bedrooms.
On the property page you’ll see photos, price by bedroom, and features. Start with the photos. If you like what you see move to the amenities section. Compare your “must-have list” with the post. If the apartment passes muster, bookmark it and move on to the next one.
4. Move on to Other Apartment Searching Websites
There seems to be no end to apartment search websites. A good majority of them all post the same ad for the same property, or they clearly only list properties that paid a hefty fee to appear on the site. Still, it’s a good idea to cover your bases. Do a quick search through the various apartment searching sites listed below. Most allow you to search by price point and amenities to speed up the process. Bookmark anything that meets your “must-have” standards.
- Apartments.com has a checklist you can fill out before starting your search that really speeds up the process if you’re looking for something specific (like where to stick your dog Fido). Almost all of the listings are for large apartment complexes.
- MyNewPlace does not let you search by specific neighborhood. You can narrow down the search by price, number of rooms, and pet policies. It also shows you how many photos the ad includes right in the search results. Unfortunately, most of the ads I saw only had one photo. MyNewPlace pulls large complexes, smaller buildings, and private rentals.
- Move focuses the search around things you like. On the main page, you enter in your zip code and then check off your “likes” – ATM machines, grocery stores, parks, restaurants, and shopping. You can customize the list, but you’ll have to register with the site. The search pulls mostly large complexes, but you can switch the search to REALTOR listings to get private rentals. Best of all, each result pulls a snap shot of the property that shows price, number of rooms, and pet policies.
5. Head to Craigslist
I found my last three apartments on Craigslist. If you live in a metro area, Craigslist is the place to be for apartment hunting. Where I live, private landlords dominate the rental market, and private landlords love Craigslist because its free. The downside is that anything goes on Craigslist and housing scams abound. You’ll have to do some digging to find the gems, but they’re there.
Here are a few tips for Craigslist apartment hunting:
- Don’t search for specifics, just scroll through all the listings. Because the landlords have free reign on their posts, they often put things in the wrong section. If you search for specifics, you’ll eliminate the could-be gems that are simply mislabeled.
- Do not immediately disqualify an ad if you have a pet and it doesn’t say “Dogs are OK.” A lot of posters forget to click the button when they post their ad. Just shoot them a quick email and ask for clarification.
- Watch out for scams. The photos usually point out the scam artists pretty quickly. If the photos do not seem to match the text, or look too good to be true, you may have a fake ad on your hands. Also, many rent-to-own companies have started posting ads on Craigslist without mentioning the rent-to-own option upfront. You can usually tell by scrolling to the bottom of the ad. In small font you’ll find the name of the company, typically something like “Rent to Own is Awesome!”
6. Narrow Down Your Choices
By now you should have a pretty impressive list of bookmarks for apartments that meet your “must-have qualifications.” You’ll need to narrow these down if you hope to ever get to the part where you actually rent an apartment. This is where your wish list comes in. Highlight any ad that includes everything you ever wanted, but don’t discount a place for only having one or two items on the list. You want lots of options when you first start looking.
7. Read Apartment Reviews
I looked at an apartment once in college. The place was great, the complex seemed nice and the staff was helpful. All was going well until I told the leasing agent I didn’t care which floor I was on. She got really serious and whispered, “a single girl like you probably wants something on the second floor….it’s safer.” It was unnerving. When I got home I read some apartment reviews and lo and behold, 99% of them were negative, and more reviews than I could count mentioned serious, life-threatening crimes happening at the property. Some even referenced police reports.
Apartment review websites collect reviews on complexes and property management companies from renters. They can be a great source of information, but keep in mind that not everyone has honest intentions. Take overly glowing and shockingly negative reviews with a grain of salt. Some complexes have their leasing agents pad the sites with dishonestly positive reviews. Jaded former tenants also like to slam their former property manager.
Below are some apartment review websites to check out:
- Apartment Ratings seems to lead the pack in apartment review sites. They have an impressive amount of user generated reviews. Unfortunately, that means they likely have an impressive amount of falsified reviews.
- As the name implies, Do Not Rent collects information on bad landlords who don’t respect the Landlord and Tenant Act laws. You can search by apartment complex name, leasing agent name, and landlord name. Most of the reviews I read seemed honest and straightforward.
- While City Data is not a review site, it has loads of helpful information. If you’re really curious about the property or the management company, register on the forums and open a thread topic. The forum posters are more than happy to help out and they give you honest, upfront answers.
Once you’ve narrowed down your list online, it’s time to set up appointments with each apartment, go see your 4 or 5 favorites in person and make your decision. By using the various tools available to you through the Internet, you’ll save loads of time and gas money – which means you’ll have more money to decorate your new place!
How do you typically search for an apartment for rent online? Share your best tips and processes in the comments below!
(photo credit: Shutterstock)