I busted my butt for weeks (months? I forget) to get hold of the house I live in now. I think I got lucky in that there were no particular disasters, but in the end, I should compile a list of the Wisdom I learned from going through the process. For the record, "apartment hunting" and "house hunting" I expect are very similar in the Boston area, so consider this as such.
1. Never assume that anyone is going to do the work but you. And it's a lot of work.
Even if your roommates are the best project buddies ever, work at your maximum. When it comes to houses that can come and go at the blink of an eye, everyone kicking ass is better than everyone thinking everyone else will kick ass and suffering the temptation to apartment hunt tomorrow rather than today. And internet-searching and calling realtors and landlords is much, much more time-consuming than you think it is. People won't call you back, and you'll have to haunt them until they tell you what you need. Realtors will sniff at you for being too (young, unprofessional, not serious enough, whatever they think you are even if you're not). People will lie to you, string you along, and waste your time. And in the end, properties will appear and disappear and you will lose sight of what's going on if you drop the ball even for a little while.
2. Do the work today, even if you're not assuming you're the only one on the project.
If you violate principle 1, at least do whatever work you're going to do, today. The market is always cycling, especially in a location where there are more people than there are properties. September in Boston is lease hell, because all the college students are picking up apartments, and properties are flying in and out of the rental market faster than a pack of fighter jets. Get an assessment of the situation today. Tomorrow, get another. And then another the next day. Stay on the ball, and don't wait for the situation to unravel or your favorite property to vanish before doing something. I don't care if you think it'll be there tomorrow, do it now.
3. Force the realtor to show you the property as quickly as humanly possible.
If he can do it tomorrow, do it tomorrow. If he can do it today, do it today. If you can see that house now, get on your bike/in your car/on your feet and hoof it over there. If you don't, there's a reasonable chance that someone who has seen the house before you or who doesn't care about seeing the property in person will pick it up. We lost a sweet three-story place with a deck over that one. We were left standing outside the house and then getting a call of, "Oh, we already sold the place." So don't wait a couple days, see it now.
4. Remember that if you're there, so is your competition, and so you have to think fast.
My housing group was the second in a queue of about four groups looking at the house we eventually rented. When we got to the place, we had the awkward issue of having to stare down the other guys, because they too had that think-fast mentality and were muttering under their breath about checks and rent value. Here are some things you need to know before you walk in the door of the house.
- Are you willing and able to drop money on the house right now if you end up liking it?
- Are you up to speed with yourself and your housemates about what constitutes a good house, what kind of physical integrity you need, what neighborhoods are okay, and all the other safety and security logistics you need to know?
- Is there someone in your mob who can front large sums of money now?
- Have you worked out all possible major conflicts with your housemates, such as pet issues, allergies, and so on?
5. Landlords can and will raise rent between the time you see the house and the time you rent it.
I don't care if this is false advertising or what, but yes, this can happen. Be careful. Make sure you know all the statistics of the place when you sign the lease. Read the lease, talk to the landlord, read the lease some more, and make absolutely sure what you're getting is what you want to sign up for. That sweet $500-lower-than-everyone-else rent price may rise now that the landlord sees how much competition there is for the house.
6. The landlord/realtor will try to make a house sound amazing even if it's a pit of filth. Ignore this. Make your own judgment calls. No one will be offended if you don't call back on a place. Do not rely on "fixer-upper" statements, or the idea that a place will be happy and clean once the old tenants move out.
Realtors especially exist to be pushy. Push back, and don't be afraid to drop them even though they'll whine and wheedle after you. One of my housemates and I checked out a house whose floor was coated with sticky gunk, whose kitchen was flooded with trash and dirty dishes, and whose walls were covered in Sharpie. The lights were dim, the place was a sty even if it weren't so filthy, and well, it was filthy. Someone here clearly didn't care, and if the realtor was willing to show us a property like this, that says terrible things to me. There were holes in the walls, and he said that all the place needed was a little cleaning.
No. Trust your instincts. If the current tenants are living in filth, the house likely has a bug or mouse infestation (or both), and nothing short of a miracle will get cigarette or drug smoke out of the walls and carpet. Also, the more damage that is done to a property ahead of time, the more that the landlord can suck out your security deposit by blaming damages on you if you don't properly document them.
7. Corollary: buck up and don't be timid when dealing with realtors.
You have to be firm. I know they're trying to tell you that this house is really awesome and you should live here, and you feel bad for taking up their time because they could be doing their job somewhere else and actually making money and everyone needs money, but this is their job. Suck it up and turn them down if you need to, and by definition of this process, you will turn them down every time but one.
8. Carpe diem.
If a property looks good, throw down some cash now. Sign the lease now. Someone else will do it if you don't.
9. Use the Internet.
Look at realtors' sites, but also places like HotPads.com will show you properties in your area. There are rental house/apartment search engines, so make good use of them. Different engines will show you different properties, so check several.
10. Realtors often use the same picture for different properties, so see a house in person before you buy it. Also, even real pictures are an artistic lie.
Unless you are moving to Clone-House Suburbia, there is no way the realtor has that many properties with the exact same internal layout, colors, lighting, and that neat palm-frond fan. Don't believe this. Go see a property for yourself. Pictures lie, and they're also taken by people who know what they're doing, in the best lighting and conditions. It's like jazzing up someone with makeup and a good pose and precision lighting, when 99% of the time they just look frumpy.
11. Some realtors/landlords will hate on you for being young and a student, because odds are they've been bitten before by irresponsible types.
If you're a student or a young person (think 18-24) looking for a place, get ready for landlords and realtors to hate on you for being what they perceive to be a high risk. We were turned down once for not being "a family," due to some BS technicality about 4+ person houses having to be occupied by a family or something. This basically boils down to the landlord not trusting a pack of college students not to destroy the house. Probably somewhere down the line, one of their properties got nuked by a bunch of kids who didn't know how to be Real People and who trashed the place, or else they heard horror stories, or else they just decided that any chance of that was too great a risk. Keep calm and carry on, but know that you're not going to convince these folks.
12. Skip the realtor if you can, but don't expect this to be easy.
Houses on realtors' sites will never tell you the exact address of the place, because they don't want you to go to the landlord and rent it under their noses. You'll have to pay a fee to the realtor if you rent through them, but if you can skirt them and go to the landlord, do it. Alas, this was impossible when we tried; we even Google Street View-ed the place, but realtors cover their butts and don't post external images of the houses that give enough detail to peg the building. Sometimes the neighborhood is also inaccurate (remember, Inman Square is not Central, no matter how much they say it is), so your odds of finding it by brute-force searching of the area on Google Street View are very low.