Apartment Hunting: Do It Yourself, or Use a Service?

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Apartment Hunting: Do It Yourself, or Use a Service?

aptsherpa · Jun 4, 2007

A lot of legwork goes into finding a great rental. You’ll have to consider many factors, including price, location, access to mass transit, safety, and the trustworthiness of the landlord.

After you find a few possibilities, the next task list arises — getting in touch with the right people, finding the time to schedule walk-throughs of the properties, and in some cases, interviewing with the landlord. Yes, finding an apartment is a hassle, which is why so many people turn to brokers and locator services to help them land that perfect place.

Brokers will walk you through the entire apartment search process, finding places that match your interests and budget, scheduling your visit, and even negotiating with the landlord. Of course, you get what you pay for, and brokers usually aren’t cheap. A locator service may offer a happy medium, finding open apartments that meet your criteria. While they typically won’t help you beyond that, they are often more affordable (or free!) than working with a broker. So how should you decide whether to do it yourself or get some help? Here are some pros and cons of the two options to help you decide which is best for you.

Do-It-Yourself Apartment Hunting

Pro: The Internet is your friend — In this Internet age, apartment-hunting websites provide many broker services, often for free. Some websites specialize in providing apartment-hunting tips while others have places where landlords and owners can post about no-fee apartments.

  • Some websites feature maps of entire neighborhoods to help you move easily from one apartment to another during your search.
  • Sites like ApartmentRatings.com can help you identify apartment complexes and landlords with good feedback from former tenants. Other renters often will post tips on finding an apartment in your area of interest.
  • You can even find floor plans and photos of apartment interiors at sites like Rent.com, ApartmentSearch, and Apartments.com.
  • ThatRentalSite.com includes ads from individual landlords and links to the websites of major apartment complexes in your area, reducing the time you need to spend searching. (Full disclosure: ThatRentalSite.com is a partner of ApartmentRatings.com.)
  • Some sites even offer cash back to help defray your moving expenses in exchange for using their sites. Rent.com offers a $100 reward when you find an apartment using their site. ApartmentSearch.com offers $200 when you find an apartment with their site and let the building manager know that you’ve used their service.

Pro: Do it yourself and save some serious cash — Given the high cost of rents in many cities, the almost inevitable security deposit, rising utility costs, and moving fees, it’s no wonder that many people question whether they need to use a broker or locator service to find a new apartment. In many cases, a broker can cost the equivalent of a month’s rent; in some cases the cost is even higher.

Pro: Your network can help — A strong network of family members, friends and co-workers may be able to accomplish more than any broker can. Send an email to friends, post to a company message board, or ask your parents to talk to their friends. You never know who might be moving out of their great place or might have a friend at one of the large apartment management companies. Even if they don’t provide a direct lead to an apartment, they can give you invaluable apartment search tips that will come in handy later.

Con: An apartment search is practically a second job — Unless you get a very lucky break, going it alone will take a significant amount of time. You’ll have to identify appropriate places, schedule an appointment for each property, confirm your visit, and figure out how to get to each apartment. If you need to move and don’t have a lot of time to look, this may not be the best route.

Con: You’ll have to follow up — Finding an apartment is not unlike finding a job. If the landlord at the apartment of your dreams offers the place to another renter, you might be notified or you might never hear from them again. A broker handles the follow-up calls for you and can help you get a straight answer about why you were denied. It’s one thing if someone else got to a place before you did, but if your credit score is the issue, you’ll want to know about that.

Hiring a Locator or Broker

Pro: Your locator/broker should be an expert about the area — It is your locator or broker’s job to know all about the area where you want to move. If they don’t have the answers to your questions, good locators/brokers will do the research to get you the information you need. They’ll have important information about safety in the area, building security, and approximate commuting times to the places you need to go. Locator/broker services will provide more specialized information than you’ll be able to turn up on your own.

Pro: They can help with a long-distance move — If you’re moving across the country, you won’t have the time or opportunity to perform a thorough search. Even if you schedule a few weekend trips to see some apartments, there’s no guarantee that something will pop up when you’re in town. Independent landlords often have unpredictable hours as well, and may not be available to meet during your limited time in town.

Pro: They take the hassle out of scheduling — For a locator/broker, time is money. They want to spend as much time as possible showing apartments, not waiting for you to show up. As a result, most are quite good at arranging multiple visits in a single afternoon. If your work schedule or family obligations leave you with little down time, a good broker can ensure that your apartment searching time is used as effectively as possible.

Pro: They’ll find a good match — No matter how good an impression you make with the landlord, you won’t make the cut if your finances aren’t in order. Most landlords and management companies have financial standards you must meet even to be considered. Using a locator/broker will help you make sure you don’t waste time looking at places that require better credit or more money in the bank than you have. They can also help negotiate a better price for you if the rent is a bit higher than you’re willing to pay.

Con: The cost — We’ve already covered a bit about this; if you want useful help, you’ll generally have to pay for it. However, it’s worth researching the specifics of a few agencies and services. Some locator services offer rebates or financial assistance with your move. Locator services in Texas are free to renters. Some buildings even have arrangements with brokers in which the management company pays the commission fee in exchange for bringing you in as a tenant.

Con: Brokers need to make a living, too — Because brokers work on commission, they may be tempted to steer you to more expensive buildings that lead to higher commissions. If you decide to use a broker, get recommendations from friends or family who have had positive experiences. Many brokers show apartments part-time, sometimes to pay for school or support a music career. Not all of them are interested in building a solid customer base or a positive reputation. A broker who isn’t invested in the job may simply provide bad service. Find people who have had a positive experience with your broker before you entrust such an important search to him or her.

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