Dear Egghead: I’m looking for a place to live for perhaps one or two years, until I have the down payment saved for a home purchase. What advice can you give to help me find an acceptable transitional home?
ANSWER: Set aside some time. Finding an apartment is a big job, and you can expect to spend a month or two of steady effort. You want to make sure you find a place you like, because if your plans for buying a home are postponed, you want to be happy with your transitional place.
Be methodical. Make a list of the criteria important to you. Here are some suggestions, some of which may seem obvious, but you don’t want to take a chance on overlooking any of these:
Beginning your search: Craigslist and Zillow (click “Rent” in the top menu) are a good places to start your search. You can also use a real estate broker. Yes, the same people who sell houses can also help you find an apartment. They willingly do it because they usually receive a small commission for their trouble, plus they have a chance to form a relationship with a future home-buying client: you. Because there is no vetting of listings on Craigslist, unfortunately, scams are common.
Avoiding scams: Scams are rampant in the housing rental market. If someone asks for a credit card deposit before showing you the residence, consider it a huge red flag. Take extra care when considering a rental with an individual instead of a broker or on-site management office. Identity theft is a real danger. Some apartment listings are totally fake — the unit isn’t available, but is being advertised by a scammer.
Rent. The best time to find a good deal on rent is to search during the winter months, when fewer people are looking. November through January are when most landlords are willing to offer discounts because traffic is slow. You can gain negotiating power if you offer to pay two or three months of rent in advance.
Security deposit. Expect to pay one or two months’ advance rent, which will be held until your lease is terminated. You’ll get the money back after your move-out inspection. You might have to pay more if you have shaky credit. Security deposits are capped by the states, so if the amount seems high, investigate.
Move-in fee. It’s easy to overlook the issue of move-in fees, which are pretty standard. This nonrefundable money will be spent on minor fixes required after you move out.
Pet policy. Read the lease carefully, which may have a pet policy. If your landlord verbally approves pets, you should add an amendment to the lease, just so there’s no misunderstandings later on. Typical policies govern the types of allowed pets, the number, and restrictions on certain breeds and weights. Regarding service animals, federal law dictates that service animals can’t be banned or raise your rent, even if pets generally aren’t allowed at that location.
Extra fees for amenities. Be sure to know these numbers before renting, which can be substantial. Even if you don’t use the gym, tennis courts, or pool, you might be paying a hefty fee.
Interview your landlord. Just like any other profession, the landlord business has its share of crooks and incompetence. Read online reviews to see if the manager is legit and provides fair service. You don’t necessarily want to investigate the overall management company (which could have little impact on local service), you want to see consumer ratings of specific communities. For example, if you search for the name of an apartment complex on Google, you’ll see a profile of the business on the right side of your screen, including reviews that customers have published. Here’s an example:
Notice the reviews represented by the gold stars. Click through to see the individual reviews (by the way, an average score of 2.9 is pretty awful, but some are even worse) Sometimes the overall tone and favorability of reviews are obviously correlated to the price of a residence, and that makes sense: expensive places are usually nicer, better maintained, and have better management — but not always.
Some of the reviews may be bogus, but overall you’ll get an accurate, unvarnished view of the experiences of real renters. Other consumer-review sites such as Yelp! are also worth looking at. Your local municipal or county government may publish complaints lodged against landlords.
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