You might not expect to hear this from a Realtor—after all, I help people buy and sell homes for a living—but buying a home isn’t right for everybody all the time.
Many times, in fact, it’s best to rent.
If you don’t want to settle down, if you’re still building credit and saving for a down payment, or if you’re simply not ready for the significant responsibility that comes with being a homeowner, renting makes a lot of sense.
I’m even looking for a rental myself right now. “Whaaa? A realtor looking to rent?” It’s true. My husband and I decided to rent out our current home as an investment property. We’ll find another house to buy, but we’re picky, and in the meantime we’ve got 30 days to find an apartment to live in until we find our next home.
To find the best apartments, search seriously
Although personally I’m not too concerned about where we stay for a few months, I advise friends and clients looking for longer-term rentals not to take apartment searching lightly. A little extra work will find the best apartments and net you a rental that is as nice or nicer than what you could buy for the same monthly payment.
What’s the secret to finding the best apartments in your city? A thorough, thoughtful apartment search.
Consider that before buying a house, you would probably want to see a dozen or more houses first. You would think carefully about what features you want and how much you want to pay. And you would enlist a professional to advise you along the way.
So why wouldn’t you apply the same attention to an apartment search? Because you plan to live there for two years instead of twenty? Perhaps. But we are talking about your home—even if it’s just for a year or two. So here are some pointers I’ve picked up from my years in the real estate biz:
If needed, use a broker
An apartment broker acts a lot like a realtor—they help landlords find tenants and prospective tenants rent their next apartments. Brokers charge a fee for this service—either to the landlord, tenant, or both. Often times the fee is equal to one month’s rent. It may be more or less, and it’s often negotiable.
Do you need to use a broker or agent to show you different rentals? In many markets, no—you’ll do just fine with Craigslist or newspaper listings and you can avoid paying a broker’s fee.
But if you’re in a competitive rental market like Manhattan or you’re eyeing high-end rentals, a broker’s fee can be well worth it to secure the ideal apartment or just to save time searching for and screening listings. If you do decide to work with a broker, here are a few words of advice:
Ask how the broker gets paid
Brokers who deal in rentals might be paid by property owners offering out a flat fee for bringing in a tenant. If the rental happens to be listed on a multiple listing service, the broker will probably split the commission with a listing broker, similar to when buying a house.
Conversely, if the owner doesn’t want to pay anyone, then you get the privilege of paying the broker. The good news—it’s all negotiable. Ask what the broker normally charges and make an offer that you feel comfortable with.
Give as specific criteria as possible
Sure, looking at places to live is really fun and exciting at first, but after about five places it starts to get exhausting. The more information you give your broker, the better. Stuff you should keep in mind (and tell your broker about):
- Favorite (and least favorite) neighborhoods
- Price range
- Desired number of bedrooms and bathrooms
- Necessary amenities
- Lease terms
Be clear on lease terms from the get-go
If your broker is being paid—in one way or another—by the landlord, expect there to be a lease of at least a year. Property owners simply don’t want to fork up the cash to pay a broker for a tenant, only to have the tenant move out two months later. So if you’re looking for a year lease, this won’t be a problem. But since you may prefer the flexibility of a month-to-month situation, just make sure you ask the lease terms right away.
Your credit matters
Bad credit can be as much of a problem for renting as it is for buying a house, but not always. In this economy, many people have poor credit due to problems paying bills after job losses or during times of underemployment. Short sales, foreclosures, and bankruptcies also negatively affect your credit.
Although some landlords don’t check credit and background information, the majority do. The most important thing is that you are 100 percent honest on your applications and up front when speaking with prospective landlords. Personally, I do feel comfortable renting to someone whose done a short sale as long as they have a steady income, but I don’t feel comfortable renting to anyone with previous evictions.
Several months before you apply for an apartment, pull a copy of your own credit report. This way, if there are any incorrect items, you have time to contact the credit reporting agencies and get them corrected. If you’ve had credit issues in the past but you’re working on it, “get a letter from a previous landlord describing your positive payment history and photocopies of rent checks” says Brigitte Yuille of Bankrate.com.
Some landlords will always demand clean credit. But the more up front you are about credit issues, the more likely you’ll find a landlord willing to work with you. And if you use the following trick, you’ll find landlords will actually want to compete to get you in their rentals.
Broker or no broker, good credit or bad, the most important thing you want to do in your apartment search is to market yourself as a good tenant.
Right now, it’s a landlord’s market, as demand for housing far outstrips supply, especially in cities like Boston, San Francisco, and New York. That means at best it will be hard to negotiate a lower rent and at worst you may be competing with other prospective tenants to land the apartment you want.
But because you’re a Money Under 30 reader, you’re looking for an edge over the competition. You can get that edge by applying for an apartment like you apply for a job. The key is put yourself in the landlord’s shoes. Many landlords are people just like you and me who own a few properties as part of their financial plan. A landlord wants responsible tenants who will pay the rent on time, who won’t trash the apartment, and who will stay put for at least a year so the landlord doesn’t have to go through the expense of a search too often.
Present yourself well when viewing apartments
The landlord or manager showing the apartment will be taking mental notes when you meet to tour the apartment. Don’t roll out of bed without showering or wear last night’s beer-stained jeans. You don’t have to wear a suit, but the idea is to look like a responsible young professional, not a party animal.
Create a rental resume
This trick alone will ensure that if you’re competing for your dream apartment against somebody else, you’ll get it. Print up a one-page flyer with your name and contact information. Also include:
- A picture (again—a professional headshot, not a party pic where everybody’s holding Solo cups)
- Some bullet points about where you’re from and where you went to school
- Your job including your employer’s contact information (Important!)
- Your rental history (or an explanation of no rental history)
- If you’ll have any pets or roommates
- Two or three references
- Your credit score (and explanation if it’s lower than the high 600s)
The references should include past landlords if you have any, but former supervisors or professors will also work.
Why This Works
The idea, obviously, is to “sell yourself” to the landlord as an ideal tenant. Hopefully you’ll do most of this selling in person and on the phone, but your rental resume can be a calling card that will help the landlord remember you when making a rental decision later that week. And when your new landlord calls to offer you the apartment, don’t forget to negotiate! If you’ve sold yourself as a good tenant, you’re in a preferential position. The landlord would rather rent to you than the shady guy he met yesterday. It can’t hurt to ask for concessions like a few bucks off rent or a reduced security deposit (if you don’t have pets).
Pets are a definitely an obstacle when it comes to renting. You can spend the whole day telling the landlord about how well trained your dog is and how he never pees indoors, but one little mistake could cost the landlord (or you) a ton of money. This is why many landlords and property owners have a “no pets” policy. If you’re looking on Craigslist and you can’t stand the thought of living without Fido, at least limit your searches to “dogs ok” rentals.
If you find an apartment that you just have to have but the ad says pets are prohibited, you can call up the landlord or manager and ask if they’re willing to accept a pet with an increased security deposit.
Apartment, condo, or house?
The image of apartment living being a generic one-bedroom unit in a sprawling brick complex with a dingy pool is totally outdated. These days, you can rent just about any type of property you could buy. Single family homes are more likely to have private yards and private washers and dryers or at least the hook-ups. Condos and apartments are typically less spacious, but also more affordable than renting a home. Finally, you may prefer apartment complexes with amenities and resident managers so if there is a problem, someone is always available to help.
If you’re going to be applying for a condo or apartment where the units are all close together, spend some time talking to prospective neighbors. Ask them about the noise level and how the customer service is when it comes to maintenance and repairs. After all, the last thing you want to deal with after going through all the work is looking for another place and moving out anytime soon.
Renting isn’t always “just something you have to do until you can buy.” And the more time and thought you put into your next apartment search, the happier you’ll be in your home for as long as you choose to live there.