Avoid the sketchy landlords and rundown apartments. How to find (and get) the best rental properties in your city---from a realtor who knows the game.

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
  • Roommates
  • Pets

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.

Market yourself

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).

About 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.

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About the author

Total Articles: 37
Sarah Davis is a real estate broker in San Diego, Calif. She enjoys helping both buyers and sellers and was voted one of the top 10 best real estate agents in San Diego in 2013 by Union Tribune readers. In her spare time she talks about real estate on a local radio show and manages her website RealtorSD.com.

Article comments

We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30. Comments have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser, nor are they reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our partners. It is not our partner’s responsibility to ensure all posts or questions are answered.
Silas Knight says:

Thanks for the tips on finding a good apartment. My wife and I are retired, and we decided that we want to move into one for a while. Luckily, our credit is still pretty darn good, so if a landlord checks that, he’ll be impressed.

Jude B says:

Are you nuts? Far too much personal information that goes way beyond what is required under the law. To send that much personal information out to a potential landlordsight unseen would be extremely foolish. If I received such a ‘resume’ I would conclude that this came from a very immature, inexperienced person who could be a headache down the road. Who do you think sees this information? There is no confidentiality obligation. You seem to have a peculiar idea about who owns and rents out aprtments. Landlords are people from all walks of life. The owner might be the man or woman in the unit below you. What if they are ex-cons? You have to feel them out or research them. I’d be furious if someone broadcasted my name and telephone number as a reference unless it was in the final stages of an agreement. A photograph is 100% inappropriate (regardless whether its a professional headshot or not) Plus, it opens landlords up to potential accusations of race, age, and religious discrimination in violation of state and federal law. Are you asking for a date or a place to live? A pretty face should never become the defining standard of who gets to rent an apartment. Are you looking for a sexual quickie or a place to live? Hollywood-itis and the casting couch comes to rental markets? There are better ways, tried and true ways, to establish a personal connection to ‘market’ yourself. Other than the comments to be clear in your search criteria, this article is thin.

My roommate and I live in an awesome town home. We checked out a couple places before settling on this one. It helps to be on top of your game, we caught the manager on a couple of things and were able to negotiate cheaper rent, free parking, etc. Doesn’t hurt to ask.

Hannah says:

Also if you’re not familiar with the area I like the idea of renting a room (Craigslist) in a larger home then going apartment hunting from there.

Me and my fiance did that when we moved and weren’t familiar with the area. We found a couple who were empty nesters and owned a large 4 bedroom home. They were okay with renting a room to a couple on a month to month basis. This gave us time to do our research locally and also saved us money!

We found a nice apartment complex not advertised widely on the internet close to our jobs.

Drew says:

I currently live we a roomate in a luxury apartment in Midtown, Houston, which is the hot area for young professionals. My roomate is a freind from college, but he is from Chicago. I am from Houston, so when we began the search I used contacts of mine that were already in Houston. About 3 months before graduating from college, I called up older brother who had been living there for about 2 years and we stayed with him for a weekend to search for an apartment. Before going he gave us a run down of the areas in Houston where all of the young professionals were living and where we should narrow our search. We got online and started searching in the areas he reccomended. Just going through looking at pictures, amenities, and average rent. We made of list of what looked enticing and called my brother to discuss. He was able to give us inside info about every complex since he had friends and collegues in just about everyone of them. He shared that some had real problems with car break-ins, or that the management was not very good, or that they are not in ideal locations. With that info, we narrowed our list down to about 5 complexes in the two hot areas of town and called ahead to set up appointments for tours. When I actually got down to Houston my brother, my roommate, and I went around to each complex to check them out. All the while my brother was telling us about the area, what night life was around, how safe the area is, and what our commute to work would be like.

Based on the tours and his input, we were able to find a great place at a decent price, in a great location. It was the inside knowledge of some one that lives there that made all of the difference, and unlike a broker or sales rep, he was not trying to sell us something. I know not everyone has an opportunity like this, but you can still do your research and read reviews.

The other important lesson here was to start shopping early. In the Houston market, youg professionals come in waves every May as people graduate. By going in 3 months before graduation time, we had just about every option and floor plan available, and the monthly rate was better. The apartment based your rent off of an occupancy formula, so by going in early, there were more un-rented units and units that had not renewed their lease, so we go a lower monthly rate.

I also highly suggest a roommate if possible. In Houston the going rate is about $1400 per month for a single and $2000 for a two bedroom (that includes bills). By having a rommate, I save $400 a month, and the bedrooms are bigger, the kitchen is bigger, and the living room is bigger.

Colin says:

It may be a landlord’s market, but they’re not going to let empty units go unrented.

The flyer idea is totally flabbergasting to me. I’m applying for an apartment, not a job. Sure proof that I have a steady income and decent credit score is part of the application process but a headshot? References? Where I went to school and where I’m from? Seems ridiculous to me unless you’re aiming for more upscale residences that alot of folks want to get into.

Course, I say this because I’m in, what you coasties refer to as “flyover country” so I guess things may be different on the coasts.

This was my idea in Sarah’s article.

I don’t think this advice should be limited to the coasts, although NYC, Boston, SF obviously have some of the tightest rental markets. The point is that the current market will enable landlords to be choosier than ever before. And apartments that stay vacant aren’t places you want to live.

“Nice” rentals that are priced right will be competitive. And if a place is overpriced, proving that you’re a dream tenant is the first step towards negotiating a better deal.

Emily says:

I’ve rented in Manhattan (not luxury apartments, but for what my roommate and I paid, it felt like it!) and the “rental resume” thing sounds absolutely, 100% bonkers to me. A headshot? Why don’t I list my race, religion, citizenship, disabilities, and sexual orientation while I’m at it, to make it even easier for my prospective landlord to illegally discriminate.

I mean, honestly.