Before I got my feet wet in SEO at SpareFoot, I worked as an apartment locator in Austin, TX. Oddly enough, working in real estate was why I chose to pursue a career in SEO. It wasn’t because the job was so bad; I just discovered I had a knack for generating web leads. While I don’t miss my time as an apartment locator, I am happy that it led me to my real passion.
During those three years as an apartment locator, I learned a ton about the leasing industry. I lived and breathed apartments. My goal with every client was to address his or her needs and find the most suitable apartment. While this is easier said than done, I picked up a lot of knowledge with every client I had and every property I viewed.
Here’s my list of the top five things to consider when searching for your dream apartment.
1. Don’t Rely Solely on an Apartment Locator.
I know this tip will appall my former real estate colleagues, but it’s true. As an apartment locator, you should know that your clients have access to a ton of information online. While I do believe using a locator offers plenty of benefits, you also should do some research of your own. Most of the properties a locator will recommend are likely great options. But keep this in mind: There are a lot of properties your locator will not show you.
Apartment locators typically will take you only to properties that pay them for move-ins, and sometimes only those that are paying the most. Apartment locating in Texas is typically all commission-based, which means locators don’t make money unless someone leases and moves into an apartment. A landlord then pays the real estate broker an agreed-upon percentage of one month’s rent, which the broker then splits with the locator. Most properties pay commission 50 percent to 100 percent. Locators are encouraged to frequent the properties that pay more and boycott the ones that pay less. This results in a limited view of your leasing options.
While many properties work with locators, there are lot that don’t. Be aware of this when your locator is recommending properties. If you have places you’re interested in visiting, tell the locator which ones you want to see. If you think the locator is trying to avoid showing you those apartments, ask whether the locator works with those properties and also how much the locator would receive in commission if you lease there. The best locators will be upfront about properties they won’t show.
One of the best tips I can offer: Be cautious when browsing Craigslist. Locators load up Craigslist with spammy ads in attempts to get you on the phone. I rarely leased a Craigslist-advertised apartment. I posted only those ads that generated the most leads and then sold the apartment hunters on other properties. Typically, photos in Craigslist ads are from model units taken months or even years ago. In these ads, prices and availability rarely are updated. If a price looks too good to be true, it usually is.
Look for ads posted by individual owners or property managers if you want to avoid the locator sales pitch. In Texas, agents must disclose their state licensure in these ads, so it should be easy to tell when you come across one posted by an apartment locator who doesn’t have a state license. You also can use tools like Zillow.com, Realtor.com or Apartments.com to compare rental properties that might not be on apartment locators’ radars.
2. Don’t Get Stuck Moving During the Summer.
This can be tricky to avoid, since summer marks the peak of moving season. Because this time of year is so busy, apartment availability becomes scarce and prices soar. You often can find the same unit for a couple of hundred dollars less if you sign a lease during the winter, when the supply of units is healthier and rents tend to be lower. By the time summer rolls around, properties have leased a lot of units thanks to those lower prices.
To avoid this, try moving during the off-season. Take a longer or shorter lease if it’ll help you avoid a summertime move. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to always think about the end of your lease when you’re signing it. If you don’t, you could end up paying higher rent when renewal time comes around. If your leasing options don’t allow for shorter or longer terms, then you might want to consider moving earlier and subleasing your unit for the duration of your lease.
3. Research the Location.
Be aware of the neighborhood you’re looking at moving into. Locators can offer opinions about neighborhoods, but keep in mind that their main goal is to make money–not to worry about your long-term well-being.
Plenty of unbiased resources can help you choose the right neighborhood. For example, City-Data.com is a great tool to look up all kind of statistics about any U.S. ZIP code. You can check things like average apartment rent for the area as well as how many registered sex offenders live there.
Don’t pick an apartment based solely on price. If it seems way lower than what you expect, it might be a sign that the apartment is in a not-so-desirable neighborhood. Take notice of the cars in the parking lot. If you notice a lot of old or broken-down cars, this is a good indication that you might not be in the best area. Ask leasing agents whether a property allows tenants with felonies or evictions. If the answer is “yes,” avoid this place. Places that have relaxed leasing qualifications attract people with “issues.”
4. Don’t Set Unrealistic Expectations.
One of the biggest pet peeves I had with clients when doing apartment locating was that most of them had crazy, unrealistic expectations for prices and amenities. If you think you can get a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Austin with wood floors, a washer and dryer, and stainless steel appliances for $1,000, then you’re wasting everyone’s time. Research median rent prices for areas you’re targeting. Remember that every additional amenity a unit or property has means it’s going to cost you more in rent.
The best way to approach a move is to set a budget. Think of an amount of rent you’re expecting to pay, an amount of rent you can afford based on your current income and a maximum rent you would pay for the perfect place. The average of these three is usually a good starting point.
Another way to look at it: Have a rental amount you can afford, then pick your ideal areas of town and see what your budget will allow. Your $1,000 budget may afford you a lot more space in one area of town than another. Or if you require certain amenities, figure those out first, then see what your budget will bear. Planning your search this way will help you avoid unreasonable expectations.
Thinking back on my time as an apartment locator reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from “Breaking Bad” when the main character, Walter White, exclaims: “Name one thing in this world that is not negotiable!” While apartment locating is a lot different from producing crystal meth, this statement is still relevant in the leasing world.
For the most part, leases provide some wiggle room when it comes to negotiation. Properties want their units leased with tenants living in them. If something is causing a conflict with this, property owners often will do what they can to resolve it. Between renovation and cleaning fees, as well as the time a unit is vacant, owners can be out a lot of money if you move out. It benefits them financially to keep qualified tenants in their units.
If your rent is getting raised significantly, ask for answers. Don’t rely on the person who answers the phone at the apartment office; this person is not the one who makes the decisions. The person on the other end of the phone will just repeat what he or she has been instructed to tell tenants who complain about rent hikes. Ask to speak to the manager and even then that person’s manager. Keep asking until you reach a person who can give you a solid answer. Ask to meet with them a manager if possible; people have an easier time saying “no” on the phone than they do in person.
Also, if you’re using a locator, ask whether he or she will pay your application fee or other administrative fees. Typically, a locator’s broker will pay all or some of this to get your business. In the end, they’re making money even if they’ve got to cough up a small fee. It never hurts to ask.
Lastly, negotiate in moderation. Don’t expect everything to be open for haggling. Sometimes, property managers just can’t budge on some issues. Depending on market conditions, apartments can set their rates however they see fit. Often, initial rental rates are established by corporate offices, so a specific property may not be able to give you a deal. If you think you can negotiate everything, see Tip No. 4.