Rental Report: When and How Should I Start My Apartment Search?

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Editor’s Note: This biweekly sponsored column is written by Rick Gersten, founder and CEO of Urban Igloo, a rental real estate firm that matches up renters with their ideal apartments, condos or houses. Please submit any questions in the comments section or via email.

In the D.C. area, good rentals are a hot commodity. Locals may have an advantage when looking to move, as they better know the ins and outs of looking for their next great space. But for those who are relocating, the process can be very overwhelming.

To add to it, many of our renters are frustrated to learn that they cannot find their apartments as far in advance as they would like. If you know you are moving to D.C. six months from now, when should you start looking? If you are able, come to town a few months out and check out neighborhoods. Narrowing down your search to a few locations you like and can afford prior to looking at actual units helps ease the stress of the search.

If you can’t come ahead of your actual search, try to do some online research. There’s plenty of great blogs and websites with information to help you get a feel for certain areas. Also make sure what you are reading is current. With all the development happening in this area, new hot spots are popping up all over.

Once you hone in on the neighborhoods in which you are interested, plan to come to town between 30-60 days prior from your move date to find your actual apartment. In Virginia, renters are required to give 60 days notice to vacate, so apartment buildings and individual landlords will know their availability within that time.

When you plan your trip, be ready to rent a unit you like while you are here. More often than not, if you walk away from a unit you like, it won’t be there a few weeks from now. While you are visiting, be sure to have everything you will need to apply for an apartment. At a minimum, you need a form of identification, proof of income (2 recent paystubs, W-2, or offer letter from a new position), and monies for an application fee and deposit.

Application fees generally run around $30-60 depending on the property. At a managed apartment, you may have to pay a deposit upon application of a few hundred dollars to reserve the unit if you are approved. Some places take credit cards and some don’t, so be prepared with a checkbook, or possibly certified funds. When applying for an individual rental, requirements vary as well, but be ready with an application fee, security deposit (usually equal to one month rent, but in Virginia it can be up to two months) and the first month’s rent.

Every real estate broker does this differently, but generally they will ask for personal checks upon application. Once your application is approved, and you may move forward with the lease, they will give you your checks back and ask for certified funds when you sign the lease. With individual units, you will sign the lease right away to secure the unit for your move date.

A few other tips: 

Make appointments — This is especially important in the busy summer months. This will hopefully keep you from waiting at apartment buildings until an on-site agent is available to show units. Also, if they have a specific unit you are interested in seeing and it is currently occupied, they will need to give notice to the occupant to show it. If you are hoping to work with a real estate agent, try to call at least a week in advance so you can be sure they have an appointment available.

Do your homework — Nothing is more frustrating for you than realizing after you’ve decided to move that you can’t find an apartment you can afford. Understanding general rent ranges for the area is important. While there are certainly rock-bottom bargains out there, knowing the likely price you are going to pay will save you headaches later. As a general rule, the low end for a studio or one bedroom is going to start at $1,500. Living near a Metro stop can lead to a rent premium, sometimes as much as a third higher than an off-Metro site, where bus service and car use is more prevalent. Most places do not include utilities or parking. In the summer, rents are higher because of higher demand and lower vacancies. Also, understand prices change quickly. That is why most apartment sites show a range of prices. And if you see a unit at a price you like, keep in mind the price may be different a few weeks away when you are in town, if it is still available.

Keep an open mind — Just because you have decided on one area, keep an open mind because there may be another area that works just as well for you, if not better.

Keep it simple — Looking at 40 apartments in the same area won’t do much but make your feet hurt. If you know the location you like, find a few buildings with amenities you like with maybe with a slight range in prices, look at those, then pick one. For the most part, apartments aren’t going to vary that much when keeping all things equal. Keep it simple and save yourself some time to check out the local area after you’ve found a great space.

Looking for a new place in a new city can be exciting. Don’t let the search take that away by starting too early and getting frustrated. Also, don’t wait to enlist the help of an expert.

Have a rental-related question you’d like Rental Report to answer? Email it to [email protected].

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