7 Apartment-Hunting Tips to Help You Avoid a Mental Meltdown

One Esurance writer chronicles his move from L.A. to San Francisco — and the apartment-hunting tips he learned along the way.

As 2013 wound down, I prepared to move from Los Angeles to San Francisco. And then, as 2014 began, it became clear I might not live through the insanely stressful experience (or, at the very least, the anxiety would kill my appetite).

Having emerged battered but triumphant, I thought I’d offer this handy tutorial based on my relocation odyssey, a lasting record of apartment-hunting tips that — no matter what happened to me — could help others succeed.

7 apartment-hunting tips for your next move

1.  Consider an apartment-finding service

For the San Francisco move, I used an apartment-finding service. There were 2 reasons behind this decision:

  • Living in Los Angeles, I couldn’t be in the Bay Area regularly to scout apartments. I was coming up for one frenzied week of hunting and had to ensure I ended up with something.
  • Moving to San Francisco is, frankly speaking, nuts! I’d heard the horror stories: tenants who swarm on available units like ants to a syrup spill, signing leases before the kitchen paint is dry, selling off their firstborns in fiery bidding wars. And yes, it was nearly as bad as they said. But, in most major cities these days — with loads of competition and landlords who have the advantage — it helps to have someone on your side to provide the credibility that other applicants may not have.

2.  Take advantage of technology

If you’re doing all the legwork, apartment-hunting apps can be a huge help in a new city.

Take Lovely, for instance. This app (now available for Android as well as iPhone) not only alerts you when new places hit the market, but it also lets you specify your rental price, how many bedrooms you need, your desired neighborhood(s), and even allows you to apply online. Other options like Trulia and HotPads™ work similarly, giving you a more customized experience than you’d get with Craigslist alone. Even though I used an apartment-finding service, I still relied on apps to narrow my neighborhood choices.

Apps can help with other parts of your search too. While looking for your soon-to-be home, VRBO® can help you find a rental property to use instead of a pricey hotel, and tools like Uber or Lyft can often get you around the city cheaper (or at least friendlier) than a cab.

3. Don’t get WAY too excited over a shockingly affordable, amazing listing

It’s huge, in an excellent neighborhood, and way cheaper than all the others on the block?! Perfect! Well, until you learn that you have to wire $3,000 to Nigeria and they’ll send you the keys from there. Yep, it’s a scam — and, the way I look at it, simply a rite of passage. I apparently enjoyed it so much, I did it 3 more times. (Excuse me while I dropkick my keyboard.)

4. Prepare your credentials

In the glory days of apartment hunting, I imagine a firm handshake and a sixer of Michelob was all it took to earn a landlord’s trust. Today, however, they’re more careful.

The agency I used had me put together an application packet, complete with my credit report, proof of employment, letters from my current landlord and neighbors, and a thorough personal profile. I’d urge any renter to do the same — landlords were very impressed and several called me afterward to voice their appreciation. It’ll also help you get a jump on other applicants who don’t have their docs ready to go.

5. Keep your mind open (even if the floor plan isn’t)

That moment when your apartment-searching hopes meet cold, hard reality can be grim. The first place I saw, for example, charged $3,000 for about 400 square feet of space. After that, a different landlord asked for almost as much rent from my dog as he did me. Next was the fifth-floor walk-up with stairs too narrow to fit an Army cot, much less a queen-sized bed.

I knew moving to San Francisco would be tough, but this was demoralizing. Did I think about giving up, quitting my job, and raising alpacas on a remote New Zealand farm? Of course I did. But, I regained my composure and moved on to the next place. That’s all you can do. And if you keep an open mind and stay positive(ish), you’ll find something that suits your tastes, needs, and budget as I eventually did.

6. Avoid open houses if possible

Many landlords arrange open houses for available units since it’s the easiest way to get as many suitors as possible in today’s packed rental market. But open houses can (and in San Francisco, did) get very crowded, so it can be tough to make an impact.

You’re better off setting up private viewings if you can get them. This is one area where an apartment-finding service can really pay off. Mine was terrific at reaching out to landlords and coaxing them to show units individually. This gives you a leg up on competition, and, in my case, led directly to signing the lease.

Remember, even if a landlord isn’t advertising private showings, it never hurts to send an email and inquire anyway.

7. Bring your checkbook

When you find the right place, you know it. Don’t let it slip through your fingers while you’re waiting in line at the bank.

Share your own apartment-hunting tips

Turns out, I survived moving to San Francisco (and have trimmed the night terrors to a manageable 4 times per week!).

Have any apartment-searching tips or horror stories? Share them below.

Related links

You worked hard to find your pad. Now protect it with renters insurance.
Apartments aren’t the only options for renters. Here’s why renting a house can be a great choice.
Learn how this writer survived an even bigger move (from Chicago to Los Angeles).

6 Responses to “7 Apartment-Hunting Tips to Help You Avoid a Mental Meltdown”

  1. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    April 18, 2014 #

    Which apartment-finding service in SF did you use?

    • Avatar for Alex Glenn
      April 22, 2014 #

      Thanks for your question. It's called Relocation Breakthroughs.

  2. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Linda Peo
    April 22, 2014 #

    Love this story, Ali!!

  3. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    October 19, 2014 #

    with all the companies moving to SF this year 2014, it's only going to get worse, much Worse. The mayor of SF has subsidized companies by giving them a tax break: making a bad situation even worse. The amount of new housing SF is growing far more slowly than the amount of businesses coming in.

  4. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Luke Smith
    March 22, 2016 #

    These are really good tips about finding an apartment to live. I do like how it points out not to get excited if you see a really good deal, that has happened to me, and the place was not what it seemed. Using an apartment finder is a good idea, and easy to use.

  5. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Alex Trodder
    March 25, 2016 #

    Whoa, that's scary that there are people out there to scam individuals trying to find apartments. It sounds like it's really important to research a location and try to take advantage of technology to make sure that things are legitimate. Moving can be stressful enough as it. I'm sure that thinking you've found the perfect apartment to only find out it is fake would be a major bummer.

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