If you ask just about anyone how to rent an apartment sight unseen, you can expect the following advice: Don’t.
But “don’t” isn’t always an option, is it? If you’re moving to another state, you might not have the time or the money to make a special trip to your new city for the purpose of apartment-hunting. Signing a lease on a home without seeing it in person might sound like a recipe for inviting scams and slumlords into your life, but there are several ways to do it without ending up in the worst apartment ever.
Here are 10 tips for renting an apartment sight unseen:
1. Get a short term lease. Find an apartment that you can rent month-to-month or for 6 months or less. Preferably, your landlord will give you the option of signing a longer lease when you’re comfortable. Shorter leases are usually more expensive, but they’re also a surefire way to prevent getting stuck in a terrible apartment long term.
2. Go through a realtor. Most people think of a realtor as the person you go to when you’re ready to buy a house, but did you know that many realtors will also help you find the perfect apartment? This service is often offered at no charge, as realtors are paid by the apartment property management company rather than you.
3. Ask someone who is already there. If you’re relocating for a job, consider asking your employer about which neighborhoods and apartment complexes they recommend in the area. If you’re moving for school, ask a university administrator. If you’re lucky enough to actually have a friend in the area, ask that person to take pictures of the apartment you’re considering.
4. Look at reviews. As a general rule, when renting an apartment sight unseen, it’s always safer to rent at an apartment complex that’s run by a property management company than through an individual. One of the main reasons? When considering an apartment at an established complex, you can see reviews from renters. Look at websites like Yelp, ApartmentRatings and reviews on Google to get unbiased opinions from current and former tenants.
5. Consider a hotel first. Extended stay hotels can range from accommodations for business travelers with full kitchens and comfortable furnishings to seedy operations with cockroaches. If you can swing it, consider renting a room at the former and give yourself a month to find an apartment. Other options for this include Airbnb and VRBO. Many vacation home rentals are often available for a discounted rate if you book for an entire month.
6. Don’t get fooled by a tricked out website. It’s easy to get dazzled by an apartment complex’s well-designed website. Prioritize real photos of the apartment complex (found on the aforementioned review sites) and real photos of the area (plug the address into Google street view). Don’t take into account any photos of the apartment complex’s leasing office or street signage. These areas are often designed to look luxurious and inviting, but they may not be representative of the actual unit you’ll be renting.
7. Research the neighborhood. Location is everything, so it stands to reason that you should invest just as much time—if not more—researching the neighborhood as you should the actual apartment. You can do this by looking at crime rates, quality of nearby schools and other features like parks, grocery stores, nearby restaurants or any other amenity you’d like to share a zip code with.
8. Ask for a Skype tour. Not every leasing office or landlord will oblige this request, but it’s worth asking. If you’re interested in an apartment, ask for a tour via Skype or Facetime. This will give you a much better idea of the place than any amount of photos could ever give you.
9. Apply but don’t commit. If possible, apply for the apartment before moving but don’t sign the lease until you get there. This will give you the opportunity to see the neighborhood, the apartment complex and the actual apartment in person, that way you have the option of backing out or—hopefully—falling in love with the place and committing.
10. Know how to identify scams. You can avoid getting scammed when renting an apartment sight unseen by taking a few precautions. Always do a reverse image search on Google if you’re searching for an apartment on Craigslist. Some scammers copy photos or entire ads, but fortunately, it’s easy to identify a duplicate with just a few clicks. If someone asks you for money for a background check or a deposit before you’ve even signed anything, don’t give it to them. On that note, you should also be aware that legitimate landlords deal with actual checks, money orders and other forms of payment that can be tracked, so don’t mail anyone cash or wire them money.
Lastly, remember that renting an apartment sight unseen is like most things in life: If it sounds too good to be true (Fully furnished 3 bedroom with hardwood floors and a view of the city skyline for $500 a month?!?!), it probably is.