8/5/2009 11:05:00 AM
There's more to life – and renting – than Craigslist. Here's how to push past the clutter and find the gem of an apartment that's waiting just for you.
Looking for a new apartment is like finding a date online: so many options, so much competition for the few good ones.
The default solution for many is to scroll through Craigslist, the online classifieds site so massive that it appears to have every listing from New York to Nome.
But there's such a thing as being too popular. These days, the site is so heavily read that landlords who use it spend hours weeding out the con artists, undesirables and no-shows who respond to their ads.
"Once it gets to be a commodity like that, it loses its effectiveness," says Dennis P. Fassett, an owner in the Detroit area who only occasionally posts his units on Craigslist and never the houses or most desirable apartments. Instead, he posts a sign in the units' windows. "I try to limit my scope," he says.
So how do tenants find all the nice landlords with the great units, low turnover and happy renters?
It's easy, and it may end up actually saving you time. Below are eight ways to scope out those hidden rental gems, all tried and tested by happy tenants from around the country. All you need is focus, creativity and, in rare moments, a bit of bravado.
1. Pound the pavement
It worked well in the old days and it works well now: the walk and talk.
When Colleen Wainwright, a former television writer, moved to Los Angeles with her husband in 1992, she immediately asked friends to drive her through several neighborhoods.
After a couple of afternoons in the car, she got out on her own and started walking, notebook and Polaroid in hand.
"There were people around and people were fairly friendly, and I'm fairly friendly," Wainwright says. She took notes, inquired in rental offices and talked to building managers. When she got a good feeling, she'd fill out an application on the spot.
At one complex, the manager took her upstairs to fetch an application from his unit.
"I walk in, there are these huge ceilings, light pouring in. It was so much nicer," Wainwright says. The man explained that he was moving out, but that the unit was only for the building manager.
"I said, 'Well, who's going to be the manager?' I knew my husband was rather handy and frugal; I thought he might be up for it."
The couple ended up getting the apartment and the job, well before either had been advertised. And when she moved out seven years later due to divorce, she again picked a neighborhood and started walking. She spotted a "for rent" sign just as it was being put up, along with a manager so relieved by the in-person find that she offered a price break.
"Get out and walk," advises Wainwright, now head of the marketing firm Communicatrix. "Stuff happens face to face that can't happen via an e-mail or phone transaction."
2. Post your own ad
Some landlords either aren't certain they want to rent out a home, or aren't interested in posting an ad and weeding through the deluge of responses. Instead, they peruse the "housing wanted" ads and select someone they find fitting.
Zipporah Sandler, a middle-aged retiree, employed this strategy in a bold attempt to get a lot of house for a little money, something that seemed like a good idea after she and her husband moved to Florida and decided to rent instead of buy.
Sandler posted an ad online that detailed exactly who they were – retired, 50s, no kids, one dog — and what they were looking for – a pool, yard, space, gated community, $1,000 rent. (She blogged about “finding the mansion” at her site ChampagneLiving.net.)
Although what she sought should cost triple what she wanted to pay, she received dozens of responses from interested homeowners. "It made life easy for me, that's for sure," she says. "I could weed through it and narrow it down to just what I was looking for."
She chose a 2,700-square-foot home in a gated community for, yes, just $1,000, available because the owners never intended to advertise it for rent but decided to take a small amount of cash in exchange for older, responsible tenants.
3. Use your social networks
"Ask friends." That's always the advice, right?
Fortunately, "friends" these days might be defined as anyone in your online social network.
Although you might not know these “friends” well, they'll definitely feel more comfortable considering you than they would someone outside their circle of acquaintances.
When Havona Madama, a New York lawyer, had to move suddenly from her Brooklyn apartment due to asbestos removal, she first did what most do and visited Craigslist. "There were hundreds of posts just from that day, and just in the area I wanted to live," she says. "I just felt overwhelmed."
She'd also had a bad experience once subletting from a stranger through Craigslist. But she'd had an excellent experience using a bulletin board at a neighborhood coffee shop in Washington, D.C., years earlier.
So she used her 21st-century bulletin boards – an online network of friends, including an online group for neighborhood parents – and immediately found three listings. All were from people hesitant to post an ad to strangers, but willing to consider her even though they had never met. Her family was able to move into a place they liked within one week of launching the search.
4. Ask about homes listed for sale
The sign may say "for sale," but the owner making mortgage payments on an empty house may say, "Yes, rent it!" if the right person asks.
"The market is absolutely flooded with owners who could not sell their homes, and they're now on the market for rent," says Maurice Ortiz, of the Apartment People, a property brokerage in Chicago.
Lisa Thomas, a career coach in Minnesota, called real-estate agents of nearly three dozen houses to ask if the owners would rent. Although the homes were not listed as rentals, about one in five said they were willing to take a tenant.
The lesson: Ask and ye may receive. Just make sure the house