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Your First Apartment: Where to Look

Updated on January 26, 2008

This is the section where you might have no idea where to start. If you've never thought about real estate before, let alone considered what would be best for you, this may seem overwhelming.

But it doesn't have to be! Let me walk you through your several options. And since I'm not your real estate agent, you don't have to worry that I'm trying to "sell" you on one way or the other.

The important thing here is to weigh the factors (safety, location, and rent costs) to balance in the way that is right for you. If you are moving to an entirely new area, living in a safe part of town might be a high priority for you. If it would cost a lot to commute to work every day, then you need to balance location convenience with the cost of rent and commuting.

As you're reading these tips, you'll probably get an idea of what is most important to you and what is secondary. As with finding a roommate, it's best to "go with your gut" when choosing an apartment. After all, you want this place to be your home!

Holding your first key is a great feeling.  (Photo by Peter Galbraith)
Holding your first key is a great feeling. (Photo by Peter Galbraith)

Oh, the Choices!

Before we dive in, let's look at the different options you have when renting an apartment.

You can rent:

  • through the building or landlord.
  • with a rental agency or broker.
  • directly through the apartment owner.
  • or indirectly from a roommate who already has a lease.

With each option comes pros and cons as with anything else. Which you choose will depend on the amount of time you want to rent, the stability you want, the amount of money you want to spend, and the extent of guidance that you need.

First let's look at the ups and downs of the options, and then we'll go through how to actually do each of the options.

How to Find a No-Fee Apt (Part 1)

Through the Landlord

The Pros: Renting directly from a landlord is cheaper than from a broker because there will be no fee. Plus, you will get a good idea of what the landlord is like because you'll be dealing with him in negotiating the lease (it's usually easier to deal with a friendly landlord, for instance, and it's helpful to learn this upfront).

The Cons: In this case, you will have to negotiate the lease on your own, which can be tough for a first-time renter. This can include any utilities that should be included, roommates or pets allowed, and even talking the rent down. And finding a landlord or building who's renting can be difficult. Also, in some cities the landlords often have deals with real estate brokers, and you won't be able to rent directly from them anyway.

How to Do It: There are two ways that I know of to rent directly from a building or landlord. The first is to walk or drive around the area in which you want to live and look for the "For Rent" signs. (Tip for beginners: Make sure it's not commercial space for rent before you call; that's just embarrassing.) You can also look in the newspaper or on website classifieds because some landlords list their apartments there.

With a Broker

The Pros: A broker has a huge amount of listings and can definitely hook you up with the apartment that is best for you and fits all your needs, especially a broker giant. They will work to negotiate your rent and lease, all in your favor.

The Cons: You will have to pay a broker fee, which can be anywhere from around 2% to 15% of the annual rent.

How to Do It: Ask for recommendations from friends or classmates for good brokers, and if all else fails you can always Google "real estate broker" and your area. The best thing to do is go in and talk to one of the agents. They will familiarize themselves with your needs and can show you at least several apartments that are appropriate for you. Some brokers also list on classified pages on the internet, as well, where you can find the apartment you want and then go to the broker to close the deal for you.

How to Find a No-Fee Apt (Part 2)

Through the Apartment Owner

The Pros: You have the flexibility of determining the period of time before moving in and don't have to be tied to a year or two year lease. You won't have to worry about your credit, since you'll be paying the owner directly. The utilities are usually included in the cost of rent, so you will know upfront exactly how much you'll be spending.

The Cons: Depending on what the laws are in your area, this type of subletting might be illegal. Also, the owner might be charging you a little more than the rent actually is, and they could kick you out if you don't pay them or really for any reason at all.

How to Do It: Owner subleases usually happen through friends, family, or work, so you might have to get lucky for this one. Occasionally they'll also list themselves in classifieds, as well.

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From a Roommate

The Pros: You'll have flexibility in the length of time you stay since you won't be on the lease. Also, since you'll pay the roommate directly, you won't have to worry about your credit if you make a late payment (though your roommate probably won't like that).

The Cons: Depending on the subletting laws in your area, this might be technically illegal. Also, not being on the lease pretty much means that your roommate could kick you out at any time. And there's always the possibility that you'll end up with a total asshole for a roommate.

How to Do It: Again, the classifieds (either in the newspaper or online) will be your best bet. There are also always those social networking sites that have listings (Facebook, anyone?), as well. People constantly advertise that they need roommates, and you'll find listings trying to find someone for a month or two up to a year or two.

A Recommendation

Every one of these options can be found on Craigslist. You can search all of them at once or one of them at a time. And you can also search by area, cats/dogs allowed, price ranges, et cetera. It's the best place to start. Good luck!


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