I began searching for an apartment in June, in much the same way I enter stores on Black Friday: steeling myself to join hordes of people all hyper-focused on their limited opportunity to snatch the same merchandise. But hunting for a home in a housing market with a critical lack of supply is worse than any mall sale. CNN reports that the US has a shortage of 2.3 million units, which makes apartment-searching an exhausting odyssey of scouring online listings, compromising with your spouse or roommate, and jumping to book tours for reasonably priced places. Granted, certain rental markets are more competitive than others, but if someone applies for a home hours before you in a major city like San Francisco, you may lose the unit.
My own search in New York City was further complicated by the fact that neither I nor my roommates lived near the city. I experienced it all: shady brokers trying to convince me to sign paperwork before seeing a unit, struggling to contact a roommate who was backpacking through Europe, and driving seven hours through thunderstorms with my mom to pack our weekends with tours. Parking was so scarce on these trips that my mom asked a shocked meter attendant, “How much is the fine to park illegally here?” However, once I started using technology to facilitate my out-of-state search, I secured a spacious apartment with a rent I can afford as a public school teacher. Here’s how I found a home from afar and (mostly) kept my sanity using free online tools.
List Your Priorities
Documenting priorities for a living space is necessary to ensure that you and your housemates understand each other. For me, a $1,800 monthly rent maximum was essential so I could pay my bills. Since my two roommates work from home, they requested windows with good sunlight, and we all preferred in-unit laundry. We recorded our requirements in a Google Sheet with four columns labeled Name, Needs, Deal-Breakers, and Wants. Then we listed bullet points in the rows to ensure that we only considered places that provided our essentials without deal-breakers. Feel free to make a copy of this template on Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel and share it with your partner or housemates to minimize misunderstandings. If you’ll be living alone, simply note your own preferences.
You can use the same spreadsheet to organize notes on prospective apartments. In another tab, my roommates and I created a table with a row for each home we visited. We cataloged each place’s listing link, address, monthly rent, lease start date, distance to public transportation, amenities, broker’s fee, broker contact info, and tour notes. This approach helped us centralize our information, weigh units against our wants and needs, and update Becca—my roommate in Europe who couldn’t attend the tours.
Ask your housemates to provide their work addresses on this sheet too. With that information, you can evaluate an apartment’s distance to the public transportation required for work commutes by setting the building as a starting location and workplaces as destinations on Google Maps. If you’re going to live in an area that requires a car for traveling, you can replace the “Distance to Public Transportation” column with “Distance to Work.”
Get Automated and Organized
When apartment-hunting out of state, you may have less time to consider available units than locals, so let tech do the heavy lifting. Setting real estate website alerts so that you receive immediate, hourly, daily, or weekly emails with homes that fit your requirements is a great way to discover places without toiling for hours. StreetEasy was my go-to in NYC; I specified my desired rent, neighborhoods, number of bedrooms, amenities, and lease start date when setting alerts to tailor them to my needs. Zillow and Compass are nationwide alternatives with similar email alert or save search functions. Trulia Rentals may be especially useful when assessing an area from a distance, as its What Locals Say feature lists residents’ assessments of a location’s safety, walkability, and even holiday spirit.
Although we were out of state, one of my roommates and I traveled to visit units when possible. Sharing a Google Calendar for apartment tours kept us informed. Creating events for scheduled tours, hyperlinking our spreadsheet in event descriptions, and adding notifications to the events reminded us to review notes in our sheet and follow up with each other about which places hardly resembled their pictures and which units were possibilities. You can use Microsoft Outlook Calendar’s shared calendar feature if you don’t love GCal, and Todoist is a great Android option, as free users can share projects with up to five people. Even if your roommate or partner lives outside the country, a shared calendar lets them view scheduled tours in their local time zone and easily identify those to attend virtually. When Becca was free, I FaceTimed her so she could see prospective homes from 5,000 miles away.
If time zones don’t permit you or your housemates to join tours on FaceTime, establish a system where the person viewing a place takes video of it. Clearly titling video files with addresses and depositing them into a shared Google Drive folder, Apple Note, or Photos album will keep everyone organized and included.
Leverage Your Network
When I started apartment-hunting, I told everybody. Dave Speer, president of the real estate firm SpeerCo, agrees that consulting your circle during an out-of-state search is smart. “Talking to your network about brokers they’ve used is really great,” he says. If you can’t travel for tours, an independent broker can help you avoid scams. Consider asking your contacts for referrals on social media to reach many people with a single post. You can also send an email with multiple recipients bcc’d or solicit help within group chats. I messaged people in my office’s miscellaneous Slack channel, and many social and professional groups use Discord, Group Me, or similar apps—and they’re probably willing to help.
Even if you’re not seeking an independent broker, still reach out to any friends or colleagues in the city you’re moving to. Within hours of posting an Instagram story asking how and where people in my network found affordable homes, 20 people responded with advice and leads on units in their buildings. Folks even shared the cost of their rent, broker’s fees, and amenities so that I could better understand my city’s real estate expenses. If no one you know is familiar with the area you’re moving to, use tech to expand your network. When I received a grant to move to Taipei, I searched for the organization administering the grant on LinkedIn, found results for affiliated people, and sent personalized requests to connect. Then I messaged my new LinkedIn connections about the Taiwanese rental market.
Search From Afar
Can’t utilize an independent broker’s services or hop a Greyhound to visit places? “Learn about the landlord or company you may rent from through online searches and reviews,” Speer suggests. “Experienced landlords have systems to make things run smoothly for tenants.” Consulting online public records is one way to investigate building owners, and this research can also reveal building code violations and whether the issues were addressed. Check your city’s or region’s housing department or building department website to see what information they make available to the public. Speer, who manages rental units in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, adds that “in Pennsylvania, you can check the payment status on buildings via county websites to see if the landlord is current with tax bills. You’d be surprised how many are not, and that’s a red flag.” Find out if the state you’re moving to posts similar information online, or if your city’s or region’s housing department offers apartment-searching tips—like these from the New York City government. Through this type of research, I discovered that my city legally requires bedrooms to have windows. I then disregarded a listing displaying pictures of an apparent third bedroom without windows, which implied the unit accommodated three tenants under the table.
If you can’t visit places in person, ask brokers to show you homes on FaceTime, Zoom, or Google Meet. I did this to appraise the apartment I will move into this summer, and I also asked my sister who lives near the building to walk around the outside to assess the area. On the phone with me, she described her surroundings, texted me pictures, and even asked customers at the local laundromat about pricing. If you know anyone in your new city, asking them to similarly call you while they explore a neighborhood can help you feel better about living somewhere you haven’t seen. My boss, who has moved across the country 10 times, additionally advised me to knock on tenants’ doors to ask how long residents have been there and what their building management is like. If your friend or family member can access a building, they can ask these questions or call you so that you can speak to tenants yourself.
When you’re hundreds of miles from the state you’re moving to, it’s easy to feel disempowered by distance and uncertainty. But harnessing technology can put the power back in your hands to help you find your new home.