For renters from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., Craigslist is an easy first stop. But, there are a lot of ads to wade through, and it’s easier when you can tell the gems from the grenades. Follow my 5 easy tips to determine which online apartments are worth your time:
1. No Address, Big Problem
Ads without addresses are usually bait-and-switch listings from rental agents—the idea is that once they get you on the phone, they can make you a customer and show you other listings. Some agents reuse the same photos from ad to ad, or even mix-and-match. You know it’s really bad when you see photos of a prewar kitchen with small windows next to a postwar living room with big windows!
2. Let Tech Save You Time
Set up RSS feeds for certain keywords, so you don’t have to waste your valuable time reading through hundreds of ads. If you’re looking for a 1-BR (that’s a one-bedroom) on Main Street that takes dogs, for instance, put those search terms in, hit “search,” and then hit “RSS” in the bottom right corner. That will subscribe you to a feed that updates as new apartments appear that match those keywords. Adam Pash of Lifehacker suggests setting up dozens of feeds, and then aggregating them.
3. Learn The Lingo
A “flex” 2-BR or a “convertible” 2-BR, for instance, usually means someone is living in the dining room…which you’ll have to wall off with a bookshelf and which won’t have a closet. “South-facing” usually implies “sunny,” but a south-facing apartment won’t be sunny if it looks right at another building. Also, remember that real estate agents can be map-challenged, so don’t forget to check that the address of the apartment is in the same neighborhood as advertised.
4. Keep An Eye Out For What’s Missing
If you see a photo of a living room, bedroom and bathroom, but none of a kitchen, it’s a pretty good bet that the kitchen’s in bad shape. Check photos for distortion—they may have been shot with a fisheye lens to make small rooms look bigger—and for obvious fakes. Does everyone in the “photo” of the building’s gym look like a model?
5. Money Comes Last
Never wire money to anyone in advance. A rental trade should be checks for keys—you give the landlord or the landlord’s broker checks, and they give you keys—at a lease signing. If you’re dealing with a reputable landlord, then it’s okay to trade checks for a signed lease, with the promise of keys to come later. But anyone who needs you to “wire money” to hold a “hot deal” isn’t legit.
Corollary: If you stop to ask yourself, “Is this a scam?” it’s almost certainly a scam.