Wilson’s Handy-Dandy Guide to Finding A Place To Live
So, I’ve had several friends in the last few years come to me for help finding apartments. I never really realized until recently how hard this task is for some people, and how little most people actually know about the process. Since I can’t help everyone myself, and because many folks seem to need just a small nudge in the right direction, I’ve decided to put together a short guide to finding a place for you and your stuff. I hope you guys find it helpful.
This guide is basically how I find apartments, both for myself and for other people. There is some degree of pattern recognition and intuition I’ve gained over the years that helps me do this better than the average bear, but I think it’s a lot less difficult than most people make it out to be. Also, because apartment hunting isn’t really a straightforward process for me, this isn’t so much a step-by-step guide as it is a series of helpful tips and advice. With that said, here you go:
You need to understand where to look.
In my opinion, Craigslist, Padmapper, and Zillow are the main sites you should be using – and that’s my general order of preference as well. Places like rent.com and apartments.com charge a fee for their listings, so the only listings there are going to be very high end listings or large complexes. Given the type of friends I have, I’m going to assume that most of you aren’t interested in either of those things. Now, local culture has a lot to do with which sites are best for your city – in some areas, Craigslist dominates, in others, Padmapper does, and in some places, other sites like RentHop or RentJungle might be the answer. For most cities, though, Craigslist is a pretty good place to start. If listings seem thin, consider checking out one of the other sites I listed.
You need to understand the power of keywords.
Think of the kind of apartment you want – imagine a picture in your head of what you’re looking for. What does it look like? Is it old? New? Modern? Loft-style? Are there hardwood floors? Is it in a walkable area? Is it near public transit, or in a particular neighborhood, or near a school? These are the types of things you can use to mine keywords from for your search. These are important to separate the wheat from the chaff in apartment hunting, especially in larger cities with tens of thousands of listings. Keep in mind that most landlords and listing agents are not in the marketing business, and generally have a poor conception of how to write an apartment listing – they may not know to list the neighborhood, or the amenities, or what it’s close to, so you’re going to have to look for all of those things, and look for them separately. Just assume that you’re hunting for something written by an idiot and you’ll do fine.
As an example: When I was hunting for an apartment for my friend Sonia, I knew she was looking for a place that was in a walkable neighborhood, close to Johns Hopkins University, in an older building. I first searched for spots in the neighborhoods I knew surrounded Hopkins – Charles Village, Old Goucher, Station North, Waverly, Remington, and Hampden. Then, I used the keywords “Hopkins” and “JHU”. I also used other keywords like “historic” and “wood floors” and “vintage”, but in conjunction with the map function, which I’ll explain later. Those keywords will often reveal different sets of listings for you to dig through.
Don’t be scared away by a lack of photos.
Remember what I said about landlords and listing agents being idiots? You can add “technologically incompetent” to the list for many of those as well. But just because your landlord doesn’t know what an email attachment is or how to add a photo to a Craigslist post doesn’t mean that the apartment is shitty. In fact, many listings without photos are owned by older landlords who have been renting their places to stable tenants forever, and they’ve never really had to advertise much. These are the people you want. If the listing sounds good, go and take a look – I’ve found some real gems this way.
Go easy on the maps and filter settings.
It’s logical to assume that you should be looking at listings mostly through a map view, and with filter restrictions such as price, number of bedrooms, etc. Unfortunately, landlords and listing agents are, as I mentioned before, not exactly marketing pros. Many neglect to include an address (which means it won’t show up in the right place on the map, or show up at all), or the proper number of bedrooms/bathrooms, or the square footage, or any number of other features. Restricting your search to 2 bedroom apartments might actually exclude many 2 bedroom apartments that aren’t actually labeled as such, for instance. Same thing goes for square footage. Even price is often an issue, with many listings giving $1 as the price if they’re offering multiple pricing options.
Go heavy on your intuition and use photos as your gauge.
I scan a page of 200 apartment listings in roughly 45 seconds. How? I put the page into “gallery” or “photo” mode from the beginning. I quickly scroll through, and open any listings that look visually appealing into a tab. In general, people react most strongly to the appearance of their housing, rather than amenities such as location, size, etc. As such, I scan through and look for apartments that have a look and feel that I’m searching for. Once those listings are opened into tabs, I go through and figure out where they are, what they’re near, etc, and cut or keep them accordingly. The same can be said for text listings – go with your gut when perusing them, and try to avoid listings with obvious marketing-speak or excessive exclamation points.
Know how to use the map.
When I’m using the map view on any of these sites (which I only do if an area is pretty mixed in quality), I rely heavily on keywords and photos, and typically use little to no other filters. I also tend to hone in very sharply on specific areas (often a 10×10 block area) while doing so, so that I can get an idea of what is on offer in those areas and what is reasonable to pay for what degree of size and quality. For instance, there’s a lot of modern buildings around Hopkins, so I specifically looked at that area with a search for the keywords “vintage”, “old”, and “historic”. When looking in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hamilton, I searched for “renovated” and “bungalow”, while looking at that area under a map view (as there’s some areas I wouldn’t want to live in over there).
So, there you have it. That’s the basics of how I find apartments. Beyond those tips, it’s mostly about looking a lot. When I’m on the hunt for a place for myself or a friend, I spend at least 30 minutes a day, often more, looking at listings online. Try not to binge on it for hours at a time – your sense of what is good and what isn’t can become kind of warped that way. But, keep at it, just like you would a term paper – a little bit at a time, adding in new information as it becomes relevant.
I hope that you all find this helpful, and please do feel free to ask for clarification on anything I posted here, or to ask anything else!