Start your search by telling everyone you know – that means at work, the gym, the corner coffee shop, extended family, grandma, the newsstand guy – what you are looking for. You’ll never know when someone’s cousin’s brother is moving out of a great apartment. Have your parents spread the word among their friends, too. Getting an apartment through a referral from a friend or a co-worker is the best way – you won’t have to pay a broker and you’ll get the real story without any hype.
While you are looking for a permanent place, the Holy Grail of short term solutions is an apartment/house sitting situation where you take over when someone temporarily leaves town. If you are especially lucky it will be a friend of the family who won’t even charge you or gives you a very discounted rate. Otherwise you’d probably just pay the actual rent and have to be out when owner returns. These rare deals tend to go by word of mouth, so it can definitely pay to spread the word.
2010 Ed. Note: Now you start spreading the word via Facebook and Twitter which did not exist when this was first posted.
If you are moving to a new city and don’t know much about it, going to a broker is your best bet. (That is, if you can afford one). A good broker will steer you to suitable neighborhoods where there are apartments in your price range. They should also know about apartments coming on the market before the public.
If you decide to use a broker, be prepared to pay a fee that is usually one month’s rent, but can be as much as 15% of your annual rent, or almost two months’ rent. This, combined with first month’s rent and security deposit, means that you’ll need to have enough cash to equal 3-4 months of rent before moving in. On the plus side, the broker does the legwork and makes it easier for you. If your budget doesn’t include broker fee, but covers high-end rent, you can go to new rental buildings and use their onsite rental agents or look for web sites that provide listings directly from landlords. You’ll save the broker’s fees, which is a nice chunk of change – it just tends to be slimmer pickings.
Newspaper classifieds still work. Start by checking out the major daily newspapers and the free weekly papers in your city. The big dailies have extensive real estate listing sections on Sundays. Try to get hold of their apartment-hunting bonanza earlier in the week. (Sometimes you can purchase it as early as Thursday.) By Sunday the best listings are usually gone. The free weekly ads tend to skew younger, so you should check their rentals and roommates classifieds too. Also, scan bulletin boards in supermarkets and Laundromats in the neighborhood you’re looking at.
Building superintendents and doormen know who’s moving out, so hit the pavement and chat up the staff in buildings you’re interested in. Judicious tipping will improve your odds. You can also contact landlords directly, if you have a building picked out.
Craigslist is the mother lode, especially now that it has expanded to include most cities. Start with the Craigslist and then go to the daily and weekly newspaper sites. Also, check out the many city-dot-coms (Chicago.com, etc.) that are full of real estate advertisements. Or you can just type “rental apartments in xxx” in any search engine and many sites will pop up.
You think you’ve found your dream apartment. Now Google the address. If the search does not turn up anything interesting (criminal activity, fines for potentially life-threatening safety violations,) go see the apartment one more time. Make sure everything works: run the water in every faucet, flush the toilet, light the stove burners and the oven and test the electrical outlets.
Then check the building. If it’s possible, talk to some of the tenants and find out if the elevators work and if there are problems with roaches or rats or unstable neighbors. Visit the laundry room and tour the basement. If you don’t see any red flags (water damage, mouse droppings, piles of garbage), it looks like you’ve found yourself an apartment!