Looking for housing long-distance is hard—especially if you don’t trust things you can’t touch—but thanks to the World Wide Web, it’s not as impossible as you might think. The Web is now where you start researching the city to which you’re heading. And, you know, there are a ton of terrific sites out there set up to help you do just that—like our neighborhood guides written by people who’ve ridden the Oregon trail before you. I also checked out Wikipedia, but my real surprise find was university grad student websites. Universities are an awesome hidden resource because the grad students they attract tend to be about equally in the first apartment age and salary categories (gotta love grad school stipends). What’s more, they’re uber-organized, so they’ll likely have a section on where to live. For instance moving to Chicago, I looked at what Northwestern had to say and found some really useful stuff.
After you’ve done your research, if possible, try to make a weekend jaunt to your new city. While you can read hints and tips for days on end, nothing will help you as much as walking around, observing what different neighborhoods feel like. Also, keep in mind that you should start looking for apartments at least 6 weeks in advance of your desired move-in date to find the best deals/pads. With that in mind, when you visit, make sure to set up appointments with landlords so you can see the physical spaces before you agree to anything. I know it’s passé to bring parents anywhere these days, but if they are available there are things that these parents of ours know, things to look for, that we don’t even think about—because they have lived in a few places since their first apartment days. And if you are lucky enough to have friends in the area, ask them to scout out apartments on your behalf so you make sure you’re seeing quality places during your brief stay.
As for how to find these great apartments sans local friends, there’s of course craigslist, but also check out the local papers. I combed the Chicago Reader for apartments and through their listings was able to estimate what my money could realistically get me vs. what I was hoping for.
Another idea to try, is to sublet for a month or two while you get settled. A friend who moved to New York did that successfully for four months in three different apartments because she wanted to wait until she found an apartment she loved. A similar route would be renting a room in an apartment already furnished. You won’t need to worry about convincing a landlord that while you live in a different state, you’re serious about renting, plus, roomies=ready-made friends and city experts.