Step 1. Fine-tune how much rent you can afford. When you go low-tech, you’ve got get realistic. The rent number pretty much narrows where you should look and will it be a roommate share or are you going solo. Let’s say you make $36,000. The basic formula is, your monthly rent should be your annual salary divided by 40, or $900 in this case. If you are in a high rent city, you probably need to push it up some and go up to $1,200, knowing you’ll be brown bagging your lunches.
Step 2. Pick an area where your rent level is realistic. In NYC, a $900-$1,200 rent range means a share in a more desirable neighborhood or a solo apt with a longer commute.
Step 3. Start your word-of-mouth campaign. You can now be pretty specific about where, how much, and when you want to move. Start with your friends, not just via a Facebook post or a text, but with an actual conversation. And, of course, ask your parents to spread the word. (I got my first off-campus college apartment when my father sat on a plane next to a guy who happened to own some rental studios in my college city.) Next tell your co-workers, the desk person at your gym, that nice guy at Starbucks who makes your latte, the girl who cuts your hair and anyone else in your daily circle of contacts.
Step 4. The walkabout. No, not the Australian outback thing, just you and a good pair of walking shoes. It’s light now, so you can do this even after work, but most likely on a weekend. Walk around the neighborhood that you have targeted. Look at rental buildings you like and collect basic information: address and owner’s/managing agent’s phone number. (Print out a few copies of our apartment hunter’s checklist to help gather and organize the information.) If there’s a doorman or you spot the super of a handyman, even better. Politely ask about vacancies. If you cannot see any staff, try to chat with people coming and going from the buildings. At least, check out if they look like neighbors you’d like to be living with. By the way, the absolute best time for your walkabout would be a weekday at the end of the month when people will be moving in and out of apartments. If you spot an outgoing tenant, you’ll get the real scoop about the building.
Step 5. Visit a nearby supermarket. Check out if they have a bulletin board with apartment ads. Ditto, any local community center. These places can have great leads, especially in smaller communities.
Step 6. Pick up the neighborhood’s free newspapers. There are usually several. Check out for any apartment rental ads. Smaller landlords particularly like to the low ad prices in those papers.
Step 7. The Follow-Up. Take all the information you have collected and start making calls to the owners/managing agents you have identified. Tell them you love their building and explain what a great tenant you’d be. If they have nothing, ask if they know another building you should try. Also, Google each address to see if anything unusual turns up. And continue to do walkabouts and follow-ups until you get lucky.
Here’s how a friend recently got an apartment by using the word-of-mouth/walkabout strategy. First, she spread the word by telling her aunt who lived in a neighborhood she liked what she was looking for. The aunt happened to walk by a nice large rental building and saw the super outside. They chatted and the aunt found out that a studio had just become available. A few days later my friend moved in.