We recently listed a few resources for those who want to get off the beaten path and find an apartment without using the internet. But, of course, the web is an invaluable research tool, especially once you’ve figured out how to narrow your search, and how to harness the wealth of information without drowning in the onslaught.
First, let’s revisit some of the sites you already know, and some we’ve mentioned here at MFA previously.
Craigslist. Chances are good–I’d say 99.9%–that you know this one and have already used it to look for a job, some furniture, or a date. We’ve discussed the site quite a bit ourselves, so be sure to check out all our past posts with the Craigslist tag to learn all about the the pros, cons, and how-tos of using the internet’s most famous classified ad site.
Way back in 2006, we mentioned a couple of useful web sites that are still around today. One is Apartmentratings.com–as the name implies, the site offers user-generated reviews and ratings of rental properties around the United States. It’s searchable by neighborhood or zip code, as well as by maximum rent, number of bedrooms, and other characteristics. The reviews span the full range from “This is the best place I’ve ever rented” to “Avoid at all costs!” As with any user reviews on the internet, understand that people with the extreme views are the ones who tend to speak up–you won’t find a lot of people saying, “Well, it was … fine.” Also be aware that the listings are not at all comprehensive. I wasn’t able to find any buildings in which I’ve lived (in Minneapolis and Chicago). Still, this is an excellent resource for apartment hunters, especially those heading to a new city and in need of some extra intel about the place. A similar site, with far fewer listings, is RenterReviewed.com.
Another useful but more limited web site is the Washington Posts’s Apartment Showcase, which offers an list of rental resources in the DC area as well as a seemingly random assortment from five states (Maryland, New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia) and ten countries (Puerto Rico, Canada, Argentina, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, France, Japan, The Netherlands, Singapore, United Kingdom).
Going back to the post about finding offline information, it’s worth noting that some of the resources mentioned are available online, too. There’s definitely something nice about being able to mark up newspaper classifieds or city relocation guides with actual ink and your own color-coded Post-It system. But many of these guides (including the Greater Seattle InfoGuide, and Phoenix Relocation Guide, mentioned in that earlier post) are also available on your computer, which, of course, lets your search for things more easily, send the link to a friend, and so on.
The biggest clearinghouses for rental listings are places like Apartments.com, ApartmentFinder.com, ApartmentGuide.com, and ForRent.com. When you type “apartments” into Google, these will be your first results. They’re all pretty similar, with an easy-to-use search interface and filters for location and property-specific characteristics. They also all have app versions for your smartphone. Any of these sites will be a good first step in your apartment hunt, especially when you’re trying to find out some general characteristics of the city, like what neighborhoods have the most affordable housing or which are the more quiet, overlooked neighborhoods, with fewer but more well-kept, historic apartments.
An even better bet is to go to Padmapper.com, which shows listings from Craigslist, Apartments.com, Rent.com, and other sources. The big selling point here is the presentation: Padmapper is a map-based interface, making it easy to see what’s available in different neighborhoods. And if you really want to drill down into the details, click on “Advanced Features” and then “Super-Secret Advanced Features” for added insights like your potential commute time from a specific apartment to your job or, in select cities, crime stats, mass transit map overlays, and information about a given neighborhood’s “walkability” (in short, how pedestrian-friendly it is, and how many amenities are within easy walking distance).
Once you have a general sense of what neighborhoods you like, try going local and seek out the city-specific databases. These include, for example, Chicago Apartment Finders, Seattle Rentals, and Cheap Denver Apartments. These locally-run sites may have more in-depth (or at least easier to find) details about the specific rental market, from trends in prices–whether they’re going up or down–to local ordinances or best practices that may affect you. In some cases, they also have hotlines, so you can call and talk to–gasp–a real person in the real place, someone whose five-second answer may save you days of headache.
Finally, many larger management companies have their own web sites, which may contain listings not posted elsewhere. The sites may also give you a sense of what it would be like to rent from the company, or whether they have any unusual restrictions or selling points (one company I rented from had a semi-secret gym available for use, for free and with various exercise classes, for tenants in any of its buildings). So if you see a unit you like listed in one of the large-scale databases, try searching for the management company to see if they have their own web site with additional information.