Searching for apartments has never been easier than it is today. From the comfort of your own couch, you can easily find thousands of listings in every corner of the country. Whether you are moving out for the first time or your current lease is set to expire, you can use online listing sites to find your next place.
Browsing online apartment listings is simple, convenient and doesn’t cost a thing. However, tenants must exercise a bit of caution before jumping into a lease contract they found posted on a website. Many fall victim to real estate scams listed online, losing money in deposits and faulty contracts. Before you take to your laptop, phone or tablet to find your next apartment, use the following tips to spot scams and fake advertisements.
Planning Your Apartment Search
Moving into a new apartment is exciting, but it can often feel overwhelming to sort through hundreds of different options. Fortunately, there are many ways to alleviate the stresses that stem from apartment hunting. Before jumping into the search, tenants can narrow down their options by answering the following questions:
- Where do I want to live?
- What is my budget?
- What size apartment do I need?
- How long should the lease term last?
Of course, there are many other options that tenants must consider before starting their search. For example, those with pets will need to incorporate this into the process. Many landlords and associations have strict pet policies that either ban pets altogether or require a separate deposit. This is important in eliminating many options for listings that do not allow pets.
It’s always a good idea to come up with a list of needs and a list of wants. When it comes to your needs, these are characteristics that you cannot live without. For example, you might need a two-bedroom apartment; this helps eliminate hundreds of listings you would otherwise need to scroll through for studio and one-bedroom apartments. If you are set on living in a specific neighborhood, you may need to be more flexible in other areas to find an apartment that meets all your needs.
When it comes to your “wants,” these are areas in which you are willing to compromise. For example, you may be open to renting a studio apartment if it means you can find one in your budget. Or, you may be willing to pay a bit extra when you need more space. Once you complete these lists, you are ready to apply them to an online apartment search.
Popular Apartment Search Websites
There are dozens of websites that list open apartments, condos and houses across the country. These listing sites share a few key characteristics, such as custom filters, pictures, listing history and contact information.
Tenants should begin their searches by entering the city, state or zip code into the search bar. This way, they know they are looking in the right area before applying any of their other preferences. Most sites will return thousands of results spanning various budgets, square footage and amenities. Rather than scrolling through all the results at once, it’s best to use the filter feature to narrow down the list.
HotPads is one such site that features many options in its built-in filter tool. You can cover your basics, such as listing type, price range and square footage. However, the site goes above and beyond the generic filter options by letting you choose:
- Rental type (i.e. sublet, lease, room for rent or temporary)
- Property type (i.e. apartment, condo, townhome, multi-family home or single-family home)
- Amenities (i.e. gated community, pool, laundry facilities or parking)
Trulia is another popular apartment listing site you can use during your search. This online listing site offers a unique way to learn more about the general area in which you are looking. The Trulia Crime Map is an important tool that uses recent police data to display crime statistics near the area. It also divulges information about the crime, so you can decide whether to continue your search in that specific area.
Be sure to check out other listing sites in addition to the big ones. It’s best to use more than one so you are presented with as many options as possible. Don’t forget about sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace; you may find listings from homeowners looking to sublet or lease their residences at a discounted rate.
How to Avoid Rental Scams
As helpful and convenient as online apartment listings are, they also present a few dangers for tenants. In fact, in a recent study by ApartmentList, the agency found that renters have lost more than 5 million dollars in rental scams and fraud, many of which stem from online posts and fake advertisements.
Real estate scams are designed to confuse and intimidate tenants. Most scams consist of fake pictures, fake addresses and listing prices well under market value. It can be difficult to spot the warning signs of a scam, but there are few key tips to use during the search.
One of the telltale signs of a rental scam is a demand for cash payments, wire transfers or gift cards. Listings that require these forms of payment are looking for an invisible money trail; scammers want as little evidence as possible. There is no way for tenants to get their money back, especially with wire transfers. Also, landlords should always provide receipts for any transaction in case of any issues.
Another sign of a fake advertisement is a listing offered well below market price. Tenants who are renting for the first time are generally unaware of the average price of rent in their area, which puts them at a greater risk of falling victim to a scam. However, browsing a few sites and reading some listings will give them a general idea of what the average rent is in the area. Apartments offered well under this average should set off a few warning signs. As a general rule of thumb, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.