When you’re moving locally, finding a new place is usually as simple as a few hours on Craigslist and a Saturday of viewings. You already know what the different neighborhoods are like, what reasonable rent prices are in the area, and what your new commute will be like.
When you’re preparing to move to a new city, on the other hand, you might know next to nothing. And, as it turns out, Craigslist is not so helpful for finding apartments when all you have to go by is a zip code.
But whether you’re moving for work or for you, apartment-hunting in a brand-new city is sometimes inevitable. So, here are a few tips on how to simplify the process, even if you’re thousands of miles away.
Do: Work with a Realtor
The wisest move you can make is to work with a realtor who knows the area and can weigh in on all your unknowns, like which areas are safe, whether a few miles outside of the city is a doable or miserable commute, and what you should expect to get for your price range. The great news is, realtors typically get paid by landlords to find renters, so working with one is usually free.
To find a realtor, contact your new workplace or school and ask if they can recommend some names. Or even if you’re just moving to move, call a local university and ask for a recommendation—they don’t have to know you’re not actually going to be enrolling there. (University websites also often have tips on the best neighborhoods to live in.)
Don’t: Start Your Search Too Early
I know you’re eager to start apartment-hunting as soon as you’ve set your move date, but if you value your sanity—don’t do what I did when I recently made the move from Chicago to Miami and start searching eight months ahead of time. Sure, you can start researching neighborhoods and browsing listings to get an idea of rental prices, but actually calling places or realtors is pointless—they won’t be able to tell you what’s actually available on your move date for months.
Do: Know What You Want
About two months before your moving date, get in touch with your realtor and let her know your preferences on things like rent, amenities, and nearness to public transportation. For example, what’s more important to you—a large bedroom or a large kitchen? A great unit, or a complex with amenities like a doorman or a gym?
Also be clear on your necessities and your deal-breakers—and don’t let the realtor’s idea of a “great place” sway you from those. If you don’t have your own transportation, don’t isolate yourself away from public transit or necessary stores just to save some money each month on rent. If you have a pet, don’t sign a lease for the apartment that doesn’t allow it with the hope you can just keep little Whiskers a secret (Spoiler alert: You probably can’t).
That said, do some research on what you can reasonably expect for your price point (because it definitely isn't the same from city to city). Do a quick Google search of what typical monthly rent prices are in the area, and talk to friends (or friends of friends). You might not get an exact idea of what you'll be paying, but it’s better than nothing.
Do: Consider a Visit
If you’re especially brave, you may feel confident signing a lease based on photos. But I don’t recommend this. If you can, plan a weekend about a month before your move date to head to your new hometown and check out some places. Let your realtor know in advance when you plan to come in so that she can line up some tours for you.
In addition to just checking out the unit and apartment complex, make sure you make time to walk or drive around the neighborhood, and even talk to some locals in nearby coffee shops about how they like the area. If you have friends or family in the area, bring them along—in addition to knowing about the neighborhood, they probably have an idea of what’s a good deal for your money (and what’s not). Believe me, when it comes to the place you’ll be living for at least a year, you can’t do too much research.
Most importantly, stay calm, and accept moving for the necessary evil that it is. Finding an apartment is stressful, but you’ll get through it, even if it is being done long-distance. And after you sign a lease, thank your realtor with a nice note or perhaps a bouquet of flowers—if you made the wrong choice, you’re going to need her help again in a year. Happy moving!