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America has long lived with the dream of home ownership, but the fact is that this remains a dream for many Americans. Home prices are still intimidating in some areas even after the crash. And then there are folks like myself –young and not yet ready to settle down.
Unfortunately, a new apartment has always been an arduous process. It’s hard to judge management based off a few minutes of interaction, and the fancy demo unit you’re shown could be the only one in the complex kept up to date. Online resources can help you skip most of the pain – if you use them.
Step 1: Identify Potential Apartments
The first step in finding your new apartment is to look for possibilities. We’ve covered a lot of apartment finding sites in the past here on MakeUseOf, so there’s little need for me to explain them. Go check out our review of the five best apartment search websites for more information.
You should add Trulia and Zwillow to your resources, as well. These sites tend to focus on real estate, but are a good place to find condos and homes for rent. The traditional apartment listing websites do a poor job of accommodating properties that are rent by independent landlords.
Step 2: Read The Reviews
Once you have found some candidates (hopefully you have quite a few) it’s time to narrow down the field using reviews.
My personal favorite for this is Apartment Ratings. This website lets you search by zipcode and then narrow down the field using the percentage of people who approve. It’s also possible to just look for a specific apartment complex. In my experience, Apartment Ratings has the most reviews for apartments in major metro areas.
Another, similar option is Apartment Reviews. They have a decent site, but don’t seem to have the same volume of reviews. It’s hard to gauge an apartment if there are only two reviews available, both from five years ago.
These sites can be supported by Google, which allows for apartment ratings just as they do any other business. Your best bet for finding these reviews is to type in an apartment’s address. Typing in the apartment name is less effective because there are often apartments with the same name in different cities.
Step 3: Scope The Neighborhood
Before moving in to any apartment it’s a good idea to take a quick jaunt around the area to see what is nearby. But with that said, this is a situation where real life can be less accurate that the Internet. It can be hard to judge what’s near a complex just by driving – if you take a wrong turn you could end up missing a school, a major shopping complex or a row of trendy restaurants.
The overhead view of Google Maps is a handy alternative. First, look up your apartment complex by typing in the address. Usually the default view is too close to judge the surrounding area, so zoom out a few steps. Then search for things you’re interested in such as “grocery store” or “dive bar.” Google Maps does a great job of finding places of interest near the apartment and will highlight them on the map.
CitySearch can also be a good site for this if you know the name of the neighborhood an apartment is located in. At the very bottom of their site is a “Neighborhoods” link that will send you to a page where you can select the right neighborhood. This is, however, only useful in the major cities that CitySearch covers.
Step 4: Check Out Crime & Traffic
Crime can range from an annoyance to a life-threatening problem, depending on the severity of crime in the area.
Two good sources for sniffing out high-crime areas are Crime Reports and Trulia Crime Maps. Both are free and help you visualize crime using interactive maps. Checking out both is likely a good idea, since sometimes one site has information the other doesn’t.
A more accurate option might be available locally. Many counties and cities have websites that include published crime statistics. A Google search including the neighborhood, an apartment and the word “crime” can usually discover these resources.
Traffic is another problem that is hard to judge by simply visiting an apartment. Sure, it might be on a major highway – but what if that highway slows to a stand-still every night? You might end up having more trouble getting around than someone living down a side street.
Once again, Google Maps can be helpful. They include a traffic view that can either show traffic in real time, or average traffic at a specific day and time. You should use this tool to see how traffic looks near an apartment on a Monday morning or a Friday night.
Making A Choice
All of the tips above have been useful whenever I’ve had to switch apartments. This may seem like a lot of work, but you’re actually reducing the amount of time and stress required to find an apartment. Doing some online searches is much easier than visiting ten apartments in person.
The information is better, too. Like a used car salesman, an apartment manager has an interest in selling you the apartment. Even if they’re an honest person, this natural bias makes whatever they say suspect.
I don’t advise that you perform every step listed here on every apartment you might be interested in. That might take way too much time. Instead, you should first make a list of apartments that meet your needs. Then, to the Internet you go – and you can make use of the information you find online to narrow down your list to a few apartments that you want to visit in person.
What tips have you perfected to find that perfect apartment online?