Renting an Apartment in America: Realtor, Craigslist or Grapevine?

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

“Check out the claw-foot tub!” cooed Pam the realtor. I was two weeks into the world’s most torturous flat-hunt and getting desperate. But the bath, flagged as this Brooklyn apartment’s major selling point, had a lumpy veneer, like it had been enameled with masonry paint and porridge. Worse still, the bottom-left foot had wandered off and been replaced with a brick. It was, explained the agent, a minimalist bathroom (i.e, one without a sink, shower attachment, window or door). Elsewhere, all that separated the mildewy bedroom from the dank lounge was a depressing bookcase. It was by far the nicest apartment I’d seen that day.

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just put it out there: renting in the US, particularly in a city, is hard and hugely competitive. It’s worse still if you’re new in town and foreign, but it helps if you know where to look.

Depending on who you ask, this classified ad site is an essential apartment hunting tool, or a shortcut to being swindled and jumped by a serial killer. If you do brave Craigslist, take a well-built friend to viewings, and consider passing up dreamy wood floors and marble countertops if the person who greets you at the door is carrying a chainsaw and the last tenant’s head. Also, avoid scammy ads peppered with exclamation marks and too-good-to-be-true pronouncements ($300/6 br!!!!!! Has hot tub!!!!! Treasure buried in yard!!!!!!). Craigslist is, however, the best place to snaffle a bargain, avoid hefty fees and sidestep pesky credit checks.

This route is safer and more reliable but you’ll probably pay for it (agent fees are usually between one and two month’s rent). And a landlord who’s working with an agent is less likely to overlook the fact that you don’t have U.S. credit. Alas, a perfect score in the UK counts for nothing here, though you might persuade some landlords to overlook your lack of credit history by offering an extra month’s rent. But if you manage to find a friendly, effective realtor, cling on tight. Make them like you more then their other (less charmingly British) clients, and you’ll be the first person they’ll call with new listings. Be polite when they try to sell somewhere with a broken bathtub and no sink because the next place might be a palace. FYI, in my case, the next place turned out to be a basement sex dungeon. Though, not long after, a brilliantly professional realtor called Luke found us a fantastic apartment with wood floors, high ceilings and an amenable owner.

This is the best option if you can pull it off. Find out who’s moving and take over their tenancy. You’ll still have to tackle the landlord, though he might be feeling generous if he’s not had to advertise for tenants. But this option is tricky if you’ve just moved to a new city and don’t know anyone. There are, however, ways to access that information without a friend network. Americans love a yard or stoop sale, and people tend to have one just before they vacate. So look and ask. Otherwise, hang out in cafes, shops and bars and listen in on chatter. People here talk property a lot and, unlike us stuffy Brits, don’t tend to mind strangers butting in on their conversations.

Which method proved most fruitful in your apartment search? Tell us below:

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis
  • michaelkrasin

    Funny AND helpful!

  • Liz Bradley

    You are assuming that everyone is moving to New York City, what about the suburbs … I moved directly from the UK with 3 children needing a good school district, so ended up in Rye which has an amazing school district; so if you are a family, Westchester county might be a good option for you, Rye is in New York State and on the Metro North line into Grand Central Station and is an ideal 40 min train journey away. You have one realtor that works on your behalf to find a rental home or to find you a house to buy, they become your personal friend and are invaluable with advice; my realtor who covers NY and CT was Laura DeVita, who works for William Raveis, based in Rye – Another good thing about living in Rye is we have an expat group and they really do help with settling into a new country … its a great place to live … enjoy.

  • Elaine

    Living on the other side of America (San Diego area) we didn’t use a realtor, but, then, my spouse was an American, so, that helped. One tip I will give, if you go look at a place and like it, go BACK at night. What may appear a nice, quiet place in the daytime, may be a totally different place at night and also you’ll see what parking they have, or, lack of parking. Plus, some places have water and electric in with the rent and even trash pickup, all, can save you money. Plus, it can be hard to rent if you have pets and may need to look for a house, rather than an apartment. There are web sites in America for renting WITH pets, so, google those sites.

  • Nigel Williams

    I’m a Brit expat Realtor, living and working in Southern California, so if anyone needs help or free advise let me know. I would be happy to oblige.

  • Jarvaris

    I’m from South Carolina and most of the time it’s cheaper to live in the southeast of the USA then it is in the northeast. I recommend grabbing a local newspaper. Your looking at an average rent in the north to be around $1500, in the south its around $650. I pay $700 for a 4 bedroom 2.5 bath.

  • Krusticle

    Also, single Brits, don’t overlook roommate situations, especially in the touristy and/or beach cities. Roommates can change seasonally and the person who is actually the official renter (subletting to you) may not even ask to check your credit. Be clean and polite, and of course, you’ll need to pull out the British charm.

  • Phx2Lon

    In the States, there are an abundance of apartment communities – some large and some small, with awesome amenities. As a Property Manager in AZ, I highly recommend checking; or to get a good start. Also, beware of craigslist as some not-too-honest people have been know to rent out their home or condo, knowing fullwell it is going into foreclosure.

  • MaryC

    There are lots of great rental websites., are just a couple that give you lots of information and pictures of apartments or houses for rent.
    You can do a little homework before you move to get an idea of communities and prices. Paying rental agency fees is a northeast thing. In the south, the lessor pays the fees. Btw…Houston, Texas is the most awesome place to live! People are friendly and the cost of living is one of the lowest in the US. It’s not a great place to visit, but it’s an awesome place to live. Lots of direct flights to UK or anywhere else in the world.

  • Sarah Gorenstein

    For New York and the surrounding suburbs please check out, it may just be the answer you are looking for!

  • Robin

    I’ve rented apartments in San Francisco, NYC, San Diego and Washington, DC so I have a lot of experience. In all cities Craigslist is the way to go, with the exception of NYC. Both times I rented in NYC I either used a broker or went directly to the leasing office of a building complex where I wanted to live. With anything, of course, you need to be wary of scams but the majority of what’s listed is legit. You’ll get a feel for what’s a good ad and what isn’t from constantly looking.

    Good luck!

  • Robin

    Wanted to add, that most places want to be able to run a credit check. I’m not sure how that works for people who don’t have USA credit, but I saw someone post on another discussion that you may want to open an American Express card to build credit before coming to the USA.

    Have a list of 3 references that the owner/manager could easily contact.
    You may also want to consider asking your previous landlord/owner writing a letter of recommendation.

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  • Lee Cartwright

    Can anyone give me some advice on moving to the MA area? I’m hoping to move around september/october time and could do with some advice as to which towns in the north of MA or possibly the south of NH would be good places to live, what sort of rent I should be looking to pay and the best websites to look on?

    • MizzEm

      I know this is a few days late, but I’ll tackle it anyway. I live in southeast NH, and have lived either here or around Boston for nearly 20 years.

      First, timing. September is the second worst time to move – May/June when schools let out is the worst. (People with kids tend to want to let their kid finish the school year in one school, move in June, have the summer to adapt to the new location and start the new school with everyone else in September. Or, they stay in the old town to let the kids have a last summer with their friends and move at the beginning of September for the new school year. Colleges/universities let out in May so there’s usually a mass exodus, and sometimes you can get bargains from frantic students who are graduating, transferring, or just didn’t find a good enough summer job to make rent and haven’t found someone to take over the one-year lease they signed back in August or September. However, those have a tendency to be, well, student apartments – aka sh*tholes.) Think about shifting to late Oct./early Nov. or April to avoid the relocation madness, and it’s enough off-season for rents to have dropped a bit. The weather sucks big time from late November to well into March.

      Second, speaking of weather… if you can possibly manage it, don’t rent an apartment that doesn’t include heat in the rent. Heating can KILL your budget, especially since – in my experience – most apartments that don’t include heat are about as weathertight as a tent. (By the way, many-many-many, and I would venture to say the majority, of the apartments are old houses that have been subdivided, or old double-deckers and three-flats which may or may not be attached in rows – of course there are modern apartment complexes, especially as you get closer to metro Boston, but they’re less common here than in other parts of the US. ) If you must rent something that isn’t heated, run like your tail’s afire from anything with electric heat, and ask a local for help weatherproofing your apartment. If you rent a freestanding house, heat is almost never included, and all bets are off.

      Third, location. This is tricky because much depends on where you’ll be working, going to school, whatever. If you’re going to be doing that in Boston or Cambridge, it’s best to be close to the commuter-train lines ( or the commuter bus services that come into Boston from southern NH and other outlying areas. Driving in Boston is something to avoid – traffic is a nightmare, people drive like lunatics, and parking is costly. It’s funny, even the “bad reputation” towns like Lynn, Chelsea, Lowell, Nashua, etc. have their nice areas, and the “high-end” towns have their lousy areas too, so it’s a bit of a crapshoot. The difference can be as little as one street – like the area west of Whatever Street is nice, but don’t go east of Whatever Street at night. Personally, I’ve always loved the Portsmouth, NH area, but there is still so much variation it’s hard to make more accurate recommendations.

      Fourth, no matter how you slice it, this is an expensive place to live. (Of course it’s much cheaper than NYC or LA, but that’s almost a different universe.) _Generally_, the further you go from Boston and from the coast the rents get cheaper, but your rent savings could get eaten up by commuting costs or even ordinary errands if you choose to live out in the sticks where there aren’t grocery stores and such. In the southeastern quadrant of NH it can be very, very easy to go over $1000/month on a smallish 2-bedroom or a 1-bedroom of similar size (maybe 6o0 square feet) with heat in a reasonably decent neighborhood. I pay about $1100 for a nice 2br with heat about 25 miles from the NH coast, about an hour and a half from Boston (you’ll find people here tend to describe distances in terms of the driving time!), and it’s close (<15 min. drive) to pretty much everything I need to get to, but it's in a somewhat iffy neighborhood and it's close enough to the railroad tracks for my windows to rattle. So nice at 5am! Apartment complexes closer to the city with "amenities" like pools, onsite gyms, WiFi, gated access, in-unit laundry, and so on can double that, and more. It all depends on where you need to be, what you want, what you expect, what you can live with and what you can't live without.

      It is very common to have to come up with "first, last, and deposit" – that's the first and last month's rent, plus a deposit against damages which is usually equal to one month's rent but can be more sometimes. The reason for the last month's rent in advance is that too many people skip out on paying their last month's rent, thinking the landlord can just use their security deposit for the rent, but they leave behind a mess or damage that would have properly been taken from the deposit. (Not everyone does this, though. First month's rent and deposit up front, before you can even move in, is almost a guarantee.) Since you're not going to have a US credit rating, you may have to put down cash deposits for electricity, cable, phone, and all those nice things and pay in advance for things like insurance on your vehicle and belongings. ($25,000 in renter's insurance – that's to fix or replace your stuff in case your building catches fire or you get robbed – costs about $10 a month and it's stupid not to get it. Some landlords require it.)

      I'd really suggest you think harder about where you NEED to be and work from there, perhaps talk to a relocation specialist (that's a real estate agent who specializes in long-distance moves to unfamiliar places). It sounds like you don't expect to be able to make a preliminary trip to scout the area first – if there is any way you possibly could, do so; if you have a trusted friend/acquaintance/co-worker-to-be willing to look at apartments and check out neighborhoods (esp. at night) for you, that is better than nothing. Renting something sight unseen on the basis of pictures is a very bad idea – it's amazing how a marginally competent photographer can make a hellpit look fantastic. You may wish to consider renting a month-to-month furnished efficiency apartment while looking for more long-term digs, although you'd have to put your stuff in storage temporarily. Best of luck, sorry to be so vague but it's a pretty broad question.

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