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Renting an Apartment from a Distance


Sarochan
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Alright, I apologize if this has already been answered elsewhere (I did a search, but couldn't find an answer).

My question is this: do you have to travel to an apartment in person to rent it, or can a person (or people) sign the lease/etc. from a distance? Unfortunately I am completely clueless, so any answers/suggestions about where to look for answers would be very appreciated.

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It can be done but whether or not it's desirable really depends. Landlords can be very shady and mislead (or outright lie) to you about the dimensions and condition of a place. The IHOG section here is a place where you might be able to find related posts.

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It is possible to sign a lease from a distance, if all parties agree to do this. But as rising_star said, this is highly not recommended. Not only could landlords lie to you about the condition and details of a place, some scammers do not even have a place for you to rent at all. They will take your deposit and disappear. 

 

Ideally, you should try to be there to inspect the place and sign the lease. For my MSc school, my wife and I took a 3-4 day trip to our new city for the sole purpose of finding a place to rent. On our second last day there, we found the perfect place but the landlord company needed a few days to run a credit check before they would sign the lease. We would be back home by the time that was done! So, we placed our deposit, returned home, they mailed us the lease and other documents, we signed that and returned it. So we technically "signed the lease" from a distance, but we did everything else in person.

 

For my PhD school, we did the same thing, but this time, we found a good place on the first day of our trip so we were able to finish all the paperwork prior to returning home. 

 

Overall, if it's logistically possible (i.e. you are currently in North America and are going to a school in North America and you are able to make this happen financially), I highly recommend making an extra trip to your new city and taking a few days to find the right place for you. The cost of these trips was about 1-1.5 months rent and to me, it's well worth it. I would rather spend an extra month's rent to avoid being stuck in a lease for an entire year in a crappy place you didn't get to see ahead of time. But if you do this, plan ahead to make the most out of your trip. For example, at MSc school, the standard "notice to vacate" time period is 60 days, which means that if you want a place available on Sept 1, current tenants will notify their landlords around July 1 and the units will be on the market in the July 2-7 period (usually the good deals get taken right away). You might be wasting your time and money if you are not in the city during this time (sure, there will still be places available at all other times, but you would have missed the peak, and if you are in a market where rentals are snapped up quickly, then places that are still available might be less desirable).

 

If it's not possible (or if you are really not picky at all) then maybe you can ask someone you know in the new city (perhaps a current grad student that you are friendly enough with to ask this favour) to scout out a few places for you. Another good option (if your school has it) is to live in graduate student housing for the first year (or even just a few months). Here, in my current program, the penalty for breaking your housing lease early with the school is very small so if you don't like graduate student housing, you can leave as soon as you find a place you like better.

 

Alternatively, you can just arrive a little early and stay in a motel until you find a place. But be careful--in my MSc school example, our friends did this and ended up with a place that cost about $400/month more in rent (it was the only thing that was left!). They were stuck in a year-long lease. It would have been much cheaper for them to travel 2 months ahead of time to get a better priced place. 

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Hi! I recently did this process (specifically, this Friday). A friend of mine who is also moving to the US asked some friends for advice to rent apartments in Ohio, they gave her a webpage to find apartments. She found two nice apartments and gave me the contact for one of those. So, I reviewed the pictures of the apartment and all specifications and decided that I wanted it.  I contacted the agency (who owns several properties), mail them a check and today I received the lease agreement. The important part is the agency and its reputation, I would not trust an owner who is not a company.

 

In my case, the most difficult thing was to mail a check; first, since I am not American, I do not have a checking account with checks payable in dollars so I had to rely on a friend who is already studying in the US. Second, I had to send the check through DHL. Any normal country would just give people the account number to make a regular deposit...

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Hi! I recently did this process (specifically, this Friday). A friend of mine who is also moving to the US asked some friends for advice to rent apartments in Ohio, they gave her a webpage to find apartments. She found two nice apartments and gave me the contact for one of those. So, I reviewed the pictures of the apartment and all specifications and decided that I wanted it.  I contacted the agency (who owns several properties), mail them a check and today I received the lease agreement. The important part is the agency and its reputation, I would not trust an owner who is not a company.

 

In my case, the most difficult thing was to mail a check; first, since I am not American, I do not have a checking account with checks payable in dollars so I had to rely on a friend who is already studying in the US. Second, I had to send the check through DHL. Any normal country would just give people the account number to make a regular deposit...

 

I second the suggestion to go with agency/owner company instead of an individual owner. In both of our big moves, we signed leases with a very large company that owned well over 1000 units in the city. I feel that companies like this have standard protocol that makes a lot of things smoother. There are certainly good arguments for individual owners (perhaps they might care about their tenants more) but when you are doing a cross country or international move, I'd prefer protocol and streamlined-ness. Also, personally, I don't care for a personal relationship with my landlord--I want our relationship to be strictly business.

 

For the application deposit, I had another Canadian friend already living in the US write the cheque for me (I paid my friend back). Also, we took advantage of our initial trip to find the apartment to set up a US bank account on the first day of our visit. So, by the time we arrived for real, we were able to write our cheque for first month's rent + security deposit and move in.

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I would suggest against renting an apartment that way. There are far too many scam artists out there, some even posing as leasing companies. Kidding, smart independent landlords would probably assume YOU are a scammer saying you cannot see the place first. I use to need to hunt for roommates, and used sources such as Craigslist. Anyone who was going to 'send us a check' ahead of time was crossed off the list. We had way too many supermodels interested and sending me their head shots.

 

Try to find a middle man in the area that you trust, as Takeruk suggested, or go with something incredibly reputable. But again, standards and expectations need to be waived/flexible then.

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Thank you all so much for your replies and insight! It is very helpful in trying to plan our summer. We're still trying to figure out how much time to allocate to various things, like apartment hunting and moving and the like.

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Sarochan, if you can take the time to drive or fly out, even for just a few days, do it. My most recent move featured a semi-sketchy situation in that I came out about a month before I needed to move and there weren't a lot of options. I ended up resorting to looking for "for rent" signs in yards (actually this is so not the first time I've done that) because people here don't always advertise online and are often small owners/companies with only a few rentals. I called a number, had a nice conversation with the landlord, but ze wasn't available to show me the place. Instead, ze directed me to knock on the door of a current tenant, tour their place (all units are identical), and call ze back if I liked it. I did, we talked in more detail, and then I agreed to rent the place. The landlord didn't ask for a security deposit or even an application up front, which simultaneously made it easier for me and also left me completely worried that it wouldn't work out. It did. That said, do not use me as any sort of role model or example of what to do in a housing search.

 

Going out to look for housing is really the best, even if just to give you a better sense of what the commute would look like, what the neighborhood is like, etc. In the city where I did my PhD, one block could be great and two blocks later could be incredibly sketchy. Even Google Street View didn't give me a real sense of this. I had to figure it out on the ground.

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Another possibility (what I'm doing, at least) is subletting for a month or two (summer is ideal for this) and finding an apartment once you move to the new city. This works for me since I'm a college grad and have very little stuff to take, so someone with a lot of stuff and a harder move might not want to technically "move" twice.

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^That was going to be my suggestion. In many cities, this is quite posible. It does have the downside of having to move twice, but at least you won't be locked into a terrible apartment for a full year before you can move (or worse, you won't have a scammer running off with a big deposit, leaving you with nothing!)

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I was actually in a similar situation as you (just so happens that we will be attending the same university!). While it's definitely possible to do all of it from a distance, I definitely suggest making a trip out there. Me and my fiance went to Chicago for 3 days a month before we were intending to move and spent the entire time on the ground looking at places. If you're not familiar with the city, you'll probably want to do this. We got lucky and found a place our last day there that we would have never found if we were just looking online. Additionally, as others have mentioned, you have to be very wary of who you are interacting with. 

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I was actually in a similar situation as you (just so happens that we will be attending the same university!). While it's definitely possible to do all of it from a distance, I definitely suggest making a trip out there. Me and my fiance went to Chicago for 3 days a month before we were intending to move and spent the entire time on the ground looking at places. If you're not familiar with the city, you'll probably want to do this. We got lucky and found a place our last day there that we would have never found if we were just looking online. Additionally, as others have mentioned, you have to be very wary of who you are interacting with. 

 

(emphasis added) For both major moves we made, we called all the ads we could find online first in order to set up appointments for the first day. Then, in between appointments on each day, we made appointments for later that day / future days to maximize the # of places we could look at. We also just drove around neighbourhoods (renting a car is a really good idea) and called up numbers on signs.

 

In both cases, the place that was perfect for us was something we didn't find online at all. In both cases, we just saw the building when driving around, called the number, asked the manager about openings and got the place. For one of them, the apartment wasn't even listed anywhere yet, so we just got lucky. Later, when we did an in-town move, we ran into this situation several times (we bookmarked some favourite buildings and called them every once in awhile to see if they have an opening). Here, it turns out there is usually a lag of a 3-7 days between the manager knowing about a vacancy and they properly advertising it. So, like job hunting, sometimes you need to seek out openings before they get put up on the general market!

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I signed the lease for a sublet in New Haven from a distance. But before doing so, we made the lister skype with us and walk around the apartment and show us outside. We told them this was because we wanted to see the place, but it was mostly to make sure it was actually an apartment where it was supposed to be. The internet is full of bullshit and scams, tread with caution.

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