As a point of contact at Cribspot, I've had the pleasure (for the most part) of working with thousands of people searching for a house or apartment - from California to New York, two years in advance, a day in advance, and everything in between. From these conversations, certain patterns have emerged in the way people perform their search. Below, I've tried to consolidate the most common search patterns that seem to cause people problems.
1) Going with first results on Google
Most of us perform searches on Google every day. And, because we trust Google, when we perform those searches we overwhelmingly choose the first results that we are returned. In fact, the first 5 results given to us account for more than 2/3s of all clicks. Once you get beyond the first page, the clicks to individual links on a page drop below 1%. So, when it comes time to look for housing we see time and again people following this same pattern of behavior that they take with other search queries.
Now you might be thinking, why is this an issue, don’t sites like Zillow and Trulia do the searching through results for me? Well yes and no. Mostly no. These sites do aggregate listing content, but it’s the sources they use mean that you’ll end up with either a) not student housing - realtors using a service called MLS to syndicate listings, or b) content from only the largest companies in town - the large companies can afford services which push out their content online. Many small and medium size landlords don’t use these services. While you may be able to find a sufficient number of listings on craigslist you'll run into a similar problem where many many landlords don’t post there. We recommend going through a few pages of results with the search [City] property managers, or [City] rental properties. For example, Bloomington rental properties. Or, an even easier is just use Cribspot. Yes this is a plug, but we actually do aggregate all of the listing content from these sites for you.
2) Going with the name brand apartments
This point is similar to the one above, but a bit different. In most small cities (especially college towns) there are a frequently a few well known, luxury apartment complexes. Oftentimes they have the flashy amenities; almost always they come with a hefty price tag. These complexes count on the apartment search to be difficult, and they count on that name brand and location to help you take the easy route out of that difficulty. If you’re willing to sacrifice the flashiness, usually there are lower price alternatives nearby.
3) Offering a spring term sublet
For some reason, landlords have gotten into their head that short-term leases are more headache than they are worth. It’s nice for them, but less nice when you are one of a thousand students going abroad and looking for someone to sublet your place in the spring. It’s a popular time to study abroad and their is a serious dearth of people looking to begin subletting in January. If possible, double up for a semester, or find a landlord willing to do a one semester lease.
4) Giving in to security deposit deductions
You can fight it! Time and again we hear stories of people who have been charged $450 for paint touch ups, or $500 for carpet cleanings. There are laws in place specifically designed to protect renters from irresponsible deductions by landlords. It may seem easier to just pay and be done with the whole mess, but oftentimes just a single call to the landlord is enough for them to remove at least a portion of the costs. They don’t want you going to legal services just as much as you don’t want to have to go there.
Which brings me to the next point, most universities provide student legal services. If someone took a few hundred dollars out of your room, you’d be going to the police. When a landlord keeps extra funds from your security deposit they are, in a roundabout way, doing the same. And while we wouldn’t recommend going to the police, you shouldn’t be afraid to see what legal action you have available. Similar to the phone call, sometimes just a letter is enough to be refunded a portion of the deposit.
5) Wait too long to begin searching
This one is a bit cliche, but it’s worth repeating. There is no set time to begin the search, and this works against many of us leisurely types. The truth is, there will pretty much always be places available (as long as your group isn’t too large), but the longer you wait the slimmer your selection becomes. Prices do occasionally decline as landlords become more desperate to find renters to fill vacant rooms. In my experience this is a relatively rare phenomena, however. Obviously you may need time to work out your group, or any number of random factors that will influence your search. But if you’re waiting just because you can, then it may be worth laying off the procrastination for this one. It’s not something unimportant like an exam (just kidding, school is important), it’s where you will be spending every day. It’s worth jumping on when you can.
6) Trust the online reviews of landlords
We haven’t necessarily been giving landlords the easiest time here. And oftentimes they deserve the harsh criticism that gets doled out. Sometimes however, they don’t. In thousands of landlord searches for Cribspot, I’ve only come across a few dozen overall positive Google or Yelp reviews. And it’s not too difficult to understand why. Unlike a great restaurant, where there is a single experience that you can evaluate positively or negatively, interactions with a landlord occur over an entire year.
Now if there is bad experience in that year time frame you are looking for an outlet, a means to bring that landlord to their knees for taking so long to fix your water heater. But how likely would you be to take the initiative in the reverse situation? When the water heater is fixed in a single day, you assume they are just doing their job. When I lived in a house in college I loved my landlord the entire year - he repainted our house, was prompt with repairs etc. Until I felt he took too much from our security deposit, at which point I went online and left him a bad review… The moral of the story is to take the reviews online into consideration, but don’t trust them wholeheartedly. Speaking with a current tenant is a better alternative when possible.