MJ.$ Reader Asks: How Do I Find a Good Apartment?

by Matt Jones, CPA

MJ.$ reader Cecelia asks, “How do I find a good apartment… privately owned?”

I always recommend finding a small apartment building or renting a condo from an individual owner. I’ve done this repeatedly and the result is better living conditions, more flexibility and lower rent. Here’s how and why. 

Why would you want a small building or to rent a condo from an individual owner in the first place?

Cecelia specifically asked if I could help her find a privately owned condo or apartment in a small building. She lived in a large building, felt anonymous and without the ability to connect with management to negotiate rent. If you’ve lived in a large building, you know the feeling. 

Individual owners of houses, condos and small apartment buildings tend to be more flexible and willing to negotiate on rental rates. These owners also appreciate good renters because they have fewer of them and have personally dealt with bad ones (I can personally vouch for this). Because of that fact, they’ll work to keep a good tenant, so make sure you’re their favorite by:

  • Always pay rent on time, if not a day early
  • Maintain your unit and appliances
  • Let owner know quickly of small issues before they become big, expensive headaches 
  • Be polite to their staff and maintenance team (and your neighbors). You never know who’s related…
  • If another unit is available, try to help fill it. They may not give you a referral fee, but at least you have some say in who your neighbors are!

By following these simple rules, I’ve only seen my rent increased only twice in nearly eight years, (resulting in savings of approximately $10,000), repeatedly paid lower security deposits, and had first access to the best units in the building at a discount. 1 On the flip side, when I owned rental houses and managed to find great tenants, I never increased their rent to be sure they didn’t move out. In fact, I gave them discounted rent for helping around the property, i.e., cutting the grass.

How do you find these apartments/condos?

Finding a condo/apartment in a small building is harder than you think. These owners work hard to keep good tenants which leads to low turnover. But, when a unit opens up it’s likely to rely on word of mouth and free websites like Craigslist. In fact, I found my last condo and current apartment on Craigslist, although I listed my rental properties on Zillow.com. You might ask friends to let you know if they’re moving out of a good apartment and ask around when you’re eager to move (like Cecelia did). 

The original ad I found on Craigslist for the condo I rented for 4 years. I never noticed the cat until now

I’ve found that Craigslist is an often overlooked resource that can be excellent for finding just these sort of apartments. In fact, this was the key advice I gave to Cecelia. Now, that isn’t to say it makes finding an apartment easier, but it will specifically help you find a small building or individually-owned condo.

Some large apartment complexes will list their units on Craigslist as well (at an annoying frequency) so you’ll need to wade through those. You’ll also want to be on the lookout for scams, think of this as the old classifieds. Use common sense, a little extra caution and look for professional listings with high standards for renters (always bring a friend/family member when first going to view a privately owned or subleased apartment).

When you do look at a unit, expect many other people to be in the running even if your city isn’t as competitive as NYC. These sort of units tend to go quickly, often being scooped up without ever being listed, so leverage your network as well for word-of-mouth opportunities. I showed up with a deposit check in hand to offer the landlord and asked to sign a lease on the spot. 

That’s it. To save money and frustration down the road, use Craigslist in addition to other websites and be a good tenant. It’s simple, but not easy. 

Have a question of your own? Now you can ask it anonymously.


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