Apartment Hunting? Use This “Road Map” To Help You Find A Great Rental

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When it comes to scoring the rental you want, little things can make a big difference. Here, Jonas Bordo of Dwellsy offers eight pieces of advice that will help you maximize your apartment search.

Los Altos, CA (August 2023)—If you’ve searched for an apartment recently, you’ve probably noticed that the market is competitive—or, depending on where you live, downright cutthroat. It’s not your imagination. In addition to inflation and the aftereffects of a bonkers pandemic rental market, the U.S. is experiencing a nationwide housing shortage. Since 2015, the amount of affordable apartments (defined as having a monthly rent of $1,000 or less) has declined by 4.7 million.

Despite near-record deliveries of new apartment buildings, says Dwellsy cofounder and CEO Jonas Bordo, it might take a while for supply to catch up with demand—which means that renters need all the information they can get about supercharging their search.

“If renting an apartment is the destination, it makes sense to start your journey with detailed directions so you don’t veer off course, hit a dead end, or take the ‘slow way,’” says Bordo, coauthor, along with Hannah Hildebolt, of Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-2-8, $21.95).

“Where you search for rentals, how you evaluate them, and how you go about applying for them can all be determining factors in whether you end up renting a place you love…or regret,” he adds. “That’s especially true in today’s volatile and often competitive rental market.”

With several decades’ experience as a renter, landlord, property manager, and current CEO of the largest U.S. rental marketplace, Bordo is a trusted authority on all things rental-related. His upcoming book, Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask (available for purchase on August 1), is exactly what the title says: a comprehensive guide to help people “win” at renting. It covers the entire process, from preparing for the rental search to getting your security deposit back after your lease is up—so keep your copy handy as you navigate the wild, weird world of renting.

Here, Bordo shares eight tips that will help you zero in on a rental that will truly feel like home—whether you’re a first-time renter or a seasoned pro:

First, get your paperwork in order.

Before you even start searching for available apartments, Bordo recommends rounding up the documents you’ll need. This allows you to identify any gaps and ensures that you’ll be ready to move immediately if the perfect place pops up. While every application is different, most require:

  • Pay stubs or bank statements
  • Driver’s license, state ID, passport, or green card
  • Social Security number
  • Checkbook
  • If you have a car: vehicle registration and insurance
  • If you have a pet: pet registration (if you have it)
  • Renters insurance (if you have it)

“I also recommend checking your credit score, cleaning up your social media if necessary, and identifying a few people (like bosses or former landlords) who can write strong reference letters for you,” says Bordo.

Know where to search.

Stay away from anonymous sites like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and unbranded rental listing sites unless you want to get scammed. Well-known sites that charge landlords to list properties are safer bets, but because they do charge, the variety of listings can be limited.

“At Dwellsy, we take a different approach,” says Bordo. “We don’t charge landlords to list properties, so we have a pool of over 14 million diverse listings—most of which you won’t find on pay-to-play sites. At the same time, Dwellsy actively works to be a fraud-free space by verifying each listing. Before posting a property, landlords must go through a multi-step authentication process.”

Be ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Here’s the most important rule of searching for an apartment: You must be first. First to inquire. First to apply. First to sign a lease and pay the deposit after the application is approved.

“Most landlords process inquiries and applications in the order they’re received,” says Bordo. “If you’re second in line to see a place, your odds of getting it aren’t as high as they would be if you were first. If you’re fifth in line, your odds are 5 percent or less. And here’s the thing: In a really hot market, the difference between first and fifth place can be just a few minutes.”

Submit a winning inquiry.

Once you’ve identified a few rentals you’re interested in, it’s time to reach out to landlords. In addition to being speedy, Bordo recommends using professional language and avoiding chatspeak (e.g., “u” for “you”) in messages. When making an initial inquiry about an apartment, call and email the landlord, and ask to set up a meeting. Then, keep an eye on your phone and respond to all calls and messages promptly.

“Of course you have questions about the apartment, but unless something glaring was missing from the listing, now is not the time to ask most of them,” he says. “For now, your goal is simply to get a tour on your calendar, as soon as possible.”

Book the first available showing.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Bordo urges you to take the first available tour appointment. Yes, even if you have to miss lunch, duck out of work for an hour, or cut your weekly soccer game short.

“I once lost an apartment to two women with a briefcase full of cash who paid six months’ rent up front, right as I was showing up for a tour,” he recalls. “If I’d been there an hour earlier, I would have locked in the place instead.”

Tour like a pro.

If at all possible, visit apartments in person before signing a lease. Don’t rely on online photos and descriptions, which can be very misleading or downright fake. In addition to “obvious” considerations like location, amenities, and size, look for signs that a property is functional, clean, safe, and well maintained. Even something “small” like a leaky faucet might indicate a lax attitude toward maintenance, for instance.

“Come to the walk-through with a list of questions to ask,” says Bordo. “These should range from ‘How much are utilities?’ to ‘How do I report a maintenance problem?’ to ‘Are there any specific restrictions I should know about?’ to ‘What’s the parking situation?’ Just try to avoid asking questions that have been answered in the listing—it’s a pet peeve for many landlords.”

Submit a strong application.

A vacant property means no income, so most landlords take the first applicant who fits their needs. Ergo, bring the necessary documents and information to your tour so you can apply on the spot. (Remember Bordo losing that apartment to the women with a briefcase of cash?)

“If you have extenuating circumstances—ranging from less-than-stellar credit to a large pet—you can think about providing ‘extra’ documentation like a cover letter,” says Bordo. “It’s a good opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the rental and explain how you plan to be a good renter.

After submitting your application, keep in touch with your potential landlord and promptly send any additional information they ask for. When you apply, ask the landlord when they expect to reach a decision so you’ll know when to reach back out to them without appearing pushy.”

Read your lease. (Yes, every word.)

A lease is an enforceable legal document once the landlord and renter sign it—so be sure you understand and are okay with everything in it before gracing it with your signature. Most leases cover how much your rent is, how long your lease lasts, what the landlord’s and renter’s responsibilities are, and other rules and regulations that apply to the property.

“Note any other clauses that might affect you, like how many people can live in your place, whether you can have a pet, what the landlord’s right of entry is, and if there are any community rules or banned activities,” Bordo advises. “You want to identify any dealbreakers before signing the document. And if there’s anything you want to negotiate, be sure to do that before signing, too.”

“That’s it—once you sign the lease, you’ll be ready to pay your deposit and first month’s rent, get your keys, and move into your new place,” says Bordo. “The better prepared you are—and the more insider information you have before beginning your apartment search—the more likely you’ll be to find a rental that fits your budget and personal preferences.

“One last tip,” he concludes. “Throughout this process, remember that landlords and property managers are people, too. You’d be surprised by how often communicating with courtesy and politeness gives you an edge over other prospective renters. Landlords have a strong incentive to find renters who will treat them and their property with respect.”

If you run into a question or would like more support during your apartment search, check out Dwellsy’s blog. You’ll find dozens of posts on topics ranging from filling out a rental application to avoiding scams to negotiating a lease.

The “Big 24” Checklist for Renters (Don’t Tour an Apartment Without It)

Insights from Jonas Bordo, CEO and cofounder of Dwellsy, and coauthor along with Hannah Hildebolt of Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-2-8, $21.95).

Picture this: You’re walking through a prospective apartment. As you move from room to room, your thoughts go something like this: I love all this natural light. The paint color will look great with my furniture. Granite countertops—that’ll be an upgrade over my last place. The living room looks really spacious. Oooh, nice view! Etc.

If this scenario seems familiar, you’re doing apartment tours wrong. While these are all useful things to notice, you shouldn’t just be breezing from room to room, taking in whichever features catch your eye. Instead, this is your chance to proactively investigate each nook, cranny, and detail of the rental. Think of the tour as a fact-finding mission with important stakes: your future comfort and happiness.

Here, separated into the rooms you’re most likely to see, are 24 things to check out during your next apartment tour.


  • Do the locks work, and are the doors secure?
  • Do the windows open and shut without issue?
  • Do the outlets work? Bring a phone charger with you to check.
  • Do the light switches and fixtures work?
  • If there are laundry machines, do they look clean and functional?
  • Is the paint scuffed or chipped? Do the walls have nail holes or cracks in them?
  • Is the flooring clean and well maintained? Or are there scratches, bumps, loose tiles or boards, etc.?
  • Are there smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and/or fire extinguishers?
  • Is the unit heated and cooled? If so, does it use central air-conditioning or window units? If not, will you be allowed to install your own window unit?


  • Do the faucets work? How’s the water pressure?
  • Does the sink drain properly?
  • How’s the storage space in the cabinets?
  • Is there any evidence of pests? You’d be surprised by what you can find and how much heartache you can save yourself by opening a few floor-level cabinets.
  • Do the appliances look like they’re in good working order? Will you need to provide any appliances (such as a microwave) yourself?


  • Is there a closet? How’s the storage space?
  • If there’s a fan, does it work on all speeds?
  • Is there room for your bed? Bring a tape measure and don’t be afraid to use it.


  • Do the faucets work?
  • Does the sink drain properly?
  • Does the toilet flush well?
  • Does the shower work? How is the water pressure? Is the head mounted firmly into the wall? Does it drain correctly?
  • Is there any sign of mold or mildew?
  • Is there any evidence of past leaks, such as discolored or warped flooring?

Living Room:

  • How does the sound travel through the walls? If someone is standing in the next room over, close to the wall, can you hear them?

Docs, Digits, and Other Details:

Eight Types of Info You’ll Need for Your Rental Application

Insights from Jonas Bordo, CEO and cofounder of Dwellsy, and coauthor along with Hannah Hildebolt of Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-2-8, $21.95).

The sooner you can submit a rental application, the greater your chances are of scoring the apartment you want. If possible, plan to fill out an application before leaving the tour. In the time it takes to go home, dig up required documentation, and send copies to your prospective landlord, someone else might have locked in your dream apartment.

In order for your application to be first in line, you’ll need to come prepared with some key information. While not every rental application looks the same, there are some standard questions you can expect to see.

Here are the most common types of information you’ll be asked to provide, and which documents you’ll probably want to have on hand.

Personal/contact information.

This is standard stuff. You’ll likely be asked your name, current address, phone number, birthday, and email address. Make sure you provide an email that you check regularly so the property manager can reach you.

Financial questions and employment information.

The landlord will want to assess your financial situation to be sure you can make rent payments on time. The rental application may ask about your current employment status, employment history, and current income. Most landlords will look for someone with a gross monthly income of at least three times the rent. (If the rent is more than one third of your income, consider finding a roommate.) There will also be questions asking if you can pay the application fee and the security deposit.

Some landlords may ask if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy. If you have, but repaired your credit, you likely have nothing to worry about. Make sure you’re honest because it could come out during your background check.

Rental history.

Your potential landlord will also want to know about your history as a renter. They might ask why you’re moving and if your current landlord knows. They might also require landlord references, so you’ll likely be asked for your current and past landlords’ contact information from the past few years.

The application form will also ask if you’ve ever been evicted or broken a lease. If you have, be sure to take the time to explain why. It might not be a strike against you if you had a legitimate reason.

Screening information.

The landlord will most likely run a background check. Be sure to use the space on the rental application to explain anything that may come up in your history. The apartment application process also requires a hard credit check, so you’ll need to provide your social security number.

Your potential landlord will be more concerned with the information on your credit report rather than your actual credit score. For example, a good tenant will have a history of on-time payments. You should check your credit score before you apply, so you can explain any credit issues on your rental application. If you have bad credit or no credit history, you might have to ask a friend or family member with good credit to be a cosigner on your lease.

Lifestyle questions.

Your rental application may include lifestyle questions, such as if you will have pets in the unit. Be aware that landlords are not legally allowed to ask if you have a service animal or an emotional support animal. You may also be asked if you will have roommates and if you smoke. Some landlords prefer renters who are non-smokers.

Personal references.

Your landlord or property manager may also ask for personal references. Current or past supervisors or teachers may be able to provide a good letter of recommendation. Past roommates can also attest to how well you cared for an apartment.

Required and preferred documents.

Most landlords will want to see some or all of the following documents, so gather them up, scan them and/or make copies, and bring everything to your tour.

  • Photo ID (driver’s license or passport)
  • Proof of employment (offer or letter of employment)
  • Proof of income (recent pay stubs, tax returns, bank statements, etc.)
  • Asset documents (evidence of stock holdings, real estate, etc.)
  • Vehicle information and registration
  • Landlord, personal, or professional references
  • Contact information for you, your cosigner, and your past landlords
  • Information about your pet (e.g., vet records, any training certifications your pet has achieved, and your pet’s license if required by your city)

If you’re missing some of the required documents, reach out directly to the property manager or landlord and ask if you can provide substitute documentation.

A signed lease agreement and payment.

If your rental application is approved, you’ll be ready to sign a lease and pay your first month’s rent and security deposits. Be sure to read your lease in full before signing it, and get any amendments in writing—also before signing. Some landlords will want to take time to process your application and run background checks before taking this step, but others may be ready to proceed after the property tour—so bring a method of payment just in case.

It’s a good idea to make your first payment via check or credit card to avoid scams. Once you have moved in and established that your landlord is legit, feel free to pay with Venmo, Zelle, or any other method your landlord prefers.

Bonus: What landlords CANNOT ask on rental applications.

There are some questions a landlord cannot legally ask due to the Fair Housing Act. The FHA ensures that renters are not discriminated against based on certain characteristics. Landlords and property managers can’t ask about the following personal information:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (gender identity or sexual orientation)
  • National origin
  • Familial status
  • Physical or mental disability

There should not be any questions on the rental application or in any interview that bring up any of these characteristics. If such questions are asked, simply decline to answer. You can file a complaint online with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Ten Tips to Help Renters (Successfully!) Negotiate Their Lease

Insights from Jonas Bordo, CEO and cofounder of Dwellsy, and coauthor along with Hannah Hildebolt of Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-2-8, $21.95).

You’ve read your lease (Right? Right!), and most of it looks acceptable—but there are a few things you’d like to add or change before signing. Maybe a parking space isn’t included in your rent when you thought it would be, or you’d like the landlord to cover a certain utility. The good news is, nothing is set in stone until you sign on the dotted line. You are allowed to ask your landlord to add, remove, or edit clauses that don’t suit you.

That said, a little time spent preparing will serve you well in this area. Here are 10 tips to help you negotiate rent like a pro—while staying on good terms with your prospective landlord.

Understand what you can ask for.

When negotiating a lease, the first thing that may come to mind is asking for a price break. While that’s certainly on the table, there are plenty of other clauses you might want to amend. Large landlords and corporations in particular are often inflexible on base rent, but can cut prices in other areas. A few things you might negotiate:

  • Lower rent
  • Free month of rent at the beginning of your lease
  • Longer or shorter lease term
  • Free pet rent, parking, gym access, or other amenities
  • Landlord to pay utilities
  • Predictable renewal terms, such as negotiating a maximum rent increase or a guarantee that you can renew your lease

Compare your rental to others in the area.

One of the best tools in your negotiation box is research. Take a look around at comparable rentals in the area. Maybe a parking space is free for lots of them, or the rent’s a little lower, or there’s no pet rent. Being able to bring these facts to the table will make your negotiating position stronger. Your landlord could be more willing to give you something if they know other landlords in the area are doing it.

Know exactly what you want.

If you’d like your security deposit to be reduced, by how much? If you want utilities to be included in the rent, which ones? By having a list of concrete requests in place, you will reduce misunderstandings and allow your landlord to respond with accuracy.

Think about what you can offer.

Landlords are more likely to bend their lease terms if you bring something to the table in return. To sweeten the pot, you could offer to:

  • Help out with maintenance and/or yard work
  • Commit to a longer lease—e.g., two years instead of one (A landlord who doesn’t need to worry about filling a vacancy might have more financial wiggle room.)
  • Move in earlier
  • Pay a higher monthly rent down the road for free rent up front
  • Pay several months’ rent in advance
  • Not utilize a valuable parking space
  • Extend the termination notice from 30 days to 60 or 90 days

Understand your leverage.

If there were 20 people clamoring to submit applications at the tour, then the landlord can easily move on to another renter. If the place has been available for a little while and the landlord is still looking for a renter, then you have a better bargaining position. Still, keep your expectations realistic. If the rent is $1,500 and you want it to be $500, you’ll end up disappointed. But if you ask for a price drop to $1,400? You might have a shot.

Get the timing right if you’re renewing.

If you are renewing a pre-existing lease instead of signing a new one, don’t wait until the last minute. It’s best to start negotiating two or three months before your lease expires. This shows your landlord courtesy and gives you time to (potentially) find a new rental if you don’t come to an agreement. Plus, during this window, landlords are most likely to try their best to keep you as a tenant in order to avoid a vacancy.

Wait until you’re approved before you negotiate.

If you negotiate before you’ve even been approved, you might take yourself out of the running right away. After all, why should a landlord negotiate with you if other prospective renters might accept the lease terms as-is? However, if you negotiate after you’ve been approved, you already know the landlord is excited about you as a renter. They’ll likely be more willing to rearrange your contract a bit to suit you.

Be courteous.

Landlords are often portrayed as greedy villains in popular culture, but in reality, they’re usually individuals who are just trying to pay their own bills. Kindness and courtesy during the negotiation process will not only keep things civil, they may actually be the thing that convinces the landlord to accept your request. Landlords have a big incentive to work with renters who are considerate, polite, and professional.

Be prepared for some back-and-forth.

If you don’t receive a straightforward “yes,” take time to consider the landlord’s objections and/or suggestions. There’s a good chance they’ll come back with a few different options you hadn’t considered before. You’ll have to evaluate them and decide what makes sense for you. You might have to ask yourself: How strongly do I feel about the apartment? Am I still willing to rent on the terms of the original lease? How flexible can I be with my original ask? Is it possible I could concede something more?

Read the revised lease.

Once you and your landlord have come to an agreement, make sure that the revised terms are written into the lease and that you both sign it. Otherwise, your negotiations won’t be legally binding. This is not the time to rely on a verbal agreement or handshake.

About Jonas Bordo:

Jonas Bordo is the coauthor, along with Hannah Hildebolt, of the book Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster. He is the CEO and cofounder of Dwellsy, the free residential rental marketplace that makes it easy to find hard-to-find rentals.

About the Book:

Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-2-8, $21.95) is available from major online booksellers.

About Dwellsy:

Dwellsy is the renter’s marketplace: a comprehensive residential home rentals marketplace based on the radical concept that true, organic search in a free ecosystem creates more value than the pay-to-play model embraced by all of the current rental listing services.