When it comes to getting the rental you want, there’s one important rule you must follow: Always be first. Jonas Bordo of Dwellsy shares seven tips to help make sure you don’t get stuck at the back of the applicant line (as well as a wild cautionary tale).
You’re on your way to tour a prospective apartment and feeling optimistic. It’s within your budget, in a great location, and has the right amenities. As you enter the building, you see two women handing a briefcase to the landlord. He opens it, and you see that it’s full of…cash? (What?!?) The landlord shakes hands with the women, then turns to you with a sheepish expression. Yep…these two ladies have just scooped your dream apartment.
Too far-fetched? Nope, says Dwellsy co-founder and CEO Jonas Bordo. He was once the disappointed renter in this exact scenario.
“It was a bummer, but I did learn the most important rule of searching for a rental: Always be first,” 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). “If I’d scheduled my tour even an hour earlier, I would have been the one signing a lease—and not even six months’ rent up-front in cash could have stopped me!”
His point? You might find yourself up against some tight competition during your apartment search. Even a few minutes’ delay in submitting an inquiry or application could make the difference between scoring new digs…or going back to the drawing board.
Fortunately, there are steps renters can take to streamline their apartment search, all of which are covered in Bordo’s upcoming book (available for purchase on August 1). 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. Bordo himself has several decades’ experience as a renter, landlord, property manager, and current CEO of the largest U.S. rental marketplace, making him a trusted authority on all things rental-related.
Here, he shares seven tips to help you stay first in line as you look for a new rental.
First, understand how landlords operate. Applying for an apartment isn’t like applying to a job or college. Landlords don’t wait to amass a pile of applications, then pore through them to identify the “best” tenant. For financial and legal reasons, most landlords respond to inquiries, schedule tours, process applications, and take deposits in the order they’re received.
“Finding a rental is very much a first-come, first-served process,” confirms 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.”
Get clear on what type of rental you’re looking for. Make a list of what you want in an apartment: your must-haves, your dealbreakers, and things you’re willing to compromise on. Having your priorities sorted out beforehand will make it easier to move quickly when you see a promising listing: “This checks all my boxes—I’ll send an inquiry email right now!” You’ll also spend less time waffling on rentals that aren’t the best fit.
Get your paperwork in order before sorting through listings. 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:
“If several people are interested in a property, the landlord isn’t going to wait on you to go to your safe-deposit box and dig out your Social Security card,” Bordo says. “They’ll go ahead and process the application of the person who has all their documents in-hand.”
Submit your inquiry via multiple methods. When making an initial inquiry about an apartment, call and email the landlord, and ask to set up a meeting. (Or send a text if that’s a given option!) 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,” Bordo says. “For now, your goal is simply to get a tour on your calendar, as soon as possible.”
Book the first available showing. Yes, even if you have to miss lunch, duck out of work for an hour, or reschedule a date with your significant other.
“Remember, you want to tour the apartment before someone shows up with a briefcase of cash…or, more likely, before someone simply writes a deposit check,” he reminds.
Submit a strong application—on the spot, if possible. A vacant property means no income, so most landlords take the first applicant who passes the application process, signs the lease, and pays the deposit. Ergo: Bring the necessary documents and information to your tour so you can apply on the spot.
“Afterward, keep in touch with your potential landlord and promptly send any additional information they ask for,” Bordo recommends. “When you apply, ask the landlord when they expect to reach a decision so you’ll know when to reach back out without appearing pushy.”
Don’t rush through reading your lease. Easy there, tiger—don’t be so eager to lock down an apartment that you skim through the lease. It’s important to read 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.
“You want to identify any dealbreakers or areas of concern before signing the document,” Bordo says. “And if there’s anything you want to negotiate, be sure to do that before signing, too. Even at this stage of the game, though, don’t procrastinate. The apartment isn’t rented until you’ve paid a deposit and signed the lease, so until both of those things are done, it’s possible someone else could scoop the apartment.”
“I’ll never know if those two women had just robbed a bank, were supervillains, or if carrying around a briefcase of cash was just how they rolled,” reflects Bordo. “But I do know that if I had moved with a bit more urgency, I might have found a new place to live that day. From then on, ‘always be first’ was my rental-search mantra—and I urge you to adopt it, too.
“That said, I’ll leave you with a word of caution: Even as you move quickly, be alert to signs of fraud,” he concludes. “Scammers prey on renters who are desperate to find a nice, affordable apartment, pressuring them to send money very quickly—often before touring the property. If someone urges you to send a deposit right now to lock in your spot, that’s a big red flag. While real landlords may let you know you could lose the place if you don’t take action, they rarely use hardball tactics to close the deal because there are multiple interested renters.”