When Should You Start Your Apartment Search?

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When I worked as an agent I frequently met with renters who were looking for apartments way too far in advance of their move date. They would go out on tours with me and the landlords' agents would invariably be disappointed when they heard how long they would have to wati for my clients to move in. The "sweet spot" for scheduling your apartment search is different depending on the time of year, your source of payment and whether or not you're working with an agent. It's important to time things so that you make the right impression on the landlord, get to see the most apartments possible, and not get swallowed up by the crowd.

Today we're going to go through various apartment search start dates and discuss their associated benefits and drawbacks. As a general note, if you are using a housing voucher for your search you will want to start at least 4 weeks earlier than everyone else. This allows time for the unit to be inspected and for CHA to verify the rent rate.

I always recommend that renters move into units that will have been empty for at least a few days beforehand. This allows the landlord to properly clean and patch up the place before you put all your precious belongings inside. It gives paint time to fully dry and residual stench from previous tenants time to clear out. However, landlords will go to any extent to have you move in within 24 hours after the previous tenants move out - I call these "just-in-time" vacancies. If you go with a just-in-time apartment you will wind up having to do a lot more cleaning yourself, but you'll also have more options to choose from.

According to the Chicago landlord-tenant ordinance, the earliest a landlord can ask a tenant to renew their lease is 90 days before it expires. Therefore, we begin at 90 days, or 3 months, before your target move date.

3 months before your move

What is available direct: Apartments that will be empty a month before you need them. The landlord will not consider you for them as they would have to keep the place empty for a month. Seriously, very few people tell their landlord that they're moving a full three months in advance.

What is available to agents: Landlords will try to rent places on their own for several weeks before they agree to cough up an agent's commission. Chicago agents can generally only show apartments if the landlord is willing to "cooperate" - this means paying them. Unlike other cities like New York, in Chicago it's practically unheard of for the tenant to pay their agent's commission. At 3 months out the only thing agents will be able to show you are model apartments in high end luxury buildings.

How you appear to the landlord: You are just browsing, or, you are incredibly picky and self-centered. You show no regard for how the business runs and are only concerned with finding the perfect apartment that satisfies every one of your special snowflake needs.

Verdict: Worst possible option.

10 weeks

What is available direct: You will start to see the first just-in-time vacancies. You will not find any empty apartments that a landlord will be willing to hold for you. The current tenants will probably be fastidious professionals who keep their places relatively tidy. However, these apartments will be owned by strict landlords who send out lease renewals as early as they can get away with. The selection won't be the greatest yet, since tenants dawdle on sending in their renewals. You'll probably be the first person to view a lot of the listings, so don't be surprised if you walk in on some horrid messes.

What is available to agents: 10 weeks out is too early in the process for agents to have much to show you.

How you appear to the landlord: You still come off as picky if you're looking this early. However, this does give you the best chance of standing out from the crowd, so if you have a weaker history you may do better at getting approved by going for the 10 week option.

Verdict: OK if you're searching on your own, terrible if you have an agent.

2 months

What is available direct: The absolute best just-in-time selection. Most of your direct-to-landlord listings will appear between 45 and 60 days before they are vacated. You might be able to catch some units that will be empty a month before your move date, but they will be pre-renovation versions of apartments that the landlord is planning to remodel after the current occupants leave.

What is available to agents: Still not very much.

How you appear to the landlord: Like any other average tenant, maybe a little early but nothing to worry about.

Verdict: One of the best options on your own, provided you're OK with a just-in-time vacancy. The absolute best option for Section 8 renters.

6 weeks

What is available direct: This is peak time. This is when landlords stop waiting on tenants to return their lease renewals and put everything on the market. The best of the just-in-time apartments will be picked over already, but a whole bunch of stuff will still be coming on market. However, landlords will sometimes use these "past the deadline" showings to scare their current tenants into signing a renewal. A few places might get yanked out from under you when the current tenants decide to stay.

What is available to agents: Glory hallelujah, the agents are finally starting to get some listings! The big guys who work with locators will send many of their just-in-time listings over to the agencies at the six week mark.

How you appear to the landlord: "Who were you again?" Be ready for a lot of competition out there.

Verdict: Good if you're working direct and have a stellar history, great if you are working with an agent.

1 month

What is available direct: Not many just-in-times will be left by now. However, if you're making the smart choice and going for vacant units this is your best time to do it. They'll be messy and probably need some patching but there will be plenty of them.

What is available to agents: Everything that the landlords couldn't fill just-in-time. All the month-to-month rentals. There are a bunch of landlords who only send listings to agents after they're already vacant, as agents are not well known for giving proper notice to current renters in occupied units. What you see may be overpriced, so make sure to compare rent rates with nearby alternatives before applying.

How you appear to the landlord: A saving grace taking an apartment off their hands when they'd all but given up on filling it.

Verdict: Best time for working with agents on just-in-time and empty units, Great time for working direct on empty units. If you are searching in the off-season this is the absolute earliest you should start.

2-3 weeks

What is available direct: Vacant units, and this time they will be cleaned up and move-in ready.

What is available to agents: Listings that have already been in the hands of agents for a month and haven't moved. What's wrong with them?

How you appear to the landlord: You are the perfect tenant. You are looking at exactly the right time to match the landlord's concept of an apartment search.

Verdict: Our favorite time to search direct, provided you can be chill about not knowing your new home until this close to your move date. Great on-season, great off-season. Not so hot for working with agents.

1 week or less

What is available direct: Only the bottom of the barrel is left here. There will be a handful of places that were occupied by fussy tenants that refused showings but moved out early, but most of the listings will be junk: basements and weirdo freaky apartments.

What is available to agents: There is actually a smattering of just-in-time rentals that hit with just a week remaining. The landlords are panicking and think their listing agents can work miracles. In many cases they can, as these are often snagged by renters relocating from other cities on short notice.

How you appear to the landlord: "So you just got dumped, huh? Let's find a place for you that isn't your best friend's couch." "Who just evicted you?" You're expecting to dangle some money in front of the landlord so you can snag a last minute place without a background check. Sketchy!

Verdict: Terrible if you're working direct at any time of year. Decent if you have an agent.

In closing, a word of warning. Many renters think that they must find their new apartment before they decide if they're going to stay in their current place or move. This is a very bad attitude, although totally understandable. Your landlord knows how long it takes to fill their apartments. If you need to leave your current place, notify your landlord by their renewal deadline. Go on faith that you will find something that will serve in the time between that deadline and the end of your lease.

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Published by

Kay Cleaves