Last fall I published an article on how to rent an apartment sight unseen. It's a good article with solid advice and should be viewed as a companion piece to this one. However, it relies on the crucial step of having an on-site advocate to view properties on your behalf. The current stay-in-place orders make this step impossible or at least highly inadvisable. We must now learn to embrace the new world of virtual showings conducted entirely online.
Even though virtual showings have been possible for years, their use has been relatively limited to the relocation market until now. People on both sides of real estate transactions are stepping into this environment as newcomers. It's a rapidly expanding frontier rife for both innovation and exploitation.
When you cannot see an apartment in person you have to be extra cautious that you're not getting scammed. You must work around the absence of four out of your five senses when it comes to choosing a place, relying entirely on sight alone. You have to expect that photos and video have been heavily edited for online use. Landlords can pay for fancy digital gadgets that can make it easier to get a sense of an apartment and can make their operation seem quite luxurious when it's actually a slum.
There is a big difference between the virtual tours that were used in the pre-COVID era and virtual showings. Many virtual tours were created to lure prospective renters into booking on-site showings. They showcase the best aspects of a property and may gloss over, obscure or even omit problem areas. COVID-era virtual showings must not omit any part of the property. Many agents and managers may be hoping that their old photos and videos will suffice in this new marketplace. They won't.
While I cannot provide a full set of workarounds that completely counteract all of the drawbacks to apartment hunting entirely with virtual showings, I can provide some recommendations that will make it easier for you to find a place if waiting out the quarantine is not an option for you. Note that this article only applies to Chicago apartments. While some of these recommendations will work across the US, not all are valid in every part of the country.
1. Seek out some sample virtual showings online before you start your search in earnest.
Virtual showings are a very different experience to on site showings. Do some searching on Youtube and apartment listing websites for virtual showings of local properties near you and check those out to get a sense of the different technologies in use. Use these as training in how to spot property flaws, how to set aside digital bells and whistles in favor of the important data, and how to figure out what has been omitted or doctored for the camera.
2. Get a picture of the sign on the building with the Property manager's name and contact info.
In this environment, anyone can post an apartment listing for free even if they don't own or lease the property in question. Scams are always rampant in the apartment leasing industry and I am certain that they are going to skyrocket with all of these virtual showings.
In Chicago every apartment building must have a sign on the outside with the name and contact information for the property manager or landlord. This is the law. Some of these signs list a mailing address but others will list a phone number. Get a photo of this sign. Use Google Street view to confirm that the photo you receive matches the street view image, if possible. If the sign lists only an address, do whatever you can to track down the phone number that goes with it.
If there is no sign on the building, the landlord is already breaking the law. Move on to another listing. If your point of contact refuses to provide this picture, assume they are scamming you and move on to another listing.
3. Call the manager or landlord. Verify that your point of contact is authorized to be listing the property.
Of course once you get the manager's contact info you have to use it. Call them and verify that the apartment is on the market. The person listing the property may be their employee, their manager, or even a tenant looking to sublease. Either way, make sure that the owner or manager has in fact authorized the listing and that your point of contact is one of the authorized parties.
If the person listing the property is an agent, you can verify their license status at the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation's License lookup site.
4. Ask for all maintenance records for the apartment for the past 12 months.
A lot of problems can be hidden from digital showings with Photoshop and creative camera angles. Chicago landlords are required to provide a list of all building code violations and utility shut off notices for the property from the past 12 months when you sign a lease, but in the virtual environment you need to go a step further. Every landlord or property manager should be keeping records of maintenance work performed on their apartments. It is entirely reasonable for you to ask for copies of these documents.
Ask for a list of every call that they've received from the current occupants over the past year. Ask for a list of all work orders assigned to in-house staff for the unit in question. Ask for a copy of receipts for work performed by outside contractors and inspectors, including preventive maintenance such as pest control visits.
5. Ensure that none of the most common apartment violations in Chicago are present.
We've assembled a list of these in a four part series.
6. Learn to use video and image viewing tools to look in detail at every frame.
There are two types of online showings. Virtual tours use 360 degree still photography from fixed points in each room. Video tours, on the other hand, are movies filmed on site by a camera that moves around the property like any other movie. Tours are far preferable to videos, but either way, when they're all you've got to work with you have to be far more focused and use every tool available to inspect those images with a fine tooth comb. Learn how to move frame by frame through a video. (On Youtube you can do this by pausing the video and then pressing the period (.) and comma (,) keys.) If a video has an added soundtrack, ask for a copy of the original audio from filming, as the music may be covering up the sounds of a noisy neighbor or a creaking floor. Learn how to extract images from virtual tours and how to analyze them for signs of Photoshop doctoring.
Sometimes flaws in an apartment can be very small, such as stains on a ceiling or cracks in a wall. Take the CSI approach and look as closely as you can at every image provided to you.
7. Put the address into a search engine to find previous listings and details about the property.
The nice thing about multifamily buildings is that there's a high chance that other units in the building have been listed before, even if the one you're looking at has never been on the market. Real estate listings are rather persistent in search engines so it's pretty easy to find old ones from elsewhere in the building, or even of the actual apartment in question. Try and find those old listings and see if the photos are similar. Check if the prices are in line with those other listings, bearing in mind that different apartments in the same building may be different sizes and therefore command different rent rates.
Also look for any news that mentions the property. Bear in mind that in Chicago the news will usually avoid listing specific addresses, so make sure to also look for phrases like "the 1200 block of [Street name]" or "the corner of [street] and [street]."
8. Make sure every room in the apartment is fully included in the virtual showing.
I've taken lots of photos of apartments and from that experience I will tell you it is a pain in the butt to get good photos of bathrooms. It's a pain to get photos of any small rooms. Agents taking photos for the pre-COVID market probably skipped the bathrooms and may have omitted other important areas like the utility room and the closets because in a world of on-site showings these things didn't matter. Prospective tenants would have checked them out in person later. This is no longer possible.
Make sure that your virtual showings include every single nook and cranny of the apartments in question: inside closets, inside cabinets, underneath sinks, behind the shower curtain, under the stairs.
9. Make sure that the virtual showing includes demonstrations of everything you would do during a showing yourself.
When you're looking at an apartment in person you'll probably perform certain tests based on things that are important to you. You'll open and close the windows. You'll turn on faucets to check the water pressure. You'll turn on ceiling fans to make sure it doesn't wobble. You'll check that the bedroom door closes and latches securely. A virtual showing that doesn't demonstrate these things is not a true virtual showing. You need to be able to see the place warts and all.
10. If the virtual showing is of an occupied unit, request archival photos of how the unit looked when it was empty.
When you're looking at an occupied apartment in person, you're able to move furniture around to check for problems with the walls and floor that may be hidden from view. In a virtual showing you cannot do this. While asking for archival photos is not a perfect solution as it doesn't include any damage that the current occupants have done to the place, it will give you a sense of how drastically the place has been altered, used and/or abused in the interim.
11. If you are visually impaired, ask a sighted friend to assist you with all of the virtual viewings.
Most renters can adjust at least partially to an apartment market that relies entirely on sight. But what if you don't have sight to work with at all, or if your vision is impaired to the point where you cannot fully utilize the digital tools available? This is the time when you absolutely must phone a friend. Fortunately in the online era that friend can be located anywhere in the world. But even so, the person you pick should be someone that you trust with all of the details about how you live and what you prefer in housing. It must be someone who's willing to really work closely with you to find something that is safe and comfortable for you.
12. Strike any lease language stating that you have inspected the premises before renting.
If you manage to find a place via virtual showings, there's still one last step you can take to protect yourself just in case you arrive at the property and it doesn't match the photos/video. Most leases include language stating that the tenant has inspected the property in advance and is satisfied with the general condition and appearance. If the landlord is using the Chicago Association of Realtors' lease this is usually clause #2 on page 2. Strike this clause out and do not initial it.
If the landlord puts up a stink about you striking out that clause, you have a few other options available to you. One is to request that you only put down a portion of the required funds to reserve the property, providing the other half and initialing that section of the lease following an on site inspection on move-in day. Obviously this means you may have to decamp to a hotel if the place doesn't match the images when you arrive. You also have to be willing to eat whatever amount you put down to reserve the place. Another option is to instead request a waiver of lease break fees for the first 30 days, and to obtain that waiver in writing.
Obviously you will want to bring copies of the photos or video with you on move in day to use for comparison. There are several tools online that will let you download a copy of Youtube videos. It's tougher to extract images from embedded 360 degree video tours, but in the worst case scenario take screenshots and save those to your hard drive instead.
Have you attended any virtual showings this spring? If so, what have you learned from the experience? What advice can you provide to others in the market during this utterly upside down era of real estate? What sort of technology did you bring to the table to assist you in your search? Let me know in the comments!
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