Loft

How to Do an Effective Apartment Search

After years of owning homes in the same city, I am moving to a new place and need to rent an apartment for the first time in over 20 years.  For an information decision-maker like myself, I needed to find a way to see enough apartments to get an idea of what is available but in a limited time.  I found an loft in a prime location in 3 days and this is how I decided to do it.

Make a plan

Since the new city is 600 miles away, I wanted to make the best and most efficient use of an apartment hunting trip and didn’t want to fall into an “analysis-paralysis” scenario.  So I decided that I wanted a decision on the new apartment as soon as I got back.  So my plan was:

  1. Plan a 3 day trip, with appointments set for the best candidates.
  2. Document the attributes of the place while actually in the apartment while the memory and impressions are fresh including pictures.
  3. Be able to make a decision quickly as soon as I get back.
I investigated using a broker to help with the search was the going rate was at least a month’s rent which I thought was a little high for booking some appointments and cartin’ my butt around.  I decided to go it myself using technology.

Know the requirements

Since I my day job is a systems architect, determining needs and requirements and then determining a solution to meet those needs is what I do all day.  So I should be able to apply those skills to this just like any other need.

  1. First step is to make a list of requirements.  Brain storm on what I want and need out of an apartment.  I used Evernote to capture this since I use it for everything and always have it with me.  Over about a week or two, I would record whatever thoughts I had around an apartment when I got them (either on my PC when I was at my desk, on my tablet, or on my mobile if I was out and about) in a long running list.  Things like “pet friendly”, “near transit”, “laundry in unit” where easily added but thought of others as they occurred to me.
  2. Then, when I think I was close to a good list, I organized the list into three categories; “must haves”, “should haves”, and “nice to haves”.  The “must haves” are deal breakers if the apartment didn’t have it.  The “should haves” are things that the apartment really should have if it is a good candidate but are negotiable.  And of course the “nice to haves” are items that are frosting on the cake.

Build the tool

Now that I have a plan and a good list of what I want out of an apartment, the next step was to quickly build a tool that allowed me to gather information and rate the place easily on the fly while I was there. Since I need the data in a structured format my first thought was a spreadsheet in my Dropbox.  But then after thinking more about it, I needed to be able to look at the data I was gathering in different ways or views depending on what type of analysis I was looking for.  Since I recently set up an Office365.com account that I am migrating my email to, I decided to use a SharePoint subsite to hold the data.

Since I was basing the apartment search around the appointments, I decided to create the SharePoint list on the “calendar” type.  This would allow me to connect to my Outlook calendar and also sort appointment by date.  I’ve been added some more fields to track some additional information like contact name, contact email address, URL of where I found the listing, and the final status if the apartment was a contender or not.

The next step was to add in the rating system.  I took my list of requirements I gathered and organized earlier and created new columns for each requirement, adding a field for a dropdown rating number. This allowed me to add the information to the list as I looked at the apartment, see if it had laundry in unit for example, and then be able to rate it appropriately.

In order to make sure that a score for each apartment was generated, I created a calculated field that contained a formula based on the score is that I entered in the other columns. Then I was able to weigh the requirements appropriately depending if it was a “must have”, a “should have”, or a “nice to have”.  “Must haves” of course have a very high weighing compared to others so those needed to be weighed the highest to better sort the apartments.  An example of my formula is below:

=[1 - Dog friendly]+[1 - Laundry]+([1 - Location]*1.8)
+[1 - Rent rating]+[1 - Size rating]+[1 - Space for office]
+[2 - Age]+[2 - Bi level]+[2 - Dog park]+[2 - Hard floors]
+[2 - Natural light]+[2 - Outdoor space]+[2 - Personality]
+[2 - Staircase]+[2 - Zipcar, City Carshare]+[3 - Closets]
+[3 - Fireplace]+[3 - Gym]+[3 - Location in building]
+[3 - View]+Bathrooms+Neighborhood+([Walk Score]/10-2)

I knew I wanted 1 view of the highest rated so I created one that had just a limited number fields like the title, location, rent and the rating and then only showed items that were scheduled for today or earlier. Another view I would like is a list of the contacts so that I can make the appointments, so that I can confirm appointments, and also notify them when I decided on an apartment. The last few I create it was around that time so that I would have a website version of an agenda for itinerary so I knew which appointment I needed to go to.

send this was based on a calendar sharepoint list, I was then able to add it to outlook so that I could see the appointments in my normal calendar. This allows me to quickly see what my next 1 I was where I was going to it cetera.

Finding the apartments

The next step was to find available apartments.  Classified ads are a good place to start and one of the most prolific places is Craigslist.  So I did a search within Craigslist for exactly what I was looking for including that it was San Francisco apartments in a particular part of the city, with a particular range of prices, and with the word “loft”  in the description. Most people could bookmark that page so that you can go continually visit the site looking for new listings or be more efficient and subscribe to the RSS feed of that search to feed into your favorite RSS reader (including Outlook).  Since I have Audrey, my personal digital assistant, I taught her to grab the listings and let me know if there’s anything new.

As I found new apartments to look at, I used Evernote to snapshot the web page listing so I would have a record for it and then added the appropriate information into my SharePoint list. After contacting them and arrange an appointment, I would set the date in SharePoint and my agenda got fleshed out.

I also look at other sources other than craigslist like hotpads.com, rentsfnow.com and others.  I would come across some of these in the Craigslist listings as additional sources and would do the same thing as Craigslist by setting up RSS feeds or screen scrape so that Audrey could gather the new listings together.

The apartment showings

When I landed in San Francisco, I knew right away what appointment I had to go to first based on my calendar and SharePoint list.  I would visit each apartment, rating them in SharePoint list as I saw them and taking photos.  When I was done with each appointment, I would take a moment and send all the photos from the gallery for that apartment into a note in Evernote with the address as the title.  I would also add any additional notes and thought  I had about the place in the notes area of the SharePoint entry for that apartment.  I also fixed up any other ratings that I may have missed.  Off to the next appointment.

After the three days of showings of apartments, I easily went back to my highest rated SharePoint view to see which apartment my algorithm thought was the highest rated based on my requirements.  If generally agreed with the algorithm from what I could remember about it contacted the first one on the list to tell them I’m interested.  As soon as I was approved by that apartment and everything was set, I did a mass email to the rest of the email addresses notifying  them that my search is over.  Also, since all the photos from the apartments were grouped together in Evernote, I was able to take the photos from my favorite and upload it into a Flickr photoset to share with my friends.

Less stress

Overall, an apartment search can be stressful. If you use to right technologies and the right mindset out of the gate, you can do it quickly and effectively with less stress. You can use all sorts of technologies and don’t need to use the ones I listed here, but you just have to choose something that you are comfortable with.


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