How to Find a Good Apartment Sight-Unseen

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Sometimes you have to move to a new city in a hurry. Sometimes that city is too far away for you to make two trips out for house hunting and your actual move. We’ve covered relocation a little in the past before but there’s a very special scenario that arises when you have to pick a new home without being able to visit any of your options in person. Today we’re going to give you some pointers on how to find an apartment in a different city sight unseen.

In some cases, people who need to move in these situations can ask their employer to put them up in temporary housing until they can find new digs. Some others may have family or friends with couches or guest bedrooms that are alright for a week or two. This is not for you guys. This is for the folks who are moving on short notice with no anchors in the new city, as well as for the very kind and generous folks who are serving as proxies for them.

Have an on-site advocate.

Online ads for apartments cannot be trusted. In some cases the photos included are actually sample apartments or even cobbled together from multiple different listings represented by the same agent. You need to be sure that you’re getting what you’re seeing. That means having someone on the ground (a proxy) who can attend showings on your behalf. It could be a real estate agent representing you. It could be a friend or relative living in the area. It could be someone from the HR department at your new office. It doesn’t matter who you get as long as they are representing you exclusively. Do not use a landlord’s agent or property manager for your proxy. You want someone who has no conflict of interest that could compromise their ability to tell you the truth about the apartments they’re viewing on your behalf.

Pay them.

Finding an apartment on your own is really time consuming. Finding one for someone else takes even longer and is even more annoying. If you want someone to give you their honest opinion, keep your concerns confidential, and do all the legwork for you, you need to pay them and pay them well. I’m not talking about pizza and beer here. That might work for the friends who are helping you move, but the going rate for a rental commission in most areas of the country is one month’s rent.

Even if you’re working with a real estate agent who’s likely to be paid by the landlord, be ready to pay them anyways. It will open up more options for them if they can show you places where the landlord isn’t willing to pay a commission. It will also ensure a higher quality of service from anyone you get to assist you. Remember that moving costs are tax deductible and, in some cases, can be reimbursed by your employer if you ask nicely.

Tell them up front what’s important to you.

Your person on the ground cannot read your mind to know what’s important to you. If you absolutely must have water pressure that will scour the top 3 layers of skin off of your back every morning they need to know that. If you have to go out for a quick smoke on the porch every night before bed they need to know that too. Make a detailed list of everything that’s important to you and anyone you’ll be living with and go over it item by item with your proxy.

Photos are great but videos are better.

Photos can distort things. It’s very difficult to get photos of small rooms like bathrooms. The best way to get a sense of the inside of an apartment is a video. These days unlisted videos can be shared on any number of sites while still remaining private between a few people. Make sure your proxy gets permission to film before the showing. They should film every step from the moment they arrive at the building until the moment they leave the building so you can get a sense of the front yard, common areas and parking situation as well as the actual apartment. Request that any videos sent to you are recorded and uploaded with the real sounds of the apartment environment included.

Measure, measure, measure.

Apartment sizes and room sizes vary wildly from city to city. Knowing the dimensions of the rooms in your current living space is pretty much mandatory if you’re doing a sight-unseen move as measurements are absolute. Have your proxy measure important rooms as well, particularly the rooms that will hold larger furniture like beds, couches and dinner tables. Don’t forget to also measure floor to ceiling, especially if you’ve got something tall like a china cabinet to bring along.

Keep the showings to a minimum.

I know that a lot of modern tenants will see upwards of 20 apartments before choosing one. When you’re working with a proxy you cannot put that sort of a burden on them. You’ll want to do as much as you can via email and phone call to the landlords you’re considering, and then send your proxy to only the top 3 at most. Remember that each showing takes at least 2 hours including travel time and getting the video and feedback to you afterwards. Even if you pile them all together into one day it’s a big ask. When you overload your proxy it becomes tougher for them to keep the different apartments separate in their memory.

Do not rent from friends or family.

You may hear through your personal network that someone in your new city has a place available to rent. Don’t do it. There is nothing that will tank an existing relationship faster than entering into a landlord-tenant arrangement with that person. I have never seen a friendship survive that sort of load. If you have to couchsurf for a few days when you arrive that’s fine. Anything longer than that and you should be staying in housing owned by someone who you only know of as a landlord.

Landlords become privy to many of the things that we do behind closed doors. These are things we would never want our friends to know about. You would not want your good friend to have to replace a toilet seat because you accidentally fell asleep on it while drunk and broke it. You would not want your good friend to have to sweep up your toenail clippings from the bathroom. Landlords look at your credit reports. Rent from a stranger and wash your hands of the arrangement when you’re finished.

Street View is your ally.

Google Street View is one of the most crucial tools you can possibly have for moving sight-unseen. Not only can you see what the area around a building looks like now, but you can often see what it looked like at different points over the past few years. When you’re in street view, click on the little clock symbol in the top corner to scroll backwards and forwards in time to each visit of the Google Maps cars.

While you’re at it, you might want to plug in the name of the building, the address (both precise and approximate) and the nearest intersections into the search bar of local newspapers to find out if anything major has occurred nearby. In Chicago you probably won’t find any news about specific addresses but you might find something about the “3000 block” of the street you’re considering.

Call the cops.

Real estate agents cannot and will not tell you about the safety of a neighborhood. Landlords won’t either. But you can ask the local police station about what’s going on and they will have the numbers and awareness to inform you. Call them and ask. Don’t be afraid to ask really in-depth questions. Ask them about graffiti. Ask them about things stolen from vehicles as well as from homes. Ask them about changes in crime trends over the past few years. Ask them about crimes that would never happen in your current city. If you suspect that the cops will not give you a straight answer because of how you speak, have a friend who can codeswitch call them on your behalf.

No matter what your view is about the police, these are the folks that are paid to know about local crime problems. Ask them if there are regular meetings with the community, and if so, ask for the agendas and notes from the past few of those meetings.

Rent direct.

When you’re choosing a place sight-unseen it helps to have as few middlemen involved as possible. You’re already going to be viewing via your proxy, which will by default add a layer of confusion to the process. Find listings that are posted directly by the landlord or their manager as opposed to those posted by a third party agency. You’ll want your proxy to be able to ask any questions at the showing of someone who has a chance of knowing the answers. Third-party agents usually cannot do this, either because of confidentiality agreements or because they haven’t seen the landlord’s standard lease yet.

Keep the lease short.

Sometimes when renting sight-unseen you get really lucky and wind up loving your new housing. Most of the time though it’s going to be a choice between something mediocre and something terrible. Moving on short notice already limits your options and moving by proxy will chop them down even further. Chances are good that your proxy will miss something. Their priorities will not be your priorities even if you’re a perfect communicator. Some element of their personal taste will always creep into the feedback they send your way.

Get as short of a lease as you possibly can without going below the length that would force the landlord to increase the asking price. If you love it you can always renew the lease, but if you hate it you don’t want to be stuck there for a full year.

Ask for another showing on move-in day.

Remind your new landlord when you schedule your move-in that you haven’t actually seen the place in person. Ask if one of their staff can give you a quick tour so you can get familiar with the new building. It will give you a chance to make a face-to-face connection with someone at the landlord’s office and it will help you fill in the blanks that might have been missed previously.

Of course you should also give the new place a thorough inspection before you start loading in furniture. Take pictures of everything, test all the light switches, turn on all the water faucets. But you should do that with any new apartment. The building tour is the part that’s new for sight-unseen rentals.


Have you ever done a sight-unseen move? What did you learn from the process? What did you do right? What would you have done differently? Let us know in the comments!

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Published by

Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.