Casually scrolling Zillow, with your feet up on the couch and The Real Housewives playing in the background, sounds like fun and games, and it is—until your lease is nearly up and you’re deep in the serious apartment searching stage. Then it’s time to get to business, especially in this wildly competitive rental market we’re currently living through.
Here to help us navigate the apartment hunting waters are Amanda Thompson, founder of interior design firm ALine Studio, and Matthew Kowles of The Finish, a service that pairs you with an interior designer, booked by the hour, to tackle projects of any size. Both know the market, know what dealbreakers to keep an eye out for, and what details you’ll definitely want, from closet space to safety features.
Scroll on for 10 must-know tips to help you find the apartment of your dreams in a (somewhat) stress-free way.
Meet the Expert
- Amanda Thompson is the founder of interior design firm ALine Studio.
- Matthew Kowles is an interior designer at The Finish.
If Possible, Work With a Realtor
Working with a realtor gets you access to the best apartments that are fresh on the market, sometimes even before they hit the market. “In a competitive rental market, like the one we are currently facing, you want this inside edge,” Thompson says.
Each city is different in terms of who pays the realtor fees, and what that fee is, so ask a potential realtor before committing so you know what you’re getting into.
Peek at Local Real Estate Offices
You’re likely already obsessively checking rental sites like Zillow or Redfin for any new listings that become available, but in addition to your daily scrolling, poke around your local real estate offices.
“In New York, many of the real estate offices are streetside and they post their listings in the window so you can walk by and get a sense for current market rents and inventory,” Thompson says.
Remember That No Apartment is Perfect
As any episode of House Hunters will remind you, very rarely will one apartment check off all your boxes. One that’s within budget might lack a space to set up your at-home office. One that’s outside of your preferred neighborhood might have the best morning light.
“A rule I try to remember, in apartment hunting as in life, is that perfection isn’t coming,” Kowles says. “If you are waiting for it and expecting it, the best opportunities will pass you by. That said, know your market and always press for something better if you can.”
Make Sure Common Areas Are in Good Shape
A clean unit is a must, but so is a well-maintained common area. “What is going on outside of the unit is usually a good indication of how the overall building is cared for,” Thompson says.
Good maintenance is key to headache-free apartment living and can, unfortunately, be hard to find.
Look for Good Bones
Assuming that interior design is essential to you—you are on MyDomaine, aren’t you?—look for an apartment rental with interesting architectural features and finishes. That way, it’ll be much easier to insert your personality and tastes into the space on a budget.
“You will simply be complementing what is already there versus a unit where you have to break the bank to make it look better,” Thompson says.
Make Safety a Priority
Safety always comes first, but especially in apartment buildings. Kowles suggests posing these questions to yourself as you’re touring potential apartments: Are the passageways clean and open? Where are the video cameras? Who can see you come and go? A good building is a safe building.
For better or worse (but hopefully mostly for the better!), part of apartment living is community: having neighbors and being a good one yourself. You don’t need to be BFFs with your neighbors, but you should know each others’ names and phone numbers. There’s safety in numbers.
Trust Your Gut
The saying “you know when you know” is very applicable to finding a rental apartment. Trust your instincts as to whether a space is right for you or not, even if it needs a bit of polishing, updating, or an injection of personality.
“I often find that my clients tell stories about how when they walked into a space, they loved the light, the windows, the bones of the apartment, but of course needed to update it vastly,” Thompson says. A fresh coat of paint and fresh décor will bring a space you just knew was the one for you to life.
Consider the Flow of the Apartment
“Efficient use of space is essential,” Kowles says. Before signing on the dotted line, make sure the floor plan and overall amount of square footage will work for your needs. “A studio loft-style apartment may be great for a bachelor, but a family of four will need something with more rooms and designated spaces,” Thompson says.
Create a List of Non-Negotiables
Before you step foot into a potential apartment, create two lists: one of non-negotiables and one of nice-to-haves. Those lists will keep you focused and on task during late-night Zillow scrolling and in-person showings, so you’re not dazzled by a new-build apartment (with a gym! and a pool!) that's out of your budget or blinded by a space littered with red flags but architecturally beautiful.
While everyone’s lists will look different, Kowles has a couple of non-negotiables of his own. “For me, great light overrides all other apartment dwelling concerns,” he says. “An apartment, no matter its size, should have a window in every room – yes, including the bathroom!” His other must-have? “Closets, closets, closets,” Kowles says. “It’s no joke. You want them.”
Beware of Red Flags
Above all, says Thompson, you want to make sure the space you are living in is structurally sound, with all the functionality you need to live your day-to-day life. Avoid red flags like large cracks in the walls, water stains (which indicate possible leaks or plumbing issues), drafty windows, or other serious—and expensive—dealbreakers.
Structure is important, but so is a space’s efficiency, for the sake of your utility bills. Drafty windows mean you will have to pump the heat in the winter or run the air conditioning unit that much more during the summer. It all adds up!