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How difficult is it to find an apartment in the USA as an expat, and how long does it take (how early should I look for it)?

In Germany, it's an immense issue, because the typical dismissal time is 3 months, and you usually look for apartments that will be available within 3 months :(

Is it possible in US to just call an agent 8 P.M. and find something available within a few days, say I like it and it's done? Or I should expect it to be similarly difficult like in Germany (seeing apartments only in a specific time a day, looking 2-3 months forward, having permanent job, seeing landlord personally etc., potential prejudices against non US-citizens)?

I'm asking about big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles.

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It might be easier if you could nail down a specific city. NY, and certain parts of LA will take longer. Most of Chicago will probably move more quickly. Either way, before you come, have former landlords write recommendations for you, as you'll want to prove rental history. –  Ben Burns Mar 19 at 12:16
    
realtor.com, rent.com –  Karlson Mar 20 at 15:59

11 Answers 11

In my experience (I'm from France), it's much faster than what you're used to in Germany. That said, the US is a big place, if you try to find an apartment in San Francisco or New York City, it's definitely going to take more time than in smaller, less expensive and less saturated cities.

Through friends (college) I was able to find an apartment in Orlando, Florida in a few days in 2009. I found my next roommate on Twitter in 2010. In 2011, I look for a house to rent, found one, and moved in within two weeks.

Bear in mind that most landlords in the US tend to prefer one year leases, so generally it's going to be easier to find apartments at the end or start of the schoool season (between June and October), since many people are moving in/out of apartments. That said I had decent luck finding a place in February and November, my landlords either gave me an initial short term lease (in order to ensure the lease would end at a favorable time for them) that was later renewed, or were nice enough to give me any minimum duration for the lease.

Make sure you ask a lot of questions and avoid assumptions. I didn't know much about the rights and responsibilities of renters and landlords in the US before moving and I definitely had to learn some stuff the hard way. For instance, you're generally expected to purchase renter's insurance on your own to insure your property while you're staying. Many states make that a legal requirement I believe. When you want to leave, there may be different legal requirements to notify your landlord, and in many cases your lease specifies how far in advance you must warn them that you want to end the lease before it renews — my most recent experience the landlord required notification 60 days before the anniversary date.

Good luck!

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Mentioning schools is good. Apartments near colleges are often going to be numerous, competitive, and have a near-annual turnover rate for many of the residents. Of course, you'd have college kids for neighbors, so that's something to consider! –  Brian S Mar 19 at 21:22

I'd like to add a few points to the excellent details in the other answers:

  1. Don't pay a broker's fee up front. This is almost certainly a scam.

  2. You don't have a US credit history. Outside of parts of a city with lots of students or ex-pats this may be an issue. You may be asked to provide other proofs of financial stability.

  3. Apartment photos on Craigslist can be very misleading. You have to see the apartment, or have someone you trust see the apartment. If someone else is seeing it for you, have them take lots of pictures.

Good luck!

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Even in those areas lack of credit history might be an issue. When she moved off campus in NYC after graduation my sister needed a cosigner on her lease. –  Dan Neely Mar 19 at 16:17
    
+1 for each point, from personal experience. Take the time to actually look at the offered apartments with your eyes, and make sure everything is actually in order. Prepare papers that prove your good financial standing, and prepare to pay 2-4 months of rent upfront. –  9000 Mar 19 at 17:09

I think it depends a lot on the city, since some have very active rental markets and others don't. It will also depend heavily on your budget, which amenities you want/require, and on other factors such as availability of public transportation and distance to downtown.

These are all factors that require someone who is familiar with the local market to give good advice about, which is why it would probably help a lot to contact a real estate agent in the area you are looking directly. Do this well in advance (as soon as is feasible) and follow their advice. They will know the typical time frames for their market. A good agent will be willing to do some leg work and help you with planning.

So you aren't scared off by a cost factor of hiring an agent, in the United States real-estate agents are normally free of charge for people who are renting/buying. At least that is the customary procedure in California, where I used to be licensed. Since regulations and market conditions can vary so much from area to area, though, I definitely recommend asking an agent who actually works in the area you want to live. They should at least be willing to talk to you over the phone or by email to offer you advice.

As far as prejudice against foreigners goes, I can't provide personal experience. I can tell you that it is illegal for an agent to discriminate on the basis of race or nationality. One still could encounter prejudice among the landlords, I imagine.

Also, I should warn you about rental scams, since some people might try to take advantage of your possible lack of familiarity with American customs and potential difficulties with the language. Even natives fall in to the trap, so I consider it an important thing to mention. In big cities this can be a major problem. Here is an article about what they are and some tips for avoiding them.

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Could you add info, what's the typical term to look in advance? Or there are many apartments available ASAP? Say, for big cities? –  Donaudampfschifffreizeitfahrt Mar 19 at 10:15
    
@Łukasz웃Lツ My best advice is to contact an agent as soon as is feasible. They will know how long a search generally takes and how much is possible to do without travelling in advance. In my experience it is faster to find an apartment than in Germany, but it depends on a lot of factors. –  Tim Seguine Mar 19 at 10:23
    
@Łukasz웃Lツ I edited in some more stuff to make my advice hopefully more complete and clear. –  Tim Seguine Mar 19 at 10:42

I would recommend going on Craiglist and visiting apartments, that's how most people do it.

The thing is, in bug cities like NY and SF, apartments are gone really quickly, so be sure to be ready to be able to pay on the spot.

Also a lot of landlords will ask for cash and a month or two for the deposit. So that can easily be $1500-2000 in cash.

But yes, I come from France and it was definitely a lot easier in the US.

Also if you are abroad and can't visit apartments, take an airbnb for a week to have time to visit apartment there.

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The short answer is, yes, it is possible to find an apartment that fast. However, it really depends on how flexible you can be.

Although it can vary from city to city, there are really two avenues you can take:

Broker

By broker, I mean you walk into an apartment brokerage and say "I'm looking for a [studio/1-bedroom/townhouse] for [$1200/$2100/$4000] a month, what do you have available?" There are dozens of these in any major US city. They will then setup appointments for you to visit and view any apartments that meet your criteria. If there are currently tenants living in any of these apartments who are on their way out, the broker will need to give them at least 24 hours notice that they will be bringing someone by to view the place.

If you find a place you like, the broker will contact the landlord/owner, and will take care of putting together the lease and running any necessary credit checks, etc.

As far as fees go, it is not at all atypical to expect to pay First Month's Rent, Last Month's Rent, a Security Deposit, and a Broker's Fee.

First Month's Rent = One month's rent

Last Month's Rent = One month's rent

Security Deposit = Often one month's rent, refundable upon inspection and move out

Broker's Fee = Often one month's rent*

*A note about broker's fees. The current landlord/owner will often agree to pay 50% or all of the broker's fee, instead of leaving this to the new tenant. Even if they haven't agreed to do either of these things, it is a good first step in the negotiation to ask if they're willing to cover/split the fee as a way of decreasing your initial investment.

Non-Broker

By non-broker, I'm referring to going at it alone. There are any number of apartment related website that you can presumably find on Google, but most Americans just use Craigslist (http://www.craigslist.com) - particularly for urban areas.

It's important to note that brokers also post listing on Craigslist. In fact, Craigslist has filters for "By Owner" apartments (therefore no broker's fee), "Broker - No Fee" apartments (by broker's, but where the owner is paying the fee), and "Broker - Full Fee" apartments (as laid out in the "Broker" section above)

Typically how this works is you email the owner (or broker, where appropriate) via Craigslist and state your interest in the apartment. You ask when it might be available for a viewing, and then wait for a response. Once you've seen the place and determined your interest, you can either take it for the asking price, or negotiate a lower monthly rate. It's OK to negotiate! Just don't be surprised if the landlord is unwilling to come down on their price.

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I've never heard of a broker like that in Los Angeles. The only similar think is Westside Rentals, and they charge (something like) $50. –  Jeremy Miles Mar 19 at 23:39
    
I'm sorry, a broker like what? Care to elaborate? –  kaishiro Mar 20 at 10:53
    
A broker where 'you walk into an apartment brokerage and say "I'm looking for a [studio/1-bedroom/townhouse] for [$1200/$2100/$4000] a month, what do you have available?" ' –  Jeremy Miles Mar 20 at 23:10
    
So you're not allowed to say what you're looking for when you're renting in LA? –  kaishiro Mar 21 at 20:13
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NY, Boston, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Some of those I got in Craigslist, and some through traditional brokers. I typically only use Craigslist now, but brokers can still be useful if you're looking for something specific (i.e. 2 bedroom with an eat-in kitchen and fireplace for around $2400). Then they can just pull up MLS and search for it. –  kaishiro Mar 21 at 22:33

Get a US bank account so you can make payments from it. Second, to avoid the complication of no credit or banking history, offer to pay six months' rent in cash in advance. You will also have to pay a security deposit. Many landlords will accept this. If you can pay the whole year in advance, they definitely will. In many places, paying for the whole year means only paying for nine months more than the down payment to get it--(first month, last month, one month security). Of course, if you've got a US SSN, credit history, etc. you don't need to do this.

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I'm American and I live in Washington D.C. I moved there pretty soon after college. I was able to find a room to rent in a huge house right outside of the city (Vienna, VA) within 3 days of starting my search.

I recently left for 6 months and when I got back and started looking for another place to live I found one in another suburb within about 4 days. If you know where to look you can have a place in no time flat.

I would suggest looking on Craigslist for whatever city you will be living in. All of the major metro areas in the U.S. have a section on craigslist. Just look under the sections marked for housing.

People will usually want to see some proof of income or that you have money and they will generally want 1 month rent as a security deposit (this is given back to you when you move out) and the first month's rent. In big cities be prepared to spend around $1,000, but I've read that housing prices in some cities (S.F. for example) are insane and people honestly have to pay $3,000 for rent. Land lords will also generally want to see a credit report. I'm not sure how they would deal with foreigners, but if you're in a city that has a lot of international visitors (N.Y., D.C.) they will probably have something worked out. You will generally have the choice of whether or not you want to sign a short or long term lease. If you sign a short term lease (3 months for example) you can stay longer, but everything then generally goes on a month-to-month basis.

You'll also generally have to give the landlord 1 month's notice before moving out.

I've honestly never used a broker so I have no idea about this, but if you will be in DC you definitely won't need one.

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Do not use an agency or a brokerage firm. This is a huge ripoff. Just find a place on Craig's list. It is harder in Manhattan or San Francisco, but very easy everywhere else in the country. Yes, you do need to visit in person first to avoid scams, but this is also true of agency-advertised housing. Of course if you are picky you can spend more time and find something nicer, or a better deal, or whatever. It may be helpful if you can provide proof of your income.

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(to clarify, my experience is only from renting middle class apartments in perfectly nice but not especially fancy areas. It is possible that if you have many special needs you will need to hire outside help.) –  hunter Mar 20 at 19:42

It is easy in most cities, the scenario you described sounds about right. NY and SF take more time.

Also, you don't necessarily need an agent. Craigslist (online classified ads) is very popular in the US.

It might be an issue that you don't have any US credit history. If you're moving because of your employer, and they can help out with housing, that could make things much easier.

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There's are twos separate issues here. The first is finding an apartment. If you have 3 months rent in cash, a way to convince the landlord that you are financially responsible, and are not too unreasonable, then you should be able to find a place within a day of looking and make an offer that day and have a lease signed within a few days. Apartments rent quickly in big US cities (often with 48 hours of coming on the market). The second issue is when can you move in. Just as in Germany, you typically have to give 2 or 3 months notice at the end of your lease that you are not renewing. I would not expect to show up in a big US city without a rental property arrange and expect to be able to stay in a hotel for a few days while things get worked out.

I would contact a local rental agent and ask. They will tell you how much lead time you need for a particular area.

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A couple of extra things that others haven't mentioned yet, which seemed to help me.

First, mention your situation right away to the landlord, and see how they respond. If they think it's going to be an additional hassle and they don't want to deal with it, move on. For example, many (as least where I am, in Los Angeles) want to do a credit check. I explained that this would get nowhere, or not be good, and they said "Depends on the credit check". I walked away from that one. I actually found a landlord who was a relatively recent immigrant, and they were more sympathetic.

Second, if you've got ways to prove who you are, that can help. There are websites at my work and my previous work with my photo on (and a few other things too). I showed them to my landlord and said (something like): Here's evidence of who I am, I'm not going to be able to disappear easily. If you could set something like that up before you leave, that might be helpful.

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