How to search for and find a new rental during coronavirus

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This statistic should drive home the idea that finding the right apartment is more important than ever: “People have spent more time in their apartments during this pandemic than they normally would have in a year,” said Frances Williamson, director of SEO and content for Apartments.com. That was a finding shared at a recent company meeting. “Isn’t that crazy?”

The good news: Even in the midst of a pandemic, the rental market has continued to churn. So if you’re thinking about moving or currently looking for a new place in the Southland or beyond, here are some tips that should help.

How do I even search for a new apartment right now?

As with most other things during this pandemic, apartment hunting is best done online.

It is the part of the renting process that has changed the most, with landlords — from small single-building owners to mega-management corporations — offering safe alternatives to search for a new place.

The most popular new method: virtual tours. They take different forms, including 3-D virtual tours and live video chats with leasing agents walking around the space. Many units currently available to lease offer these online look-arounds.

“A lot of the market has shifted toward that direction,” said Evan Raciti, executive vice president of rental listing company RentHop. “A lot of the proactive landlords and agents are taking it upon themselves to put video tours online and make sure they’re able to send them to renters who are interested.”

If you still want to see a place in person, some landlords have systems to leave keys in dropboxes or with on-site employees.

“That’s a way to get around the lockdown order,” Raciti said. “So the agents aren’t actually present.”

Can the whole process really be done online?

For most places, yes — and it’s proving more effective than you may think.

According to Williamson, Apartments.com has seen record levels of users since an initial dip in mid-March, with digital content features such as unit photos and online messaging with prospective landlords accounting for massive surges.

According to a study conducted this month by Apartments.com and real estate research firm Kingsley Associates, Williamson said, 53% of surveyed tenants have toured an apartment virtually during the pandemic. And 63% of those who took a virtual tour said that was enough for them to make a renting decision.

“The part that’s been interesting to me is seeing how comfortable people are with this transition to online,” Williamson said. “I think part of it is the reality, the circumstance. But it doesn’t seem like there’s been much hesitancy.”

Rental agents have also begun pivoting to digital methods such as virtual consultations. And even before the pandemic, an increasing number of apartments had adopted online lease signings.

“With people not being able to go see communities as much, not going in person to fill out applications, that intent to go through the full renter journey online has definitely increased,” Williamson said.

Is it easy to find an available unit?

Yes, and somewhat to the surprise of those within the industry.

According to the same study, Williamson said, 40% of those surveyed want to move within the next six weeks, more than double the amount from before the pandemic. Raciti has noticed a spike in sublet listings, a potential indicator that more renters are looking to get out of their current agreements.

Much of this, of course, is driven by finances. But Williamson believes it could be the result of stay-at-home orders too.

“I think a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I’m sitting here in my apartment, and it makes me ready for a change,’” she said.

Whatever the cause, it has kept the rental market in motion even as many other parts of the economy have screeched to a halt. More than two months into many shutdowns, inventory has remained steady.

“It’s working at a relatively good rate,” Raciti said. “You’d be surprised. We’re seeing deals getting done.”

What about prices?

According to Raciti, unit prices have remained generally steady and could actually be set to drop in the near future.

“Landlords are always going to try to keep their rent roll looking good,” he said. “So they won’t want to drop the prices right away.”

Instead, the prevalence of “concession offers” — such as a lower security deposit or free first month’s rent — has increased, especially in dense metropolitan areas.

“But if that doesn’t do the trick,” Raciti said, “you’re going to see a glut of supply the next couple months, and I would imagine we’re going to start seeing actual gross rent start dropping, along with the incentives increasing. So that could be a really good opportunity for people looking to move into the cities.”

What else should I consider?

For tenants who have a lease set to expire soon, Raciti advises looking into short-term extensions.

“A lot of this is dependent on their current situation, but a lot of landlords right now are more willing than ever to do short-term extensions on leases,” he said. “So if you wanted to give yourself a little time to think about where you want to land, I would say, reach out to your landlord and say, ‘Can we do a three-month extension?’

“Get yourself a couple months to get more visibility on where the market is and you come out of it finding, ‘Oh, the market is a lot more favorable to tenants,’ and you can get yourself a better deal.”

For those ready to move now, it might be worth expanding your search zone to look into more suburban areas if possible — a trend Williamson said has developed in recent months.

“It’s interesting to see,” she said. “Maybe because more people are interested in being somewhere else, or because jobs are uncertain, or people are sheltering the pandemic out of their home market. But it’s definitely been a shift that we’ve seen.”

But whatever you do, stay optimistic. Because even at a time where almost everything has to be done online and sight-unseen, there’s still a world of options available to renters ready to find a new place before this pandemic is over.

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