Dear Future Renters — Some Crucial Things to Know BEFORE You Look for Apartments in Boston

It’s happening.

Posts from bright-eyed, hopeful renters are rolling in with really outlandish hopes and questions like “Where can I find a $400/month 1-bed in Kendall Square?”....yikes.

I was compelled to write this post to pre-answer some of the questions I’m anticipating and manage people’s expectations a bit BEFORE they look for apartments.

For some background, I’ve been working on Jumpshell for the past year and I’ve had an awesome time meeting and helping lots of people looking to rent in Boston.

Without further whatever, here are some helpful things to know about apartment hunting in Boston before you start looking.

1. You’re not going to find the “perfect” apartment.

Lots of people are disappointed when they don’t find their dream apartment. DON’T BE!

It’s not the product of bad luck or running out of time. Most of the time, a renter’s dream apartment simply doesn’t exist. Here’s a great example: About two weeks, a renter emailed me asking for help finding a furnished, 1-bed apartment within a 15-minute walk of Harvard Square for $700/month with a mid-August lease.

To anyone who wants an apartment even remotely close to that, this apartment does not exist in Boston — even if you had limitless resources (time, money, connections, etc.).

To avoid desperation and going crazy, you need to be flexible and willing to make concessions on price, roommates or commute time. It’s just a healthier mindset.
And just because you won’t find your perfect apartment, it doesn’t mean you won’t find an apartment you really like!

2. Below average budget = roommates or longer commute.

The average per-person rent in Boston is a little over $1,000/month.

If your budget is below that, you’ll have to make one of the aforementioned concessions — either adding roommates or living farther from Metro Boston.

For reference, I live about 10 minutes from the Central Square (Cambridge) T station with 4 roommates in a 4BR apartment and pay $600/month — and that’s a good deal.

If you know you don’t want roommates, you’ll have to look at towns/neighborhoods like Chelsea, Watertown, and West Roxbury to find 1BR apartments even close to that rent range.

In sum, don’t let anyone convince you that “cheap apartments” in Boston are a thing — they just aren’t.

Note: Just for fun, Google “cheap apartments in boston” and see what pops up. The top results are listing sites that show you apartments way outside of the city for $1,700+ per month, or “featured” listings in Boston where studio apartments start at $2,200. So bizarre.

3. EVERYONE wants to be “within walking distance” of the T.

You should expect to pay a premium to live within a short walk of a T station — or any hub of interest (like a college campus) — because everyone wants that.

A lot of people reach out looking for apartments and insisting that they “must be within walking distance of the T”. Essentially, it should considered a very desirable apartment amenity that many people are willing to pay for.

4. Sadly, Craigslist is still #1 for apartment listings.

There are a LOT of internet listings services (ILS) to choose from — Zillow, Trulia, Apartment List, Zumper, Lovely (just to name a few). Basically, an ILS collects apartment listings (i.e. ads) from different sources like rental brokerages, landlords and other ILS.
However, no matter how hard these sites try, Craigslist is still the leader for listings . In fact, 87.5% of renters start their search on Craigslist and they typically end there as well.
If you look at an ILS, looking at a different one won’t make much difference and at the end of the day you might as well just browse Craigslist.

5. Visiting apartments is FAR better than browsing listings.

To elaborate further — everyone knows Craigslist has serious issues (fake/duplicate ads, different brokers advertising the same apartment, etc.).

But even the best listing sites have problems. Redfin did a study in 2012 of Zillow and Trulia (the two biggest apartment listing websites) and found that “about 36 percent of the listings shown as active...were no longer [available].”

Bottom line, browsing listings takes a lot of time for very uncertain results.

If/when you connect with a broker, urge them to show you at least a few units instead of just doing a one-off showing. If you do a one-off and don’t like the place, you’ll have to start all over again with listings.

I’m really not trying to shamelessly plug here, but Jumpshell is trying to help people actually visit more apartments, rather browsing listings and going on individual showings. I’d love your feedback!

6. Some neighborhoods see big rent increases.

Rents in Jamaica Plain increased 7.2% since last year and Fenway/Kenmore went up 6.5%. With average rents (per person) in Boston exceeding $1,000, that would be like adding $780-864 to your annual rent bill. Ouch.

Do some research on which neighborhoods have had the most aggressive price increases — actually, I did that already. Check out the breakdown below!

Here’s the full breakdown by neighborhood in Boston:

  • Back Bay — -0.90%
  • Brookline, MA — 1.00%
  • South End — 3.10%
  • Cambridge, MA — 1.20%
  • Somerville, MA — 4.10%
  • West Roxbury — -1.00%
  • Charlestown — 2.50%
  • South Boston — 3.80%
  • Allston — 3.10%
  • Jamaica Plain — 7.20%
  • Roslindale — 1.50%
  • South Dorchester — 9.20%
  • Fenway — 7.00%
  • Kenmore — 6.50%
  • North Dorchester — 11.60%
  • Brighton — 2.80%
  • Mission Hill — 4.50%
  • Roxbury — 18.80% (yikes!)
  • Mattapan — 16.40%
  • East Boston — 10.00%

7. Getting an in-unit washer/dryer is rare.

This one’s simple, but definitely a question that comes up a lot. Not counting luxury apartments, only about four percent of apartments have in-unit laundry facilities. If you can settle for in-building, you’re MUCH more likely to find a place.

8. Connecting directly with a landlord can save you one month’s rent.

If you connect directly with a landlord, you don’t have to pay a broker fee (one month’s rent).
The best way to go straight to the owner is to check the by-owner section on Craigslist and browse the listings there, or you can check out this IFTTT recipe that Jumpshell made that will automatically email you new September 1st by-owner listings from Craigslist.
Note: Some landlords have “exclusive listing contracts” with brokerages in the city, so even if you connect with the landlord, they might ship you over to a broker to do some paperwork and you’ll have to pay the one-month’s rent fee. Super lame, but it just happens.

9. Talking with the current tenants makes a big difference.

Which of these is not like the other? Landlord, broker, current tenant.

Bingo! The current tenant has no vested interest in you renting the apartment, so they don’t gain or lose anything if you pass it up. They’ll give you the full scoop on the apartment, the building and the neighborhood.

Be sure to ask your broker or the landlord if you could have an opportunity to talk with the current tenant.

10. You don’t have time to “think about it.”

If you’re buying something like a couch, you get to shop around, take a while to think about which one you like, go see a few more and then make the best choice for you.

If you’re looking for apartments, you do not get that luxury. You should assume 4 or 5 other people are trying to rent any apartment you see — in fact, that’s pretty much the case.

If you see an apartment that you like, you will miss out on it if you take a few days to “think about it.” While you’re looking at other apartments or reviewing your notes about which apartment you liked best, someone else will see the same apartment and rent it.

Be ready to quickly apply for any apartment you see in person. Click here for more information on what goes into an apartment application.

11. Most apartment buildings in Boston are walk-ups.

You should definitely think about packing light. If you know you’ll be transporting some heavy stuff, do your best to guarantee that you have a squad of friends/family to help you on move-in day.

Lugging a couch up five flights of stairs is exactly what it sounds like.

If you’re looking for an elevator, you’ll likely be looking at more “luxury” buildings that command aggressive rents (like $2,000+/month for a studio).

12. It’s rare, but stuff CAN happen after you sign a lease.

Unfortunately, stuff can happen when you’re renting in Boston. Here are just two recent examples that have come up on r/boston:

  • Landlord selling house. Freaking out!?
  • Landlord cancels lease months after signed and paid

Note: These problems aren’t common. However, if you are one of the unlucky few who do encounter a crappy situation, it’s good to know where to look for help.

MassLegalHelp is a great starting resource for legal insight on private housing.

If any redditors know good real estate lawyers, definitely leave a comment and I’ll add the name up here!

That’s it! Feel free to send me a message with questions or reach out on Twitter.

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