You may have to start looking at listings to see how those desires fit into your budget, too. Some amenities you’ve come to rely on may be much more expensive in the city you’re moving to. The usual sites like PadMapper, HotPads, Apartments.com and Trulia can help give you an idea of what’s available, but see if there are any regional sites in that area, too. When I moved to Los Angeles, for example, I had some of my best luck with Westside Rentals, which specializes in West Coast cities. New York City, on the other hand, has StreetEasy.
Don’t look too deeply into the listings just yet — after all, most of them will probably be gone by the time you move (unless you’re already down to the wire). Just poke around to see what kinds of apartments are available at what prices and if your list of must-haves is reasonable for the city. Even if you’re working with an agent, knowing what you want ahead of time will save you (and them) some headache.
Schedule a trip and sign a lease
Eventually, you’ll want to actually visit the city yourself and pound the pavement. “I don’t recommend renting an apartment sight unseen,” Mr. Pullman said. “I’ve had clients do it, but that would be a last resort.” (Some landlords won’t even let you do so.) Plan a long weekend (or if you can spare the time, a week) to visit the city and see apartments; if you’re working with an agent, they’ll line up listings for you beforehand. If not, you can set up viewings yourself before you leave.
Don’t start lining them up too early, though, or they’ll be gone by the time you actually arrive. Your timeline will differ from city to city, so you may have to ask around to see how quickly units get rented.
“Here in San Diego, when a unit is marketed, it’s usually available, and it’ll go quickly,” Mr. Pullman said. “The sweet spot is about two weeks. Other markets might lock down a place months in advance.” In Boston, he said, many companies will market an apartment well before it’s available, and it’ll be rented before the current tenants move out. So book your trip, find out what the typical window is, then start lining up your showings that many days or weeks before you head there. Be sure to check Yelp reviews for the building or sites like Rate My Landlord and Review My Landlord before you sign the dotted line.
If you plan on filling out an application while in town, bring all the necessary documentation with you. Mr. Pullman says this could include a credit report, recent pay stubs or bank statements, and — if you have pets — photos and service dog certification, if applicable.
If all else fails and you don’t have the time or budget to make a trip, Mr. Pullman still recommends waiting to sign a lease until you can spend time in the city. If that means crashing with friends or living in an Airbnb for a few weeks, then do so; you don’t want to get locked into a terrible lease for a year because the pictures looked “good enough.”
You could also try to find apartments that specialize in shorter-term leases or subletters who aren’t as strict about timelines. These can be harder to find but will allow you to search for a more permanent spot without feeling as rushed. If you can give yourself time to find the perfect neighborhood, you’ll have a much easier time settling into your new home city.