How to Find a Good Rental Home From Far Away
Before I give you a tour of our newest home in Virginia (which I’ll do next Friday!), I first wanted to share a few details about how we pulled off one of our most seamless moves ever. Next Tuesday, I’ll be breaking down some of the nitty gritty moving hacks we used this time around (which allowed us to get settled super fast!). However, even the best tricks in the world wouldn’t have made much difference without one major detail in place: we had a house identified and officially rented before we even started to pack up our California home. In the 8 moves we’ve executed in the last 14 years, we’ve only been able to do this one other time…every other move, we found a home after showing up because we were either waiting for base housing (which is a notoriously slow and painful process) or completely at a loss for how to find a rental from a distance. Having a house…and a great house at that…locked on and secured so far in advanced reduced so much of our moving-related stress that we’re genuinely wondering why it’s taken us (self-proclaimed renting “pros”) so long to put some serious effort into this aspect of our relocation. If you are getting ready to embark on a long-distance move and really want or need to have a house locked on before you arrive, here are some tips and tricks we found successful for finding a good rental home from far away!
Understand How the Local Rental Market Works
One thing we are continually blown away by is how different each and every rental market is. We genuinely think we have this renter-thing down to a science. And then we’ll move to a new-to-us area only to find ourselves discovering all sorts of unique circumstances, making us feel like moving novices all over again. While you’d certainly expect floor plans, rent ranges, and even lease terms to vary from state to state, one thing we never really expected to change so widely was how to find a rental home.
Moving to Kansas, we utilized a network of military friends on Facebook. In finding our California rental, we used Craig’s List (of all things!). And in moving to Virginia, we worked with a Real Estate agent in conjunction with MLS searches (which we didn’t even know was possible for rentals!). My point is not that you have to discover the one local way to find a rental home (because there will certainly be homes posted in various places), but rather be aware that different areas favor certain listing methods over others. Using the most prevalent listing method for your specific area will certainly yield better, quicker and more productive results!
Get to Know the Area
Some military folks will take what’s called a “house hunting trip.” Essentially, a family (or one member of the family) will make a trip out to the new location to scout out houses in person. We’ve never done a house hunting trip because we always felt the chances of finding a home during a specific set of days was unlikely. However, beyond touring homes, there is so much more that can be gleaned by visiting your new community in person if you can swing it.
Simply by driving around different areas, you can get a sense for the layout of the town, the traffic patterns, the style/size of homes, commute times, and which parts of the area you’d rather be in over others…all things that are too hard to glean from Zillow listings, Google Maps, and even word of mouth. Having a list of specific communities, neighborhoods, and towns can help you narrow your search once you return home, thereby upping the chances you end up in a home that really works for your family and your needs.
Find Some Local Eyes and Ears
In the military community, it’s pretty easy to find someone who lives in your new town (even if it’s a friend of a friend of a friend); and making contact with this person (or several people) can be invaluable. Not only can they dish on local details you might not be able to unearth otherwise; but more importantly, they are there…in person…which means they can see rental signs go up in front yards, talk to neighbors, ask around about who’s moving soon, and potentially be the key to finding a really great house.
In this most recent move, we connected with a friend of my sister’s who lived in the neighborhood we wanted to be in. Whenever she saw a rental sign go up or a post in the private neighborhood Facebook group, she’d give me a head’s up. Oftentimes, she had scoop on “coming soon” properties before they hit Zillow or MLS, allowing us to act fast in this very active rental market!
Google Maps Is Your Friend
I can’t tell you how many times I’d see a fantastic house pop up on Zillow or some other search site, send it to Greg immediately, and even begin messaging the listing agent before I took a minute to find the house on Google Maps. I’d then discover the house wasn’t in a neighborhood, backed up to a highway, or was situated strangely on the plot. It took me a little while to learn, but I eventually got into the routine of checking Google Maps (right after we checked the school district site) before seriously considering a property.
Why? Using Google Maps not only helped us identify the proximity of potential houses to Greg’s work, local stores, walking trails, the school, etc but the Satellite view also gave us a really good sense for what kind of land the house was situated on, how close neighbors were, what other houses on the street looked like, etc. These are all details that are tough to determine from a distance and can’t be gleaned from a house listing but can be oh-so-helpful in ensuring there are no unexpected surprises regarding the surrounding community.
Don’t Rely On Photos
Part of my “job” is to take photos of the inside of our house and share them online. And despite my best efforts to accurately show our home as it really exists, I know that pictures never quite match reality. Still, throughout our house hunting process, I was amazed at how different pictures looked (especially professional pictures taken with a wide-angle lens!) when compared to walking through a house either in person or via FaceTime. The truth is, even if a listing includes dozens of pictures from every possible angle, it will look different in real life. Brace yourself for that!
To avoid potential surprises, I can’t emphasize enough how helpful it is to have someone you know and trust (a friend, family member, local realtor, or even loose acquaintance) walk through any property you’re seriously considering. Beyond showing you angles and perspectives you can’t get from pictures, they would be able to assess other things (smells, cleanliness, proximity of neighbors, functioning blinds/outlets, etc) not possible through virtual means. Our realtor noticed potential mold in one house (that was conveniently left out of most pictures), preventing us from leasing a potentially “dangerous” house; while my Dad was able to give us some serious peace of mind after driving all around our new potential neighborhood!
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Admittedly, during this most recent house-hunting search, we were pretty shocked to see how fast good rental properties went. If the house was remotely updated, painted a neutral color and was in a strong school district, it would be gone in less than 24 hours. Even if we had a viewing scheduled or had made positive contact with the listing agent, we didn’t stand a real chance of getting the house if we didn’t have a formal application in with the application fee paid…all before we could even see the property! The same held true for houses that we were officially “offered.” If we weren’t ready and willing to commit ASAP (like within hours) with the security deposit and first month’s rent, landlords were all too willing to move onto to the next qualified applicant. I certainly don’t advocate paying rental application fees on properties you’re truly not sure about (because it can add up!). But if you come across a house that is a serious contender and you reeeeaaallly don’t want to risk loosing it, act and (more importantly!) PAY fast!
Trust Your Gut
Finally, committing to live in a house you’ve never seen from really far away can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience. Even if you’ve researched the heck out of a home, had a friend walk through it, re-watched the FaceTime tour over and over, and even scrutinized every last photo you can un-earth online, it can still be really hard to know when to move on and keep looking or when to finally say “this is the one” and commit. My best advice on this one is to trust your gut.
We came thiiiiiiiiis close to committing to a house we knew deep down wasn’t right…just because we wanted the whole house-hunting process to be over. We spent an entire week trying to talk ourselves into the house, only for the deal to (miraculously?) fall apart at the last minute. We are so thrilled with the house we eventually ended up leasing (which interestingly, we knew was “the house” from the very first time we saw the listing!), that we can’t help but feel we dodged a bullet on the first house. Had we just acknowledged what our gut instincts were saying about that house in the first place, we could have saved a lot of people (ourselves included) a lot of time and heartache!
Trying to find a good rental home from far away, especially if you don’t have the means to travel to do home tours, can be really tough. However, if there is one thing I want to emphasize in this post is that not only is it possible to find a good home from afar, but putting in the effort is sooooo worth it! We have never spent so much time looking for a home in advance as we did this time around. But the hard work paid off because we have never been so satisfied with the location we ended up in or so thrilled with the house that will now be our home for the next few years! If you’ve moved/rented a lot, I’d love to hear some other ideas for how to find a good rental home when you just can’t get there in person – feel free to share your own tips and tricks in the comments!
I’ll see you back here next week with those moving hacks that saved us serious time this go around, as well as the first look at our Virginia home! Have a great weekend!