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Posted at 10:58 PM ET, 01/22/2012

The Apartment Hunt: Craigslist — the good, the bad, the ugly

This is the second installment in a multi-part series about one reporter’s search for a rental in the District.


Employees at Vida Senior Residences in the District put the final touches on a new 38-apartment building. (Sarah L. Voisin - THE WASHINGTON POST)

(Previously on Apartment Hunt: The Open House)

What a find: $1,200 for a one-bedroom unit in a building along 16th Street NW — a desirable spot wedged between Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan. Central air. Vaulted ceilings. A short walk to the grocery store. This apartment sounded too fantastic to be true.

It was.

Less than 24 hours after I fired off an e-mail to the keeper of this Craigslist posting, a response landed in my inbox: “I am Reverend Dwayne Jackson, the owner of the apartment you are making enquiry of. … Actually I resided in the apartment with my family, my wife and my only daughter before and presently we have moved out due to my transfer from my work now in United Kingdom.”

It was a phishing scam. The e-mail went on to ask for a smattering of biographical information, including my picture, as well as a down payment of one month’s to two months’ rent. The apartment as advertised does not exist.

Unfortunately, such schemes may be one of the least frustrating aspects of searching for housing on Craigslist, a continually updated list of classified advertisements on which ordinary people post items for sale, available jobs and missed love connections. It’s a forum where flakes and fakes are all too common.

So why use the Web site? For one, the inventory is extensive. The housing section attracts hundreds of listings for the Washington region on any given day. (For renters, Craigslist divided its listings into apartments/housing, sublets/temporary and rooms/shared.)

I’ve found it’s also the best place for deals. The posts often come directly from property owners, current tenants or building managers, so there’s no markup on the price or a finder’s fee that many other third-party Web sites or brokers charge. Craigslist costs money only when you post certain types of ads, and it’s free to search.

But free comes at a price.

When you respond to a post on Craigslist, your e-mail lands in an anonymous inbox. There’s no guarantee that the apartment is real or that the person will ever follow up. That latter fact is perhaps the most obnoxious. Because so many young people are searching for rentals in the city, advertisers receive dozens of responses for a single bedroom or apartment. This crushing disparity in supply and demand works against potential renters because it creates greater competition to have your e-mail read, let alone be chosen for an interview and, ultimately, the available space.

Fortunately, 2 1 / 2 months working the system has taught me a few lessons about rising above the fray. These tactics aren’t surefire — in this process, I’ve learned, nothing is — but they have helped to increase the rate at which my inquiries received responses.

●It’s better to convey personality and describe what sets you apart. I once read an advertisement for a group house in Logan Circle that asked people to avoid specific phrases and interests, such as “financially responsible” or “trying new restaurants,” because they’re common to the point of being unhelpful.

●Write in bullet points rather than long paragraphs. This structure helps break up the information into digestible bites, which make the eyes grow less weary. To be clear: This tip is based on personal trial and error rather than actual science, but I’ve seen it work.

● Do you bring extra perks to the table? Maybe you studied culinary arts in France, hold season tickets to the Capitals or, more practically, own a nice living-room set. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

●Don’t overthink every sentence or word. This may seem contradictory to the aforementioned advice, but all of this information can be conveyed in a nonchalant manner. During the most desperate days of my search, I pored over three-paragraph e-mails for longer than is sane or healthy. When I reread those messages now, they come across as spiritless or strained.

Despite its drawbacks, there’s a lot to be enjoyed about Craigslist. For instance, some of the advertisements are so bizarre they’re laughable. I once came across an advertisement for a three-bedroom apartment whose residents said they enjoyed a “clothing-free lifestyle.” They also advertised a hot tub.

There also is a plethora of advertisements for less-than-conventional living arrangements, such as 400-square-foot studios split among two or more people, or living rooms/dining rooms/sun rooms that have been converted into makeshift bedrooms.

I’ve even responded to a multiple-choice questionnaire about the skills I have to offer to potential roommates. One of the questions was what I would do when the zombie apocalypse began.

My answer, for what it’s worth: “Recognizing that the real threat will be the robots taking over the world. Zombies are so last year.”

Apartment Hunt Part 1: The Open House

What’s your Craigslist house-hunting story? Tell us in the comments section and we’ll repost the best ones.

Do you have a house-hunting story to share about renting in the Washington area? E-mail Steven Overly at overlys@washpost.com. Steven’s next installment will run next Monday.

By  |  10:58 PM ET, 01/22/2012

 
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