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How to be a smarter apartment shopper

Customer service should be the hallmark. How representatives approach their first in-person communication with you will set the tone for future interactions. (iStock) (istockphoto)
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The search for a new rental home can carry lots of emotions. Whether you’re looking for your first place or your 15th, the experience can be daunting and exciting all at once.

But when you find that place — the one you know you’ll call your own — it’ll click. You’ll picture your favorite comfortable chair in that corner, your close friends seated around the table and envision yourself as a regular at the neighborhood hotspots.

Every day people are choosing to rent instead of buy. But with so many options at your fingertips, determining which community to call home is an incredibly personal decision.

There’s no holy grail of apartment living, no one-size-fits-all answer for what all renters are seeking. Every resident is looking for their own hit list, with their own set of values and priorities. But every apartment-hunter should evaluate those crucial first interactions through a discerning lens.

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Setting aside the obvious criteria — price and location, be it close to work or dining and entertainment options — what three things should residents look for when scoping out a new rental property? It’s not all about appearances — even if it begins that way.

What’s your first impression?

The start of just about any apartment search begins the same way for everyone these days: online. With that in mind, it’s impossible to overstate how important a community’s web presence should be to the start of your hunt.

Officials at apartment communities know how vital that first impression is, so dig in to their website and use it as a tool to gauge how much emphasis they’re placing on that interaction. Mobile friendliness, responsive design and a positive user experience are all integral.

A good website will include unit floor plans, easily accessible pricing options and attractive photos that show off the amenities and unique culture. A great website will go deeper, highlighting its unique strengths and offering features like chat bots to make communication a breeze.

What’s most important to you in your next home? Location? Proximity to public transportation, or restaurants and shopping? Is it the school system? Perhaps price or unit size are your guiding principles. Do you need a place that rolls the cost of utilities into the rent? Are you looking for a community full of amenities and activities for their residents?

Identify what your top-line desires are — the immediate answer to the, “So, what are you looking for?” question — and seek communities that showcase those features on their website. If it’s the best of what they have to offer, or one of their defining characteristics, it should be prominently displayed.

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Remember: The website isn’t just a stopover on the way to a tour, it’s your first impression. And just like a dating app, it should help you determine whether it’s a worth an in-person meeting, or a swipe left.

Does it leap off the page?

Extenuating circumstances aside, once you’ve narrowed down your options it’s always a good idea to experience your potential future residence firsthand. Tours are an important next step. You’ll want to feel, touch — and smell — any place you could call home.

Think about it like this: For the property manager, the site visit is an opportunity to bring their community to life, and that’s how it should feel to you.

While the website will focus on all the big things a community offers — location, amenities, price, etc. — the tour is where you’ll learn all about the little things that make a home your home.

Every aspect of this experience is something for you to evaluate. Customer service should be the hallmark. How they approach their first in-person communication with you will set the tone for future interactions — such as how they’ll react when you have a question or issue with your lease, a maintenance request or a package delivery. Is the leasing consultant attentive, friendly and accommodating? Great! Make note of that. Is he or she distant, rude or uninterested? Remember that, too.

The tour should be authentic and memorable — from the conversation to the route catered specifically to you. This is their opportunity to show you they care about your needs, so the route should address the features you’ve identified as top priorities.

As you take the tour, be sure to evaluate the overall atmosphere. Do you see your future neighbors out and about? Is the landscaping well-maintained? Are the units clean? Do they smell fresh and inviting? What about the common areas? Making a mental catalog of these less-tangible items will go a long way toward helping make your decision.

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If your web search gets you in the door for the first date, the site visit is the real test to see if you have any hope for a future together. Don’t waste your chance to find out.

Are they living what they’re selling?

So the website looks great and the tour was a success but you still have one lingering question: What’s it really like living there? That’s natural. They’ve put their full-court press to recruit you, but do they live up to their own hype?

That’s where reviews can go a long way.

Don’t forget that web presence isn’t limited to their own website, and customer service isn’t limited to in-person interactions. Reviews are everywhere, including directly underneath the community’s own Google listing. Star ratings, comments from past or current residents — it’s all one click away.

Online reputation can be a property’s strongest asset or potentially its biggest burden. Communities must be aware of their online reviews, and they should dedicate the customer service bandwidth to interacting with and responding to them.

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If the reviews are overwhelmingly positive, perhaps they’ve just confirmed your decision. But if there’s a negative bent to them, do you see an effort by the property to respond and improve those experiences? Or are they left to dangle? The answer to that question could also be instructive.

Selecting an apartment community to call home is often the culmination of a multi-step process to find the place that’s just right. It may start with a strong first impression, but it ends because of a follow-through that reinforces that this is a place that fits for you -- and your life -- now and in the future.

Robert Pinnegar is president and CEO of the National Apartment Association, headquartered in Arlington, Va.