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How to rent a home during coronavirus when you can't visit in person

Twenty/20

After an early pandemic lull, the housing rental market has started to pick up steam again. In New York City, for example, new rental inventory has increased every week since the beginning of May, according to Streeteasy, a New York-focused listing site. More people have been viewing and saving listings on the site as well.

However, since most states and cities still have restrictions on public activities and gatherings, in-person viewings are on hold throughout much of the country, forcing renters to get creative with how they find their next home. The solution: virtual tours.

If you're thinking that it would be incredibly difficult to evaluate a living space without setting foot inside, rest assured that the brokers and realtors trying to get you into that new apartment feel the same way.

"Even in the best virtual tour, there's really nothing quite like being in the space yourself," says Marta Quinones, a broker with Halstead Real Estate in Brooklyn, New York. "It's a space you're gonna live in, and so, for some people, there's an energy that comes through a space that I think is missing in a virtual transaction."

If you are currently apartment hunting, here are three things you can do to wisely use virtual tours, to protect yourself and ensure that you'll be happy with your new home.

Take as many measurements as possible

Sydney Mason, who works in investor services at a hedge fund in Chicago, has been on the hunt for a new apartment in the city since her current landlord decided to increase her rent during the pandemic. The most difficult part of her virtual search has been getting a sense of the apartment's size.

"With some of them I can't even tell if, like, my dresser would fit in there. Because obviously, other people's furniture is completely different," says Mason, 27. "It's kind of hard to fully understand the layout and size."

Mason has worked around this by trying to take note of the size of the furniture already in the apartment, like if the current tenant already has a king or queen bed.

It's a space you're gonna live in, and so, for some people, there's an energy that comes through a space that I think is missing in a virtual transaction.
Marta Quinones
Broker, Halstead Real Estate

Ian Wolsten, one of Grow's video producers, is looking to move into a new apartment in July. He's been searching for open rooms on the Gypsy Housing NYC Facebook group and has been getting tours from current tenants who would also become his roommates.

His takeaway: Ask the agent or roommate to provide measurements of the space and take your own measurements of your furniture.

"Size is really hard to get through video. Even though you can see stuff, you can't really be in the space and see how far you are from the wall," says Wolsten. "I was asking a lot of dimension questions that I wouldn't be asking if I were there in person, and then have to go and measure my furniture and see."

Ask questions about the details

A sense of the physical size of the apartment isn't the only thing you lose when doing a virtual tour — there are a ton of little details that it's easy to forget about when you're not physically in the space.

For example, Quinones suggests asking about the quality of the lighting in the apartment, the number and placement of electrical outlets, and closet space, among other details.

It's important to remember that it's the job of the person showing the apartment to answer those questions. So don't be shy about asking whatever you want to know about the space, so you feel confident in your rental decision.

With that in mind, expect that your virtual tour will take longer than a typical in-person viewing. While Wolsten estimates that pre-pandemic, he spent as little as 15 minutes at open houses, some of his recent virtual tours have taken closer to an hour.

Quinones says it's important to take full advantage of that extra time, and that any good broker will happily accommodate.

"I think it's time to take a deep breath and really embrace that moment, and think about what are all the things you would like to do, and never hesitate to ask," says Quinones. "And there's always the possibility of having that person go back if you need that to happen too."

Protect yourself from bad deals and scams

Rental fraud is more common in situations where the tenant can't actually view the apartment, according to Christopher Salviati, a housing economist at Apartment List. It's easier to fall for fake listings or not receive promised amenities when you can't examine anything in person. 

That makes it all the more important to ask as many questions and verify as much information about the apartment and building as possible. Working with reputable brokers, talking to the prior tenant when possible, and looking up building inspection records on sites like Rentlogic can all be helpful.

Landlords are also trying to shield themselves from any additional liability that comes with tenants signing leases sight unseen, and it's important to keep that dynamic in mind when protecting yourself.  Quinones says that many landlords usually refuse to rent to people who haven't seen the apartment in person. As a result, many new tenants are now being asked to sign documents saying they're committing to an apartment without having seen it in person. That could potentially protect the landlord in case of a dispute.

For the first time in her career, she's also doing lease signings through DocuSign, rather than in person. Usually, she prefers to do them in person, since renters can ask questions about specific parts of the lease and immediately have them answered.

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In some circumstances, you may still have an opportunity to check out a rental in person. Some brokers in New York have also reportedly left keys outside of apartments, allowing prospective tenants to view them alone. Quinones, however, is wary about the safety and legality of such arrangements, and warns that new tenants, existing tenants, and brokers shouldn't do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

While a virtual hunt has its limits, it's still possible to find a great place. Quinones recently used FaceTime to show a New York apartment to a person searching from Massachusetts. The apartment-hunter is currently in the process of coordinating a move-in date with the landlord.

"I was able to walk around the apartment, answer questions for them as they came up, open drawers, turn on faucets, walk into closets — [do] everything that they might want to do themselves if they were able to be personally present for a walk-through of an apartment," she says.

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