What kept me going in my depressing hunt for a rental house in and around Santa Monica was the knowledge that we only needed to find one place that suited our needs. Surely across Santa Monica, Mar Vista, Venice or Culver City—where we were focusing our search—someone would be putting a house up for lease that met our requirements, price range and timetable and that didn’t face a freeway or induce claustrophobia.
What we wanted was a three bedroom, two bathroom standalone home in the 1,000 square foot range that also had outdoor space—although we were willing to look at condos and townhouses and go down to two bedrooms one bathroom if we had to. Also on the list for our transplanted Brooklyn family: being able to walk to something mildly interesting (yes, I know this is funny). As for budget, we were willing to go as high as $4,000 a month but were hoping for something closer to $3,500.
Presenting this wish list to current Westsiders elicited nervous laughter or awkward email pauses, followed by something akin to “good luck.” But we did it and here’s hoping that what we learned can help you.
1. Yes, you need a membership to Westsiderentals.com.
I got many pieces of advice from friends and friends of friends about finding a rental on the Westside and all of them started with “Have you signed up for Westside Rentals?” Following their advice, I started browsing the service about a month before we were in a position to rent to get an idea of what was available and for how much in various neighborhoods. In “free” mode, the search isn’t the best, so if you’re sure you’re going to need a place on the Westside, I’d recommend ponying up $60 for a 60-day membership sooner rather than later. The site’s listings are extensive and there is no more complete look at the Westside real estate market. Although we didn’t ultimately find our rental on Westside Rentals, it helped me get to know the market.
2. Talk to a Realtor.
I connected with a Realtor before we came to L.A. to get the lay of the land, and she set up a Multiple Listing Service feed based on my search criteria that was delivered daily via email. Coming from NYC, it was a relief to find out that Realtors or agents on the West Coast are paid by building management or owners and not by the renters themselves (for comparison had we needed to pay a NYC-style broker fee for the place we ended up renting in L.A., we’d have been out about $7,000). Because owners pay the Realtor fee in L.A., large apartment buildings and complexes or single-family rentals of more than $6,000 seem to make up the bulk of the MLS listings, but I saw a little of everything come through my in-box. Several Realtors that I talked to were also wiling to give advice on the best neighborhoods for our needs and tips about recommended schools.
3. Find, use, and abuse your connections.
Just like with a job search, it’s all about connections. While it’s possible to find the perfect job or rental “cold,” it’s not easy, and you will not have access to the best the market has to offer in either case. I shamelessly plugged our move on Facebook, asked for email introductions to friends’ friends and joined an online parents Yahoo listserve where I posted about our impeding move and did a daily scan for rental alerts. The Yahoo group was ultimately what got us access to a house that hadn’t even been listed, which is how most of the best places seem to be rented. I even pimped my search out when calling on preschools. Shop owners, the person in line at the grocery store: You never know who the one will be to connect you to your new home.
4. Attempt organization.
When you’re leaving phone messages, writing emails and texting to multiple landlords and agents about multiple listings, it can get confusing fast. For my first blitz, I printed out the specs of each place I planned to see and scribbled in new contact names, phone numbers, notes on the property, etc. Every new appointment got a name address and contact number in my calendar with any notes on calling ahead to confirm appointment. My organization started to break down as I’d take calls when my pen would go missing or two Carolyns would call about separate places, but the general structure kept me from losing my mind, and losing out on quality listings—I found that leaving a message often didn’t work and I’d need to call several times before securing an appointment.
5. Be the most prepared renter on the block.
In the New York real estate rental market, the best places can be snapped up in minutes. You quickly learn to show up with all pertinent documents in hand: bank account numbers and statements, paystubs, a copy of your credit score, and cash or a check to write an initial on-the-spot deposit. While L.A. rentals don’t seem to operate on the minute-by-minute basis that NYC ones do, coming to a showing prepared puts you ahead of the competition and shows you’re serious. If you’ve started the application process, return the requested documents ASAP. Filling out our prospective landlord’s documents within the day showed her we were serious and may have persuaded her that she needn’t look further for the ideal renter.
6. Connect with your potential landlord.
It is illegal to turn down a renter based on race, religion, ethnic background or national origin, sex, familial status (having children or being pregnant) or a mental or physical disability, but it happens. For instance, I was told over email regarding one particularly nice-looking Craftsman-style bungalow in Culver City that “your family is a little large for who I want to rent to.” Another (likely well-intentioned) owner tried to push me away over the phone from a 1,500 square foot house because it might not be big enough for our family of four. At some point your status (whatever it may be) will be revealed, and I took to getting my family’s size out in the open to avoid later surprises. Whether connecting with the landlord for the first time over email or by phone, I dropped my husband’s job title, the info that I had two children and their ages and complimentary information about our two cats. I also tried to elicit sympathy for my duck-out-of-water plight by mentioning that I was new to the area, moving from out of state, and scrambling to get housing before the start of the school year.
7. Be flexible.
Like any idealist, I started by looking only at houses that fit my strict criteria: detached home, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and sizeable outdoor space. After looking at a lot of butt-ugly, tiny three bedroom apartments, I expanded my search to condos and townhouses with only two bedrooms. Although I’m thankful we didn’t have to settle, I did find that expanding my search allowed me to identify places that had a bonus room or had other good qualities (extra-large living room, access to a pool) to make up for not meeting my other criteria. If schools are not a concern, looking one neighborhood away from your idea is another good trick to paying less for the space you want. In our case, we had to give on move-in date. We wanted mid-July or August 1 and ended up with mid-August. It meant our family had to be apart for an extra month, but it also meant we landed a place we were happy to call home.
8. Search listing sites multiple ways.
Whether Westside Rentals, Craigslist or another real estate app like Zillow or Trulia, I searched the sites multiple ways—by price, by zip code or neighborhood, by keyword, by bedroom, by mapping view, by list view etc. On Westside Rentals I found a few quality prospects within our budget in neighborhood search that I hadn’t found in my price search (which was also screened by neighborhood).
9. Don’t be afraid to play hard to get.
Once we had our dream place in our sights we didn’t want to let it go. So while we furiously returned documents to our potential landlord and expressed our sincere desire to be the new tenants, we didn’t grovel too too much. For instance, my husband returned the requested copy of his driver’s license immediately, but at the time I was out looking at other rentals and couldn’t get to it for several hours. When I sent it back, I apologized for the late return explaining that I had been to several other showings. Did this have any bearing on our acceptance mere hours later? Who is to say, but like in dating one should never be too available less the luster fade before you’ve got your name down on that dotted line.
A sneak peek at our new place with foliage and multiple outdoor spaces! What we were looking for: Outdoor space with room for grilling, entertaining and a little bit of ground for the kids to run around.
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