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How to rent a Boston-area apartment

Know where to search, what questions to ask, when to look, and more

With the median price of a Boston-area condo at more than $577,000 and the median price of a house at more than $605,000—and both of those numbers much higher in the City of Boston itself—many newcomers and locals are simply priced out of the for-sale market.

If you’re one of those people, then you’re not alone. Over 60 percent of Bostonians rent, and the share is similar in surrounding cities and towns such as Cambridge and Somerville. So, below, we provide a step-by-step guide on how to find an apartment in the Boston area, including where to look and what questions to ask. Good luck!

1. Set a budget and know the costs. For reference, the median one-bedroom apartment rent in Boston stood at $1,710 a month in March 2020 and the median two-bedroom at $2,121, according to search and research site ApartmentList. (Other sites peg both as similarly high.)

On top of the monthly checks, tenants need to consider certain upfront costs. By law, landlords can ask for first and last months’ rent prior to move-in as well as a security deposit equal to one month’s rent. They can also request a fee to buy and install new locks. Brokers working on behalf of landlords can ask for a fee for their work, too, and, if tenants hire a broker themselves, then obviously they owe them.

Landlords cannot ask for a fee for running a credit check on a prospective tenant or for an application fee. Nor can they charge for holding an apartment.

So, when it comes to renting in the Boston area, your initial out-of-pocket expense will not just be that first month’s rent, but likely thousands more dollars on top. A good rule of thumb for budgeting is to have a gross monthly household income that is at least three times the monthly rent. That will make it easier to absorb the upfront costs. And some property owners might require you to prove that you make that much anyway.

2. Zero in on a neighborhood by thinking about where you work or otherwise spend much of your time. The Boston region has some of the worst vehicular traffic congestion on the planet, and its mass transit system, called the T, can be unreliable to say the least. Long commutes are not uncommon, and having a shorter one can make or break your daily life in Greater Boston.

If you’re unsure of which neighborhood to pick, check out this handy set of things to consider and this rundown of the median one-bedroom rents near different T stops.

One final tip: Apartments in neighborhoods around the Boston region’s many colleges and universities—including Davis Square/West Somerville (Tufts), Harvard Square (Harvard), Kendall Square (M.I.T.), upper Dorchester (UMass-Boston), and Kenmore Square (Boston U.)—tend to turn over quite a bit in June and September, affording more options in what can be a tight market in terms of inventory (more here on why that inventory is tight in the first place).

3. Set expectations. This is the most sobering step and maybe the most difficult. Apartment-hunting in Greater Boston is about as intense as in New York and San Francisco. In other words, unless you’ve searched in locales like those, little can prepare you for the stiff competition and the dearth of options.

The region’s apartment vacancy rate hovers around 5 percent—even lower in some places, including downtown Boston—and bidding wars for apartments are not unheard of. That’s right: Tenants are known to pay more than the asking price, just like so many buyers.

Your best bet is to make a list of your preferred neighborhoods and hunt in each, understanding that some of those neighborhoods may end up out of your price range.

4. Now search—and start early. Given the low vacancy rates and the stiff competition, it pays to start your apartment search early. Those tenants signing June leases, for instance, will hunt in February, and those looking to move in September will have started in June.

How do you start your search? Try these 10 reliable sites and apps, each of which runs down available apartments and their rents. Be aware, though, that some of these sites work tightly with brokers, so you might be directed to a broker and not a property owner or manager.

As for brokers, you might not need one in the Boston area; many tenants connect directly with landlords/property managers, or through word of mouth, or through their employers.

If you do decide to go with a broker, know that you don’t owe them anything until they’ve found you a place. And, by law, they’re required to name and/or negotiate their fee up front, including the method of payment. That broker fee is usually equal to a month’s rent.

5. See it. Before the novel coronavirus, we would’ve said that visiting a potential apartment was an essential element of any search. But such visits are no longer recommended in an effort to stem the virus’ spread. Instead, take advantage of remote leasing, which includes viewing photos, videos, and 3D presentations of apartments. Here are some tips on what to ask for and to expect.

Also, even if you can’t visit in person, you can still check things such as where a building’s garbage and recycling (and laundry, if relevant) can be found and the nearest transit stop.

6. Ask these questions: Does your new building allow pets? If yes, that could mean an extra monthly fee or involve restrictions on breeds (no big dogs, for instance—woof!).

Is the owner offering a tenancy-at-will agreement or an actual months-long lease? A tenancy at will is a written or verbal agreement that means you can move out at any time with 30 days’ notice. A lease is for months—usually an even 12.

How accessible is the apartment and its building, if that’s an issue? The state maintains a database of accessible apartments, including ones that are subsidized and ones that are no-barrier.

Is anything already broken or malfunctioning prior to move-in? Find out, lest the landlord use your security deposit at the end of your lease to fix it.

7. Take it if you like it—and right away. Apartments go fast in the Boston area. Be ready to move on a place if it’s right for you. That can include showing up to your visit with checkbook or financial-routing information in hand (some landlords allow for direct withdrawal from bank accounts for the rent).

There’s really no such thing as a down payment for holding a rental in the Boston area; so seal the deal quickly once you’re ready.


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