Two months ago, I cried my eyes out at a coffee shop in one of London’s poshest neighborhoods. A few platinum blondes adjusted their Hermes Kelly bags and batted their heavily rimmed eyelashes long enough to confirm that I wasn’t dying, and continued their stroll to whichever Tory Burch was having a sale.
Before you conclude the obvious—that Prince Harry had broken up with me again, or worse, my iPhone 4S got stolen–allow me to quell your concerns. The crisis that reduced even my formidable game face to a pout was a fruitless apartment hunt that tested my mental fortitude, Google search stamina & knowledge of the tube. After dozens of empty-handed estate agents had sent me packing to the scam-laden slums of Craig’s List, I was convinced that I would be homeless for at least part of my Master’s degree in London. [Or worse, the Dorchester would have to put me up indefinitely with complimentary high tea.....if you're reading this, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, please reach out. I'm still interested.]
Luckily, perseverance–that awful word your middle school teachers threw at you in matters ranging from dodge ball to science lab–saved the day and I am now happily situated at the base of Regent’s Canal in a beautiful one-bedroom. How did this story take such a 180-degree turn over the course of a day? And is it possible, in a world where anyone can post a flat listing & demand money up front, to avoid low blows to you bank account? Read on for tips on how to secure your dream apartment and leave the scammers behind.
1. Pursue widely, view selectively.
Many disillusioned house hunters believe that the apartment will come to them. You can sit on your meditation pillow for as long as you like, but the fact of the matter is, you have to cast a wide net to catch a good one. Make it a point to spend two-three hours per day marking out listings that sound promising and potential estate agents. If you are using online sources such as Craig’s List, keep organized notes of what you view to prevent circling the same properties twice. Reality check: you may call forty landlords before landing one serious lead. Just because you’re sniffing out loads of options does not mean that you’ll view them all.
2. Speak to a human being, and if you can’t, drop the prospect.
Scammers get away with wild theft because potential rentors don’t bother to ascertain the validity of an apartment listing. Always place a phone call or demand a phone number when dealing with online advertisements; most scammers confine themselves to online communication, therefore they’ll be reluctant to give a direct line. This may be your first clue that the penthouse listed for $200/week in Primrose Hill is too good to be true.
3. View. The. Property. NO EXCEPTIONS
You wouldn’t buy a car, engagement ring, NARS lipstick or puppy without seeing it first. Renting an apartment abroad may pose the challenge that you cannot arrive ahead of time to view the property, but attempt to circumvent this as best as you can. Find a friend in the city to scope out a few leads, or stay in a hotel/hostel until you can secure an apartment you’ve physically seen. The number of nonexistent scams that pose as legitimate flat listings is absolutely absurd — Craig’s List, GumTree and other online directories are notorious for draining bank accounts. Do not send any money or give crucial personal information until someone on the ground can confirm that the place is real (or at the very least, functioning). This might wind up being your least favorite piece of advice, but you’d rather be safe than scammed.
4. Invest in an estate agent.
While “middle man” is often synonymous with “pain in the ass,” it is incredibly trying to apartment hunt abroad. If you do not speak the language, doubt your ability to arrive early to view prospects, or if you’re completely lost, hiring an agent may be the way to go. If you’re pursuing a unique timeframe–let’s say, less than a normal six month sublet–then an agent may be the only person who can negotiate with a landlord to get what you want. Reach out to a few trusted sources (get recommendations from locals and do your homework), and lay out exactly what you’re willing to pay. Are you ready to play hardball?
5. Never, ever pay money upfront to “reserve” a viewing.
This is a classic. Many scammers will lead you in by booking a viewing for their nonexistent apartment with you, but demand a “reservation fee” up-front to ensure that no one else will get the place first. This isn’t a table at the Savoy or the Presidential Suite at the Hermitage in Monte Carlo. You do not have to pay to reserve a flat, and if asked, politely (or not so politely), drop the conversation. A real landlord wants you to view the apartment to make a decision, and therefore would never place a barrier such as a $200 price tag to block the visit.
6. Google the landlord’s name, email & address plus the word “scam.”
You would be amazed (proud, even) at how loudly your fellow apartment hunters can squawk in an online forum. If you’re feeling uneasy about a certain landlord or home, googling the details with the word “scam” may yield some interesting results. After locating a property that I was interested in and cross-checking the photos posted to the listing with the photos on the building’s general website, I still had a bad feeling about the way the landlord was conducting himself. I typed the name of the building into Google plus the word “scam,” and found dozens of victims in an online forum who had fallen for this sneaky criminal.
Lastly, never give up. You may be disillusioned to the point of tears, but the fact of the matter is, everyone finds a place to call home after some struggle. Keep pursuing online & print leads until the right price and property fall into place. You’ll be sitting in your new living room in no time wondering what all that fuss was about anyway.