Here's everything you need to know about how to find an apartment in Boston.
Now that you've figured out the best neighborhoods in Boston for your particular search, you're ready to look for an apartment. The number one rule of looking for: if you don't apply for an apartment you like right away, someone else will. The market's too busy to accommodate thinking it over.
Here's what we'll cover in this guide:
- How to choose where to live in Boston.
- Rent prices in and around Boston.
- How to find roommates in Boston.
- Insights to help give you context about the apartment search process in Boston.
- Different apartment search approaches.
- How broker fees work in Boston.
- What you'll need to apply for an apartment in Boston.
If any or all of that sounds helpful to you, read on!
Haven't decided where to live yet?
Speaking from a lot of experience helping renters find apartments, I strongly recommend narrowing down your search to a couple neighborhoods (if possible) before you start looking for apartments.
I've seen too many renters dive headfirst into listings, only to spend a lot of time setting up showings in areas they don't even like. Then it's back to the drawing board.
Research which neighborhoods in Boston are right for you.
We spent a few solid months building a tool that really helps you decide where to live — our Boston Neighborhoods web app aggregates relevant data from WalkScore, Foursquare, RentRange and other resources to cross-reference your commute with your preferred neighborhood amenities and give you a detailed, beautiful display of recommended neighborhoods. Our tool also constantly updates rent price information. It's good to note that the average commute time in Boston is 30.6 minutes (rounding of course).
We even considered that the neighborhood boundaries in Boston are perceived differently by residents.
Try out our Boston Neighborhoods "Browser"
Now, you've got a huge leg up on other renters since you know exactly where you want to live (and what you "should" be spending).
Renters who don't do this work upfront find themselves starting from scratch after a number of unsatisfying showings — or worse, they are forced to rent an apartment they don't want because they run out of time. Where does all the time go?
Get to know rent prices in and around Boston.
This tool breaks down neighborhoods in the Boston area by price and availability of apartments. Since it's already a grind to find good data on apartments in specific neighborhoods, we only feature neighborhoods where we have rock-solid information (that's why you'll see a limited selection of neighborhoods).
Check out the tool below and read more about how it works here.
Know exactly how many roommates you'll want/need.
I'd definitely suggest lining up roommates before jumping into your apartment search. Landlords will almost always require that every occupant submit an application and be on the lease. The market here moves really quickly, so if you found a place you really liked but didn't have roommates yet, the apartment would likely get rented before you could find them. That can be a really frustrating experience — but if you have roommates lined up and ready to go, you'll be able to act quickly on a place you like and hopefully lock it up. Boom!
Need help finding roommates or rooms for rent in Boston? We've got some recommendations!
We've got 5 options for finding roommates in Boston — including two new Boston-based companies that are trying to streamline the roommate/open room search process. Check it out!
Next, here are some helpful truths about how to find an apartment in Boston.
The goal here is to help you get in the right mindset about what it's like to look for apartments in Boston. Feel free to watch this video (by me!) or read through the in-depth details below.
1. You’re not going to find the “perfect” apartment.
Lots of people are disappointed when they don’t find their dream apartment. DON’T BE!
It’s not the product of bad luck or running out of time. Most of the time, a renter’s dream apartment simply doesn’t exist. Here’s a great example: a renter once emailed me asking for help finding a furnished, 1-bed apartment within a 15-minute walk of Harvard Square for $700/month with a mid-August lease. To anyone who wants an apartment even remotely close to that, this apartment *does not* exist in Boston — even if you had limitless resources (time, money, connections, etc.).
To avoid desperation and going crazy, you need to be flexible and willing to make concessions on price, roommates or commute time. It’s just a healthier mindset. And just because you won’t find your perfect apartment, it doesn’t mean you won’t find an apartment you really like!
2. Below average budget = roommates or longer commute.
The average per-person rent in Boston is a little over $1,000/month.
If your budget is below that, you’ll have to make one of the aforementioned concessions — either adding roommates or living farther from Metro Boston.
For reference, last year I lived about 10 minutes from the Central Square (Cambridge) T station with 4 roommates in a 4BR apartment and pay $600/month — and that’s a good deal. If you know you don’t want roommates, you’ll have to look at towns/neighborhoods like Chelsea, Watertown, and West Roxbury to find 1BR apartments even *close* to that rent range. In sum, don’t let anyone convince you that cheap apartments in Boston are a thing — they just aren’t.
Note: Just for fun, Google “cheap apartments in boston” and see what pops up. The top results are listing sites that show you apartments way outside of the city for $1,700+ per month, or “featured” listings in Boston where studio apartments start at $2,200. So bizarre.
3. EVERYONE wants to be “within walking distance” of the T.
In fact, a new survey from The Urban Land Institute Boston/New England and The MassINC Polling Group, 80 percent of young professionals ranked access to public transit as “very important” when choosing a place to live. (Source: WBUR)
Luckily, Trulia launched a pretty sweet tool in June 2016 that lets you see the median rents within a 15 minute walk to each T stop in the Boston area. Definitely worth checking out if you know public transportation will be important to you!
Click on the image below to Check out Trulia's awesome "Rent Near the T" tool!
A lot of people reach out looking for apartments and insisting that they “must be within walking distance of the T”. Essentially, it should considered a very desirable apartment amenity that many people are willing to pay for.
4. Craigslist is still #1 for apartment listings.
There are a LOT of internet listings services (ILS) to choose from — Zillow, Trulia, Apartment List, Zumper, Lovely (just to name a few). Basically, an ILS collects apartment listings (i.e. ads) from different sources like rental brokerages, landlords and other ILS.
However, no matter how hard these sites try, Craigslist is still the leader for listings. In fact, 87.5% of renters start their search on Craigslist and they typically end there as well. One of the biggest qualms I have with ILS is that they won't show you the lease date of an apartment so you are forced to "check availability" by sending an email to the agent who posted the listing.
Feel free to read up on why Craigslist is such a nasty (but necessary) resource in Boston...
5. Visiting apartments is FAR better than browsing listings.
To elaborate further — everyone knows Craigslist has serious issues (fake ads, different brokers advertising the same apartment, etc.).
But even the best listing sites have problems. Redfin did a study in 2012 of Zillow and Trulia (the two biggest apartment listing websites) and found that “about 36 percent of the listings shown as active...were no longer [available].”
Bottom line, browsing listings takes a lot of time for very uncertain results.
If/when you connect with a broker, urge them to show you at least a few units instead of just doing a one-off showing. If you do a one-off and don’t like the place, you’ll have to start all over again with listings.
6. Some neighborhoods see big rent increases.
For example, rents in East Boston increased 7.1% since last year. With average monthly rents (per person) in Boston exceeding $1,000, that would be like adding $780-1000 to your annual rent bill. Ouch.
Get the full details on which areas have seen rent increases/decreases in Zillow's August 2015 market overview.
7. Getting an in-unit washer/dryer is rare.
Not counting luxury apartments, only *four percent* of apartments have in-unit laundry facilities. If you can settle for in-building, you’re MUCH more likely to find a place. A good rule of thumb is that a washer/dryer in-unit will add $150/month to your rent — and that's if you can find one. This one’s simple, but definitely a question that comes up a lot.
8. Connecting directly with a landlord can save you one month’s rent.
If you connect directly with a landlord, you don’t have to pay a broker fee (one month’s rent).
The best way to go straight to the owner is to check the by-owner section on Craigslist and browse the listings there, or you can check out this IFTTT recipe that Jumpshell made that will automatically email you new September 1st by-owner listings from Craigslist.
Note: Most landlords have “exclusive listing contracts” with brokerages in the city, so even if you connect with the landlord, they might ship you over to a broker to do some paperwork and you’ll have to pay the one-month’s rent fee. Super lame, but it just happens.
Here's a look at why brokers and agents (and fees) exist in Boston, for your reference.
9. Talking with the current tenants makes a big difference.
Which of these is not like the other? Landlord, broker, current tenant.
Bingo! The current tenant has no vested interest in you renting the apartment, so they don’t gain or lose anything if you pass it up. They’ll give you the full scoop on the apartment, the building and the neighborhood.
Be sure to ask your broker or the landlord if you could have an opportunity to talk with the current tenant.
10. You don’t have time to “think about it.”
If you’re buying something like a couch, you get to shop around, take a while to think about which one you like, go see a few more and then make the best choice for you.
If you’re looking for apartments, you do *not* get that luxury. You should assume 4 or 5 other people are trying to rent any apartment you see — in fact, that’s pretty much the case.
If you see an apartment that you like, you *will* miss out on it if you take a few days to “think about it.” While you’re looking at other apartments or reviewing your notes about which apartment you liked best, someone else will see the same apartment and rent it.
Be ready to quickly apply for any apartment you see in person. Look below more information on what goes into an apartment application.
11. Most apartment buildings in Boston are walk-ups.
You should definitely think about packing light. If you know you’ll be transporting some heavy stuff, do your best to guarantee that you have a squad of friends/family to help you on move-in day (and they must be as cheery and friendly as the people shown below).
Lugging a couch up five flights of stairs is exactly what it sounds like.
If you’re looking for an elevator, you’ll likely be looking at more “luxury” buildings that command aggressive rents (like $2,000+/month for a studio).
12. Beware the false value of a "no fee" apartment listing.
Bottom line, some landlords gamble that by listing a "no fee" apartment (i.e. not using a broker), they can add what the broker fee would have been into the monthly rent. Take the example of a hypothetical $2,700 two-bedroom apartment in Somerville:
If a broker had been involved, the renter would have paid them a $2,700 fee. Since there's obviously no fee with a "no fee" listing, the landlord split that $2,700 that would have been paid into monthly increments of $225 and add it to the monthly rent. Landlords might cut into that a little and only raise the rent $175/month to make it more palatable to the renter, but they still get $2,100 more per year. They make a gamble on not needing a broker to find new tenants and that tenants will be somewhat blind to the rent increase because of the prospect of not paying a broker fee.
Not a bad tactic for landlords, but also completely devalues the "great find" of a no fee apartment for renters.
Unfortunately, there's no real way to tell how many no fee listings are implementing an approach like this, but from an economics perspective it can make sense for landlords. Using a site like Rentometer can help you understand if the landlord is purposefully charging more to capitalize on the allure of the "no fee" label. They'll give you a cross-section of available apartments in the nearby area and tell you if the apartment's price is above, below or in line with the average listings prices currently on the market.
13. It’s rare, but stuff CAN happen after you sign a lease.
Unfortunately, stuff can happen when you’re renting in Boston. Here are just two recent examples that have come up on r/boston:
Note: These problems aren’t common. However, if you are one of the unlucky few who do encounter a crappy situation, it’s good to know where to look for help.
MassLegalHelp is a great starting resource for legal insight on private housing.
Did you know? Renters spend 20-30 hours just looking at listings.
Ugh. That's a ton of work. After all the work, you want to be sure you can lock up an apartment you like — so if you like an apartment when you go on a showing, you should be ready to apply on the spot or else run the risk of losing it. We're here to ensure that doesn't happen!
OK, so how exactly should you look for an apartment in Boston?
1. Get a "referral" from someone you know.
This is the Holy Grail of apartment renting — having someone you know recommend an apartment that you end up renting.
Why is a referral so good? Essentially, a referral lets you bypass looking for an apartment and dealing with a broker (and the broker fee — see below for details on brokers). Instead of spending time looking at apartment listings and ads and going on multiple showings, you can take a quick look at one unit and be done with it.
Unfortunately, referrals are really hard to pull off. History has shown us that the chances of knowing someone in Boston who knows about a unit opening up where you want to live in Boston that fits what you’re looking for are pretty slim. However, we know it's a super virtuous outcome when it does happen, so give it a try!
2. Use a rental brokerage
You can try going directly to an apartment brokerage and working with an agent, as well.
What do brokerages do? Brokerages get access to available apartment units from landlords in the market — then they advertise apartments, take people on showings and process rental applications.
Who gets to be a broker? Anyone can get their broker’s license by completing the required education and passing a written exam. Feel free to check out the details on how to get a Mass real estate license. A couple things to note about brokers:
- Heads up. Lots of brokers have a bad reputation in Boston — even amongst themselves.
- Then there's the broker’s fee. Brokers in Boston typically charge a fee equal to one month’s rent for whatever apartment they show you. If you’re using a broker, it’s crucial to factor in this cost to your expenses. Note: Before taking you on an apartment showing, the broker will have you sign a fee disclosure agreement. This document states that you will agree to pay the fee to the broker should you decide to rent the apartment.
Here's a whole presentation we put together on why brokers and agents in Boston actually provide a really vital service — and why (unfortunately) renters are stuck footing the whole apartment search bill right now.
3. Check Reddit
Reddit is awesome. It’s basically an online forum for specific communities (called “subreddits”) to post relevant/interesting/helpful content. Sometimes it delves into the ridiculous as well.
If you’re looking for an apartment in Boston, there’s a “bostonhousing” subreddit where people post about available apartments, roommates and sublets. It’s actually really consistently populated with legitimate posts — the moderators do a great job.
1. Visit the “bostonhousing” subreddit.
2. Browse the recent posts for anything that looks good. Older posts (beyond 4-5 days) will probably already be tapped out, meaning someone’s taken the apartment or sublet.
If you don’t see anything that looks good:
3. Submit a new text post. Tell the community what you’re looking for. You never know when a landlord might reach out to you with an apartment that’s just opening up, but hasn’t been put on the market yet.
4. Walk the neighborhood
A lot of landlords and property owners still place signs in their windows that indicate there are units available. They’ll either provide some contact information, or if the building has a leasing office on-site, you can just walk in and ask.
This one’s pretty simple — after deciding which neighborhood is right for you, take a cruise around the neighborhood and look at buildings you could see yourself living in.
Check for signs that indicate there are available units and get in touch about going on some showings.
5. Sigh...use Craigslist.
I hate having to write it, but at least while Jumpshell is growing, Craigslist offers a solid shot at finding a place. It'll just take hours and hours of browsing fake and duplicate ads, dealing with unscrupulous agents and probably going on a bunch of showings of places you don't like.
We've at least done some work to help you with the browsing part of Craigslist. Check out this IFTTT recipe below, which automatically send you new apartment ads for September lease dates from Craigslist.
Now, what do you need to apply for an apartment?
Image source: moveline.com
First thing's first — you should gather all your rental application information before you start looking at any apartments.
When you’re interested in an apartment, the landlord or property manager will ask for some information about you in the form of a “rental application” — typically revolving around your history as a renter and/or your ability to pay rent.
We've listed the information you should expect to provide in your application below — as well as a couple great tools for easily getting that information in one place and sending it to landlords.
What references do I need? You will need to provide at least two references along with your application. Typically, landlords and property managers will require references from:
- A previous landlord or property manager — here's an example of a landlord reference template (feel free to send this to a previous landlord!)
- An employer
Note for recent college graduates: references from resident advisors can be acceptable, but additional employer or personal references may be preferred. Avoid using family and friends and make sure you notify your references that you are applying for an apartment.
What is a credit score? In a nutshell, your credit score reflects how much money you’ve borrowed in the past and how good you were at repaying it. The higher your score, the more “proof” you have you can pay off your debts — in your case, the rent.
What does a credit score look like?
- Below 620: Poor
- 620 - 679: Fair
- 680 - 730: Good
- 730+: Very Good
→ How Do I Get My Credit Score
The following table was created by Doorsteps.com — a homebuying information resource that provides future homebuyers with 100% unbiased information, written by industry experts and insiders. They’ve made an incredibly clear and powerful resource on how to obtain your credit score, which we’ve included below — it’s the same process for renters!
Guess it yourself.
Use a free credit score estimator.
Free, but not entirely accurate.
Download your credit report.
Download your Annual Credit Report, and then pay for your credit score separately.
So while this is still a decent option, if you don’t want to be charged every month for the rest of time, you’ll likely need to make several phone calls and write several emails to get the on-going charges dropped. (At least we did, when we all tried this route).
Free for the credit report.
Then pay roughly $20 for your annual credit score.
Then pay $20 – $40 per month because you’re automatically enrolled in a plan that can be a hassle to undo.
Pay for your FICO score.
Access your free FICO credit score.
MyFICO is a branded credit score, developed and administered by a company called FICO, formerly Fair Isaac. It’s the Kleenex of credit score companies.
MyFico pulls from two of the three nationwide credit reporting companies: Equifax and TransUnion, so the result is essentially as accurate as any other option. Besides, 90% of lenders use the FICO score themselves, so you can’t really go wrong here.
It comes with some well designed tools to help you understand your score, and helps you see exactly what it is about your credit history that may be hurting it.
Free credit score.
If you get your score and it’s high enough (say, above 750), then you can simply cancel your subscription immediately and you’ve lost nothing.
If it is lower than you want, you will pay roughly $15 – $20 per month to use their tools and services to find ways to improve it, which we feel is worth it. (And by the way, we are not being paid for this — or any — endorsement. This is based on carefully researching and testing all available options ourselves.)
What if I don’t have a credit score?
You’ll probably need a guarantor. What’s a guarantor? Basically someone with income and a credit history that vouches for you as a renter.
Who needs a guarantor? If you don’t have a significant source of income or a credit history — often the case for students — landlords and property managers will require that someone who does have acceptable income and credit signs a form guaranteeing that rent will be paid.
This guarantor form states that while the lease is between the renter and the landlord, the guarantor is liable for the rent should the renter be unable to pay it. Essentially, the landlord/property manager can collect the rent from the guarantor should the renter be unable to pay rent.
Be ready to prepare your guarantor — often a family member — in advance as landlords and property managers need to verify their credit and the guarantor form will need to be notarized.
You can use this resource to help your guarantor find a notary public nearby or you can check out Notarize, an iOS app launched in early 2016 that let's you get any document notarized remotely. What a game changer!
Some graduate programs offer stipends to their students who pursue advanced degrees (for example, Boston University’s PhD Program).
If you are receiving a stipend from your school, make sure to bring confirmation to present to the landlord. It’s essentially your proof that you’ll be able to pay the rent, which makes you a much more attractive tenant than someone who doesn’t have the proof with them.
Pay Stub (or Pay Check)
Simple enough — showing a pay stub from your employer proves that you’re making an income. This proof helps make you an even more attractive applicant to landlords.