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Should you hire a rental agent to help with your apartment hunt?

By Sara Schwartz November 18

J.T. Glaster, left, and Lane West used a real estate agency to find a rental unit after moving from Dallas, Texas, to Washington, D.C. (Jason Hornick/for Express)

Lane West and his partner, J.T. Glaster, 24, had 36 hours to find the perfect apartment in D.C. The couple was relocating from Dallas to the District and had only part of one weekend to look. They had no idea where to start.

So West, 25, contacted Joe DeFilippo, a Realtor and rental agent with City Chic Real Estate, a boutique real estate brokerage that, in addition to finding homes for buyers, also helps renters find apartments.

DeFilippo emailed them links to about 14 places and the couple chose seven or eight to see in person during one whirlwind weekend.

“It was intense,” West said, laughing.

There was one place the couple liked in Logan Circle, but the closet space was too small, so they flew home not having found a place. Four days later, DeFilippo told them another unit had opened in the same building with plenty of closet space. A flurry of photos and one quick FaceTime session later and the couple signed the lease. He credits DeFilippo with guiding them toward good options (and through the sticker shock).

“I’m actually so thankful that we worked with a Realtor. I mean, we had no idea where to live,” West said. “He was able to calm our nerves and say ‘this is a really good location for what you’re paying.’”

While most D.C. renters choose to do their apartment-hunting online — hoping the too-good-to-be-true $1,000-a-month apartment in Mount Pleasant is for real — others work with rental agents from places like City Chic Real Estate, Apartment Detectives or the D.C. Apartment Company.

It’s not just a matter of convenience. Rental agents usually have access to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. and the Multiple Listing Service Listings. which feature real-estate information that goes beyond what you can find on Craigslist or other rental sites.

“So you’re going to get a little bit more inventory than what you would see if you searched on your own,” DeFilippo says.

Rental agents also have expert knowledge about popular neighborhoods, affordable rental rates, walkability, mass transit and where you can get the best burger near your apartment.

“It’s easier for people to have help and just say ‘here’s what I want’,” says Nancy Simmons Starrs, president of Apartment Detectives, a rental agency that helps people find apartments in D.C, Maryland and Virginia.

Starrs says that Apartment Detectives serves between 200 and 300 clients each year, some with very particular deal breakers — like those who requested that their doors face a certain way, or the client with allergies to chemicals so severe that he needed an apartment that hadn’t been recently painted or cleaned.

“New paint is an irritant, so we had to look for things that were NOT renovated,” Starrs says. “And we had to make sure that he spent enough time [viewing the apartment] to make sure there was no reaction to his allergies.”

Then there was the client who wanted a quiet apartment in busy Dupont Circle. Starrs says she looked for apartments that faced a courtyard, were on the top floor or were in a concrete building. “It’s more challenging,” she says. But “it can be done.”

But all this help doesn’t come free. City Chic Real Estate, which has helped more than a hundred renters this year, charges $350, which typically covers a look at around five apartments, and a few later if those don’t cut it.

“It’s like ‘House Hunters’ in a day. Instead of seeing three units, we see five,” DeFilippo says. “And it’s our hope that at the end of the day you’ve found your favorite.”

Apartment Detectives charges $399 to look in up to four neighborhoods, $449 to look into six and $499 to dive into eight neighborhoods.

Some real-estate companies, like Long and Foster, also have licensed agents who have access to the MRIS/MLS databases and can show apartments free of charge. Agents are paid by the apartment’s owner — typically a percentage of the first month’s rent. A lot of condo owners go this route to get renters. (But keep in mind that not all real-estate agents show apartments.)

Another option is to contact a property management company like Yarmouth Management or WC Smith. They’re usually looking for tenants for the properties they manage.

While those companies will only show you the properties they themselves manage, it’s a cheaper option: Yarmouth, which manages properties on Capitol Hill, asks for only a $20 application fee.

When Julie Maggioncalda, 29, and her fiance Daniel Romero, 28, were looking for a house to rent on Capitol Hill, they contacted Yarmouth.

Maggioncalda, a social worker at So Others Might Eat, liked the daily emailed list of available apartments and the public website that showed all available listings.

“If you were looking to rent, you could tell them what you were looking for, and their agents would help alert you when those sorts of properties came up,” she says. “That’s particularly helpful in D.C. because of the speed at which people rent — it’s very, very quick turnover.”

Maggioncalda said she and Romero used Yarmouth in tandem with other strategies, including setting up alerts on Padmapper.com. She especially liked that Yarmouth knew about soon-to-be-available properties because landlords alert them when tenants give their 30- or 60-day notices.

The company can even connect clients with previous tenants to learn about average utility costs and if the place has thin walls, she says.

“It was just one of the tools in the toolkit,” she says. “But it was a really helpful one.”

Tim Burr, the information manager for Yarmouth, advises would-be tenants to call the management company when they know a little bit about what they want.

“Spend some time in the area that you think you want to be in,” he said, adding that he always suggests that people call Yarmouth after they’ve first seen the building from the outside and decided whether they like area.

As for West, now that he lives in D.C. will he use City Chic to find another apartment when it’s time?

“One hundred percent. The fee is well worth it. They’re able to go through the application process and the negotiation back and forth with the landlord or whoever much easier than we could. And they seemed to find things that we couldn’t find,” West said. “I would use them again in a heartbeat.”





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