Apartment Shopping Online - How do you tell if it's worth seeing in person?

My husband & I are moving halfway across the country (to the Framingham, MA area if anyone knows of a 2-bedroom apartment w/ in-unit laundry within a half-hour drive) in July.

Since we live in St. Louis, we’re currently browsing the interwebs for apartements, and my husband will be visiting the area again in May to look at places in person. Since we have a limited time in which to actually look at apartments in person, we’re trying to narrow down our options as much as we can by browsing online. However, it’s nearly impossible to weed out the crap apartments that seem like good deals from the ones that are actually good deals.

We don’t care if it’s in a complex or not - actually, I’d prefer not since we’d never use the pool and a gym membership can be gotten fairly cheaply most places, plus I prefer to exercise at home or outside, so we’d be paying for stuff we won’t use.

Also, any advice for finding a house to rent? We’ve seen a few in our price range, but it’s been hard to search since most are for sale, and we’re NOT buying until we’ve lived in the area for a little while and really know where we want to live more permanantly.

And finally, are sites like Apartment Ratings any use at all? Most of the reviews I see are negative for pretty much anything that’s out there (aside from places that have only 1 or 2 reviews), but I suspect that’s because people just like to complain, and the people who have good experiences don’t bother rating apartments.

One thing you might try is hit Google Maps and see if they have the Street View option for that area. Getting a look at the front of the building and the general neighborhood could help you make a decision.

You’re right about the lack of positive reviews, I think. My coworker said that her landlord, after quick response to various maintenance issues and generally being a good landlord, sheepishly asked if she could consider putting in a good review on him as it seemed like the satisfied renters didn’t bother. She admitted she’d never thought of doing so.

I’ve never really had good luck unless I was in the actual area - especially for renting houses from individuals. When my wife and I moved from Atlanta to Sacramento we stayed in a hotel for a week while we searched for a place. We used Craiglist as a guide and basically visited everything that met our criteria and didn’t have an obvious deal breaker. Man, we saw some dumps, but we did eventually find a small apartment that worked.

After a year I got sick of the tiny apartment and we moved into a rented house. This would have been far more tricky from a distance - here in Sacramento Craigslist is not nearly as consistently used as it is in Atlanta. By this time we knew the areas well and ended up driving down every single street in the areas we were interested in, looking for signs. We love our current house - and wouldn’t have found it otherwise - no listing whatsoever, just a sign outside.

Thanks for the advice, fellow Dopers!

Fortunately, my husband will get at least a few days in the area to look, but we’re hoping to have a narrower list of places before he does. My parents live about an hour and a half from the area we’ll be living in, and have volunteered to drive by any places that seem promising to check them out, but I hate to ask them to drive down there when they have no other reason to go.

Craigslist seems to have more of what we want than places like rent.com, apartments.com, etc. The rent.com sites are all showing us the same 6-8 apartment complexes no matter how or when we search. Craigslist has all the same places too, but they also have a lot more variety, and places that are in smaller buildings and not giant compounds.

Check the photos for evidence of a fish-eye lens or something similar. Look for curves where lines should be straight toward the edges of the photos, or where the angles at the corner of the room look “wrong”. With that said, I kept some of the realtor’s photos of the house that I ended up buying so that whenever I need to explain the concept of “non-Euclidean geometry” I’ve got a reference point.

You can get a pretty good idea of the facilities in the neighbourhood with Google Maps. Remember to allow for how far you’d be willing to walk to the shops/library/etc. A twenty minute walk may not seem like much, but when you’re carrying twenty kilos of shopping it’s harder than you’d think.

Also have a look at random places in the surrounding area with Google Street View - if you see a lot of run-down places with graffiti everywhere you might like to move on.

This is funny because just last night we were looking on Craigslist, and a promising apartment had several very nice-looking pictures - plus one that was obviously two pasted together, so badly that the windows overlapped at the top (but not the bottom, it was really crooked!), and the floor looked like it had a fault-line running through the middle of it.