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Apartment Hunting for Freelancers: 5 Tips for a Stress-Free Search

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I’ve been fortunate to spend extended periods of time in some of the world’s most cosmopolitan destinations. I spent my first year of university in London, followed by a four year stint in Paris, before I decided to relocate to New York. While each of these experiences has been exhilarating in its own right, there’s one really unpleasant aspect of living in a global city: the dreaded housing hunt. If you noticed I was largely absent for the month of May, you can blame it on this very process. I’m now officially a resident of Brooklyn folks.

New York has one of the most bizarre rental markets in the nation. Most renters only have a week or two to search, lots of listings are rented on the first day they hit the market, and the real estate industry is largely dominated by “brokers.” These are agents who show you apartments and charge a steep fee, often to the tune of 15% of your annual rent. All of that happens before you provide your paperwork, which generally includes the following documents: recent pay stubs, an employment verification letter, a tax return, landlord reference letters, and bank statements. Of course, the process also includes a full credit and rental history check. Phew.

If this process weren’t stressful enough, I’m not a “traditional worker,” as I’m self-employed. This can make it extremely difficult to convince a landlord that I’m financially stable enough to make rent. Furthermore, most landlords expect their tenants to make an annual salary that equals at least 40 times the monthly rent. In other words, I need to earn at least $80,000/year to qualify for a $2,000 apartment.

No matter whether you live in Cleveland, Los Angeles, or Tallahassee, it isn’t uncommon to face a tricky battle as a freelancer looking for a new rental home. I’ve managed to make it work in foreign countries and markets like NYC, however, so it is possible. These are my top tips for impressing landlords and securing your dream apartment with the least amount of stress possible.

1. Gather the Right Documents

I shared a list of documents most landlords want above, but I can’t always provide them. A letter from my employer? Recent pay stubs? These are foreign ideas in my freelancer brain.

Instead, I try to come up with alternatives to pacify landlords. If you use the services of a professional accountant, many freelancers request a certified letter that details annual earnings. I don’t personally work with an accountant, but instead keep my own records and file taxes on my own. If you work through a freelance portal like oDesk or Elance, you can print earnings reports. I use statements from PayPal to show payments received from clients, and my invoice platform helps me demonstrate ongoing revenue streams.

2. Make the Right Impression

While some of my documents differ from what you’d find in the average Joe’s application, I make sure to carefully gather every single document I could possible need and organize these efficiently before visiting a potential apartment. Making the right impression is essential! I draw up a convenient cover sheet that lists every document provided, along with a short description. I want to oversimplify the approval process, while also demonstrating the strength of my file. I also try to walk the broker or landlord through my documents, if possible, to explain any discrepancies or questions.

You might be surprised how well this strategy can work in your favor. The apartment I just moved into was represented by a broker who was shocked I had everything ready to go at the apartment showing. His words? “This clearly isn’t your first time at the rodeo.” Mission accomplished.

3. Be the Early Bird

I know the rental market is extremely tight in New York. Most brokers and landlords work on a first-come, first-served basis, which makes it imperative to make my case quickly and succinctly. Of course, you won’t always have the luxury of seeing an apartment before anybody else gets the chance.

My quick thinking helped me land my new apartment a few short weeks ago. I had scheduled a viewing with a broker, only to find three other people waiting when I arrived. I made sure to proactively take a look around the apartment and ask the broker to explain the application process before anybody else got a chance. When he said, “put down a security deposit to hold the place,” I ran down the street and sent him several thousand dollars via my iPhone. I told you New York is nutty!

No more than five minutes passed between my crossing the threshold and sending a deposit. And yet, I just barely beat out one of the other people viewing the listing who was preparing to make a deposit of her own. Come prepared, be aggressive, and pounce when the time in right—in some cases, that means immediately.

4. Have a Backup Plan

Renting as a freelancer requires you to think quickly on your feet. Facing questions about your earnings and career is inevitable, and some landlords may show trepidation in signing a lease with you. For this reason, you’ll want to have a backup plan in place.

If it’s financially feasible, you can offer to pay an additional month or two in advance, which helps assuage a landlord’s fears. In New York, this can mean coming up with several thousand dollars extra, however, which many times isn’t easy. Instead of an extra-large deposit, a cosigner could be an option. If you don’t have a local guarantor, some companies provide cosigning services for a fee.

5. Get Ready for Your Next Move

So, you made it through the housing hunt alive? Start planning now for your next big move. I know after weathering a stressful apartment hunt, the last thing I want to do is think about another apartment search—and yet, plans change, roommates move, and budgets fluctuate. I’ve lived in a total of eight different apartments in the past seven years, so take it from me, it makes sense to plan ahead.

Consider opening a savings account for your next move, which can help you cover all the crazy costs that come with it. If you work extensively with a particular client, you might also want to think about leveraging that relationship with your landlord. For example, my largest client was happy to provide an earnings verification report for me in my most recent housing hunt. Gather this stuff in advance and you’ll be well ahead of the curve.

Finding an apartment is super stressful, but the elation that comes with a new pair of keys is indescribable. Finding an apartment as a freelancer is no walk in the park, but it’s far from mission impossible. Equip yourself with the right strategy and you too could land a dream place to call your own.

How do you deal with apartment hunting as a freelancer? Perhaps you own a home and carry a mortgage—how did you provide proof of income?