Should you use a leasing agent?

Renters and industry experts give the lowdown on apartment-finding services.

Illustration: Anders Nilsen

Three years ago, Marion Campbell found her dream apartment on Craigslist: a Lincoln Park two-bedroom in a walk-up brownstone. She called the listed leasing agency and set up an appointment to view it on a Saturday.

Campbell, now 27, showed up at 8am at the address her agent gave her and was surprised to find the agent waiting with a car. The apartment Campbell wanted to see wasn’t ready, the agent said, but they could look at other options while they waited for their showing.

“I had a bad feeling about it,” Campbell says. “You know when you’re about to get duped. I was baited by the place I wanted to see.”

For the next five hours, the agent drove Campbell to five high-rise buildings in Lincoln Park, the Gold Coast, the Loop and the South Loop. Campbell told the agent she didn’t like any of them. They were either out of her price range or outside her preferred neighborhood. “I stuck with it because she was my only way to see the other apartment,” Campbell says. The agent assured her: “You’ll get to see your place later.”

At around 2pm her agent’s phone rang. “You’ll never believe it,” Campbell recalls her agent saying after hanging up. Someone else had applied to rent the apartment Campbell wanted to see.

Looking back, Campbell wonders if the apartment was ever available, and she says she no longer trusts apartment-finding companies. She found the Lincoln Park two-bedroom she’s lived in for the last three years by dealing directly with a building-management company.

To be sure, there are good eggs and bad eggs in any profession—and leasing agents are no exception. But in this fierce rental market, leasing agents, both good and bad, are hard to avoid. At the end of December, the metro-Chicago area had a rental vacancy rate of just 10.4 percent, compared to 15.3 percent the same time in 2009. The foreclosure crisis has pushed many former homeowners into renting; meanwhile, longtime renters—some unsure about job security, others confident home prices haven’t yet bottomed out—aren’t snapping up properties on the market. The result: a surplus of renters.

“The market is definitely turning into a Manhattan/Brooklyn kind of thing where you have to come with your checkbook on the tour,” says Adrien Bellagio, a broker at American Realty Pros, which has offices in Lakeview, Bucktown and Arlington Heights. “The days of browsing are gone.”

So may be the days of easy Craigslist searches and simple for rent sign hunts (though it can be done successfully). This is the era of leasing agents, who are saturating listing sites, outnumbering independent landlords—and, sometimes, duping the anxious renter. Yet, as agents gain a stronghold on the rental market, a company like Apartment People, Apartment Guys or Chicago Apartment Finders may be the most efficient route to your dream digs. You just have to know what to watch out for.

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