Top 5 reasons to avoid Chicago apartment rental brokers

Aerial view of River North, Chicago

Chicago’s apartment rental brokers a/k/a locators a/k/a finders would like you to believe that it’s difficult, time-consuming and frustrating to find a suitable apartment in downtown Chicago. They’ll tell you that you need their help, and that their services won’t cost you anything. Taking any of those claims at face value is a serious mistake, and relying on them can be costly.

Here’s YoChicago’s take on the top five reasons to avoid apartment brokers. It’s based on our decades of in-depth familiarity with how they operate, and our knowledge of the downtown apartment rental market.

#1 – It’s faster, easier and safer to find apartments on your own
Before you begin looking for an apartment, it’s critical to decide where you want to live. If you’re new to Chicago and will be working downtown, we strongly recommend that you rent within walking distance of where you work or within a short walk of public transit that gets you to work in a reasonable amount of time. If you work in the suburbs, rent in a location that has convenient train or expressway access to your office.

Once you have a solid fix on where you want to live, head to YoChicago’s neighborhood apartment guides in the right column on this page. We list every major building in the downtown neighborhoods (except for a very few that you’re better off not knowing about). Our guides have links to near real-time rent and availability info, video tours of many apartments, and links to reviews with objective info about what’s available in the immediate area of the buildings. In a very short time you’ll be able to identify the buildings you consider worth visiting. The building websites make it easy for you to set up appointments to visit, and many of the buildings welcome walk-ins.

If you can’t find the type of apartment you want at a rent you can afford, give some serious consideration to trading down on apartment size, features or building amenities before considering less convenient neighborhoods with more affordable rents. You’ll find that where you live is a lot more important to your enjoyment of the city than the actual apartment you live in.

#2 – You’ll get more accurate, up-to-date info from the buildings
Broker ads are larded with misleading claims, bait-and-switch come-ons and inaccurate or out-of-date information about vacancies. The brokers flood websites with repetitive ads designed to frustrate and confuse you into contacting them. Avoid the time-wasting clutter and use YoChicago’s guides to go to building websites where you’ll find accurate info about the building, and near real-time rent and availability info.

#3 – Brokers can’t or won’t show you some of the best apartments
Brokers tell you that they can show you everything. That’s simply not true. Some buildings don’t allow brokers to show their apartments. Other buildings only cooperate with a limited number of brokers.

Apartment brokers routinely – and often illegally – advertise buildings that they’re unable or unwilling to show you.

Apartment brokers are likely to steer you to the buildings paying the highest commissions. A broker who takes you to an MLS-listed apartment is likely to receive a half-month’s rent as commission. Most managed buildings pay brokers a full month’s rent as their commission, although some pay a flat fee of less than a month’s rent and some pay 125% or 150% of a month’s rent.

#4 – Brokers can’t get you the best deal
Brokers tell you that they can negotiate a better deal for you. That’s not true.

The agreements that brokers sign with apartment buildings typically require that they agree not to negotiate rents or terms with the building on behalf of renters. You can negotiate on your own when you’re working with a broker, but you might not know that, and the building is far less likely to give you a deal when it has to pay a month’s rent (or more) to your broker.

#5 – You risk working with a rookie, a shark or a criminal
If you’re daunted by the prospect of finding an apartment on your own, you should know that finding an honest and knowledgeable apartment broker on your own is far more difficult. There aren’t very many of them, and they typically don’t rely on ads to attract clients.

The apartment rental service industry in Chicago is a high-turnover business with many rookies and many unlicensed agents. It’s a criminal offense to operate as a leasing agent without being properly licensed. Over the years I’ve spoken to many rookie agents who are stunningly ignorant, callously ignore relevant laws, and will do just about anything to make a buck.

Almost all of the agents who’ve been in the business long enough to know anything useful about the buildings are accomplished con artists, and some of them have criminal records for everything from drug dealing to identity theft.

Most positive reviews of apartment brokers at Yelp, Google+, Facebook and other sites are fraudulent. Ignore them.

If you’re determined to work with a broker, ignore everyone associated with a rental service on YoChicago’s do-not-call list. Contact one of Chicago’s brand-name, major full-service brokerage firms and ask the office manager to refer to you an experienced agent who works with renters.

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