Our family had long planned to move in the summer of 2020, never dreaming that COVID-19 would bring everything in the country to a screeching halt. And yet even amid stay-at-home orders, we still wanted to move. Our son was graduating from high school and preparing for university in the fall, and, after living in Los Angeles for 20 years, we were ready for a change of scenery.
We were able to kick off our official search for a new place earlier than expected, in April. With our kids participating in virtual classes, we knew they didn’t physically need to be near their school.
Still, we were anxious about the move because touring properties and moving locations increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19. We were undeterred, but wanted to do the home search in a way to minimize our exposure risk.
Relocating during a pandemic meant we had to plan more carefully and strategically. A laptop and smartphone, always valuable tools, became indispensable. Finding a new home in a new city wasn’t easy, but we made it happen. Here’s how.
Reach out to local real estate agents
The area we wanted to relocate to was over 120 miles away in the San Diego area. I knew the general area but had to rely on several local real estate agents who helped me narrow down potential areas based on our top criteria, including a good school district; safety; affordability; and proximity to entertainment, shopping, and leisure activities. They also told me the average rent for each neighborhood.
There are ways to test-drive a neighborhood without setting foot in it, but it’s always smart to reach out to local agents who know the area.
Comb through the listings
Real estate agents can help steer you in the right direction, but it’s on you to do the heavy lifting of searching for rental listings. To my surprise, quite a few properties were available in the area we wanted. All the listings used pictures, videos, and virtual tours, and their written details were descriptive. I would then follow up with the person showing the property with more questions and to request an in-person showing.
But viewing the property was a whole ‘nother thing. Many listings came with an online questionnaire designed to limit viewings to only serious inquiries.
In at least two instances, after completing the online questionnaire, I was immediately called by the owners. Although we had not yet toured the properties, they each grilled me about my job and my husband’s employment, our credit scores, and a few other things. That alone ended my interest in both of those properties, to their sellers’ surprise.
Visit the property in person, if possible
Photos and videos can get you only so far, which is why I wanted to see the properties in person. Some properties used lockboxes, allowing you to view them at your convenience. The property managers advised us to wear masks and gloves when entering. We always went in alone, with the agent or owner of the property waiting outside, also wearing a mask.
One red flag to look for is a mandatory payment to see a home. For the first property we saw, we were told to “apply” and pay $45 per person to tour it. I really loved the place on video but when I saw it in person, it was a huge disappointment. It was tiny, dark, depressing, and completely different from what was portrayed online. I immediately asked for a refund, and my money was returned quickly.
Lesson learned? Despite COVID-19, seeing a unit in person, or having an agent do a live walk-through, is still very important.
Landing a property
After a month of searching, we found a townhome we really liked that had been listed for only a few hours. We quickly made an appointment to see it. The video and photos did not do the place justice. After I walked through it, I knew we had finally found the one.
The application was done online, and we uploaded all the required documents. Once we were approved, we paid a deposit and signed our lease online. We printed a walk-through checklist, did the walk-through, and emailed back the completed checklist.
Everything was surprisingly easy. The property management company was very helpful and responded quickly to our questions. Fact: I never met our property manager in person.
Rising to the challenge during COVID-19
Finding a rental during a pandemic presented us with more challenges than normal and required us to plan ahead even more. For example, the area we wanted to move to was over two hours away. Since we’d be out for a large part of the day, we always had to think about where we could use the restroom, since nearly everything was closed. Home Depot was open, though, and was a favorite spot.
After a long day of searching for properties, sometimes we had to go out of our comfort zone and order takeout from local restaurants and eat in the car. Before that, we had been too scared to eat out for fear of being exposed to the coronavirus.
And, of course, we had hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes in the car at all times.
On the positive side, each time we made the long drive to look at properties, the highway was wide open because people were still sheltering in place. In Southern California, an absence of traffic is something to celebrate.
Once our search for a place was finally over, we turned our sights to the next giant task at hand: moving.