I started looking for my place about two months before my lease was up. I didn't want to settle in something I wasn't happy with for the fear of being homeless. Some brokers wouldn't work with me because they said it was too soon. But I did see quite a few places that would be available in two to three months. So I would start my search early.
I worked with a broker and combed craigslist like crazy. I really liked the broker (she was with Ideal) and would have been happy to pay her commission if we found something through her. Unfortunately she didn't show us anything we were interested in. My husband worked with another broker (different companies) and didn't find anything with her as well. Every spare moment I had I hit refresh (this was before I learned about the RSS feed). We were both super busy so the only day we were both available to see apartments was Sunday. But the good ones go really quickly (we already lost one because we moved too slowly). So one of us would see the apartment and videotape it for the other one to see. We spent all our spare time seeing a ton of places and being disappointed. Before work, after work, weekdays and weekends. We barely slept and had no life outside of work and searching for an apartment.
Craigslist was a mixed bag -- some were legit and some were scams. There was one ad where the broker refused to communicate by phone and only wanted to do everything by text. He texted us the address and time to meet. When we got there the broker wasn't there but there were some kids playing outside. We waited and waited. Eventually one of the kids asked us if we are looking to rent an apartment. When we said yes, he told us what apartment # it was. When we got there the apartment there was a couple fornicating. And the apartment was horrid.
I hit refresh one day at work and came across a craigslist ad by owner with no pictures. The ad had been posted for 15 minutes. Hmm... I was suspicious as there were no pics. But I decided to send an Email anyway as I didn't have anything to lose and I've already been disappointed countless times. What's one more disappointment? I visited the place the very next day early in the AM before work. Place was legit and accurate to posting description. I really liked it. I had to videotape it because my husband was out of town for work. The landlady had a list of 20 people wanting to see it. I was #1 on the list. Turned out that our landlady saw 20 people that day -- 18 wanted it. But because I was #1, I had first choice. My husband saw the video and eventually saw the place in person. We passed our background and credit check. Woo hoo! It was done!
Huge load off of my plate. I took a gamble by responding to an ad with no pics and it paid off. If I listened to other people telling me to look for a place 1 month before my lease is up I would have never gotten this apartment. The other apartment I was interested in was also listed 2 months prior to the move-in date. All the stars were aligned this time. I'm grateful we found a place that we're happy with and hope to stay here for a while.
Use whatever means you can to find a place. Tell everyone you know you're looking. Check craigslist whenever you can. Don't be dissuaded if there are no pics (though I'll bet that 99 times out of 100, it'll be a dump). If you have the means to hire a broker do so, especially if you'll be staying at the apartment for a while. The brokers fee spread out over several years isn't that bad, especially if it gains you access to apartments that you would normally not have in a no-fee situation. If you plan to only be there for a year, I'd probably try to get a no-fee place. Visit some buildings and ask to see the manager to see if there are any vacancies or impending vacancies. Whatever you do, best of luck and I hope you find something that makes you happy.