The $13 Must-Have Tool to Always Take on Your Apartment Hunt

Apartment viewings kind of make no sense when you think about it. If you live in New York, like I do, an apartment viewing is about a 10-15 minute period in which you’re supposed to ask a couple questions, look around for any big problems, and then leave to see another apartment. Most of the time, since apartments come and go so fast, you only have one meeting to make your decision—or you risk losing it to someone who moved faster.

This rapid-fire speed means you take a lot of pictures you can send to your parents, roommates, friends—really anyone’s opinion you trust—and for yourself, of course. Since the apartment is small (and your phone’s field of view is pretty narrow), you point your phone at the kitchen, in the bathroom, at the nooks and crannies of where the floor meets the walls, and that shot where you squeeze yourself into the deepest part of the corner to get the whole space in one shot. Then you go to a coffee shop and try to reassemble these flat photos as some kind of grand mind collage that will be useful to you later.

The problem? These photos we take are never really useful (it’s pretty impossible to recreate an accurate view of the room by these photos). Also you sometimes only take pictures of the photogenic stuff, so you’re left forgetting the ugly stuff until move-in day.

Example: In my now apartment, I assumed I had just forgotten to take a picture at an angle that included the bedroom closet. Then come move-in day, I found out the place didn’t have closets. I ended up having to buy these sort of armoire storage centers from IKEA later—but my intended decor plan was completely thrown off, and I had to allocate some of my fun decorating money to storage.

After kicking myself over this mistake for a few days, I realized a silly $13 phone accessory I had bought at Office Depot could have saved me big time.

Enter the fisheye lens: If you’re not familiar, it clips on over your iPhone’s camera lens, casting a wider net around the room— so you can get a good view of three walls in every image.

I went to an open house this weekend to test out my theory, and lo-and-behold, it worked. From any corner, you see every surface of the apartment and where they all meet. It’s almost impossible to miss anything when you look over the information later. It pops right on and off the phone too, so there’s not a lot of set up to worry about. You’re free to spend that mental energy asking the real estate agent why the old tenants moved out or if the super is on site or not.

The image that the lens makes will be distorted, obviously, so it shouldn’t be the only pictures you take. A good way to approach using the fisheye lens is to take all the pictures that you normally do, but also take a fish eye shot from each corner of the room. Think of the fisheye pictures as the control group, something to check back with if you need to remember how the room all fits together, proportionally.

In a real estate market where seeing your prospective new home happens faster than it will take just to sign the new lease, gathering as much information as possible is critical in making an informed decision. This tiny, pocket-sized tool has made all the difference in opening my eyes to the apartment after I’ve left.

Note: Though these models are made for iPhone, they’re pretty universal and will work on most Androids, too.

Don’t feel like heading to Office Max (or want to cut costs), there’s this bare bones operation model for a little under $6. It comes with three lenses that have slightly less impact. It’ll absolutely get the job done, but isn’t worth much once you sign on the dotted line.

Or you could spend $24 and get a lens kit for your phone with far better glass to rapidly improve your Instagram game. Sure, you’re getting it so that you don’t get snowed when looking for this new apartment. But remember, once you move in, you’ll start decorating and all you’ll want to do is post pictures of your succulents, your carefully layered bookshelf, and the way your golden retriever contrasts your blue sofa. These lenses (including wide angle and micro lens) are going to make all those moments even better.

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