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Need a pad for grad school? These services may help.

The idea of moving from Vermont to Chicago for graduate school felt exciting, then terrifying, for Aaren T. Williams, now a first-year graduate student at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. "The thought of finding an apartment there was overwhelming," says Williams, who had never lived in a large city and knew no one in Chicago.

But thanks to the Chicago-based real estate company StudentSpace, the process went far more smoothly than she expected. When Williams flew to Chicago to find a rental, she and an agent from the company toured several apartments in one afternoon that offered everything she was looking for: a safe neighborhood, a nearby grocery store, a free gym and proximity to mass transportation — and all within her budget. By the end of the day, she'd signed a lease.

StudentSpace is one of several specialized real estate agencies, including The Next Step Realty and MyGradPad in New York City, popping up in major cities to help graduate students find apartments. These companies aim to make the rental process more student-friendly than traditional real estate companies by spending time with students face to face or via phone or Skype to determine their requirements and spelling out what students need to do to be qualified renters. Such companies also know which buildings and neighborhoods around each school are best suited for students.

"We know the popular buildings and we know the hidden gems," says Tyler Roth, president of StudentSpace. Often, he says, traditional brokers take students to neighborhoods that "just don't make sense," because they aren't near any form of public transportation that can get them to school. Working exclusively with students has also helped StudentSpace tailor their real estate guidance. Brokers use their in-depth knowledge of the student experience to help make the real estate hunt as smooth as possible.

"We often recommend students live near school the first year," says Roth. "Once they get the lay of the land and learn public transportation, they often want to live a little further out. We also get a lot of couples who don't necessarily want to be in the buildings where many of the other grad students are."

The brokerage fees are more student-friendly, too: StudentSpace agents earn their fees from the landlords or property managers once a lease is signed so the client doesn't pay anything. Clients who find rentals through MyGradPad or Next Step pay brokerage fees of about 12 percent of the annual rent instead of the typical 15 percent for New York City.

Such agencies also aim to help students avoid the uncertainty that finding an apartment via the Web, on such sites as Craigslist, can bring, including finding that the listing you want is already rented or a scam.

Blair Brandt, co-founder of The Next Step Realty, says that his clients also have improved credibility in the eyes of landlords, who tend to lump grad students in with party-prone undergrads and consider them a rental risk. His agency has worked to reverse that thinking. Now, the building owners Brandt works with have relaxed their concerns based on the many good tenants he and his colleagues have brought in.

As a grad student who uses such companies, "You are benefitting from the qualifications of people who came before you," Brandt says.

And if you're not going to school in Chicago or Manhattan, take heart. Next Step plans to open offices in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco this year. MyGradPad in Manhattan is laying plans to branch out into the Boston, Dallas, Miami and Hoboken, N.J., markets.