Nothing is free, and that’s especially true of real estate. So true, that even the word free should set off alarm bells in your head.

After the mess I had experienced with bad real estate agents (see Bullying Realtors and Do I Need A Real Estate Agent?) I found an agent on referral from a coworker.

The agent worked for, “Chicago’s largest FREE apartment finding service” as it’s dubbed on their website. These agents will show you as many apartments as you want with no fees and they have access to thousands of listings in the city (the “no fees” part, you will later read, is not true).

The realtor we worked with there was great. He worked within our parameters and contacted us daily with new listings. He even met us at 8PM one night when he heard a place was available he thought we’d love. A week or two later we found our apartment.

We loved the place and decided to apply before someone else did so our agent rushed us to the ApartmentPeople office. Once there we were separated from him and given application documents.

The application forms were pretty minimal, and the company needed proof of employment forms from my roommate and I before the application would be processed.

Next, we were asked to pay a, one-time, nonrefundable, $200 application fee to the company. It sounded familiar, but I asked about what the fee was for. The fee supposedly replaced all of the other application fees you would have to pay at other realty groups (which we did come across). ApartmentPeople’s reasoning was if you wanted to apply to five apartments at other companies it might cost you $75 a pop, so the $200 flat fee was cheaper than paying as you go. We wrote a check and forked over the cash.

Next, the man whom I had never met before asked for a month’s rent from my roommate and me. He said we had to put down the money to prove we were serious, and if we didn’t get the apartment it would be returned.

I asked him if he meant this was earnest money (I do work for ThinkGlink afterall…) and he said, “Yes, it’s like a good faith deposit.”

“And you won’t cash it” I asked. “No,” he said.

There I sat at the desk, across from me someone just took $700 of my money in ten minutes. I had no guarantee that I would get the apartment, no lease has been signed, I hadn’t met the management company that owned the apartment and I had the sneaking suspicion I’d been took.

The money was cashed three days later; at least 36 hours before we were told we got the apartment.

When I applied to college, you applied to a few schools, got accepted to a couple and then chose which one to attend. I thought it was the same with apartments. Apparently not, according to ApartmentPeople. For them, it’s more like early admission: if you get in, you’re going.

Have you ever felt taken or tricked by a real estate company? What did you do?