"It was a nail-biter -- finding a place to live, without help and without many resources -- but, in the end, I feel there was some grace supporting me all along. "
How I did it: Scoured craigslist ads HOURLY, searched virtually every neighborhood within an hour of the city for something affordable. Used google to check out street views to see what intersections looked like when the ads provided locations.
Took me a while to narrow down the realistic towns, and to get a feel for which ads were probably dodgy.
I didn't want to deal with a broker fee, but it turned out in the end it was best to just search ALL apartments. And just search my rent range, neighborhood and pet needs with EXTREME frequency. It's first come first serve - so if you're the first to reply, and you say you want to see it at the first available appointment, then you have the best odds. Figure out if you'll have to pay a broker fee later.
Lessons & tips: September 1st is a crazy time to find an apartment, especially if you live in a college town and are looking for cheap housing. If you can - think ahead and get your current lease extended by a month until October 1st to buy yourself some time until things die down.
Landlords can force you to pay broker fees in September because the competition for apartments is fierce and they can get away with it.
If you select "pics only" in the craigslist search, you might only find places that have already been listed a while. When a new listing comes to a real estate agent, they put up the text description right away, but then they need to get photos of the place and that can take them a day. So if you look at the text ads, you can find the NEWEST listings and those are the places that might be cute that other people aren't competing for yet, so you might be the first person to express interest and have better odds of getting a bid in first.
Resources: A lot of storage places have a deal where you get the first month free without signing a contract or anything. I made a backup plan for myself by reserving an apartment-sized storage unit where all I had to pay was the registration fee for the first month ($29) just in case I needed to move everything into storage. And, I found a week-to-week hotel that takes pets for a fee. Having a back-up plan takes a little of the stress off. That helps a lot.