7 Tips for Renting Your First Apartment

Updated: May 28, 2021

Moving out of your parents’ house and venturing to rent your own apartment is an exciting step, but it can also be overwhelming and intimidating, especially if you are a first-time renter. While there are multiple aspects to consider before signing your name on the dotted line, this article will highlight the essential seven tips for successfully renting your very first apartment.

Know Your Budget

Knowing what you can afford is the most important step in renting an apartment. Not only will it help prevent you from being stuck eating ramen noodles three times a day, it will also help streamline the application process since landlords typically require you to earn a certain percentage more than the monthly rent itself.

The general rule of thumb is to allow for housing expenses to take up to 30% of your monthly income before taxes. When you are calculating your expenses, be sure to take everything into account and make a list with an average of what you typically spend within each category. If you want to make cuts, be realistic: Will you actually forego your daily trek to the coffee shop? What if you get sick and need to see a doctor? Consider these things before deciding your rent budget.

A second rule is this: If you can’t afford it, don’t look at it.

It may sound obvious, but it’s easier said than done. How many times have you been in the market for a high-priced item and slipped into the temptation of window shopping for options outside of your budget (been there, done that)? All of a sudden, the options you can afford seem subpar and you’re already discontent with what you will get and you haven’t even made the purchase yet.

Finally, when you are putting your budget together, don’t forget about all of the upfront costs that come with renting an apartment. You can expect to be required to pay most, if not all, of the following:

  • Application fee (often between $30-$50, but will vary from landlord to landlord).

  • Security deposit (this can range from a couple hundred dollars to a month’s rent!).

  • Pet deposit/fee, if applicable (usually a couple hundred dollars).

  • First month’s rent (some landlords require the last month’s rent as well).

  • Setup costs for necessary utilities.

  • Moving expenses.

  • Appliances (e.g. washer and dryer), if the landlord does not provide them.

These expenses add up fast, so it’s a good idea to have an amount equal to about two or three months of rent on hand before you head to the leasing office.

Having trouble finding an affordable location? Consider a roommate. You can share costs and save yourself a lot of money, but you will most likely have to be willing to compromise on some things. You will be sharing a living space with another person who has different habits than you, after all!

Understand the Utilities for Which You Are Responsible.

Apartment complexes approach utilities differently, so make sure you understand what you will be paying and who you will be paying. For example, in my area, complexes usually pay the city for the water and allocate each unit’s bill based on the size of the unit and the number of residents within that unit. In this case, you would pay the complex the amount owed instead of the city. While it is more convenient, this isn’t the most ideal situation since you can’t have nearly as much control over your bill. If you can avoid allocated utilities that’s probably your best bet, but it’s not always possible.

Some apartments also have a preferred provider for various utilities, with a common one being the internet. Sometimes you can receive a discount on services if you use the preferred provider, so be sure to ask when you are looking into the location.

Additionally, your bill often includes various small fees to cover other utilities including trash pickup services, pest control, and other maintenance fees (e.g., if your complex has a pool).

Always See the Location in Person

Repeat. Always see the location in person before signing anything.

Virtual tours are becoming more and more popular these days, and while they are certainly helpful, nothing beats an actual walkthrough. You just never know what the pictures online could be strategically omitting (or exaggerating!).

Before we were married and my husband and I were apartment hunting to prepare for life together, I lived almost 300 miles away from him and the area where we would be living. He was also incredibly busy at the time, so we tag-teamed. I found options within our budget that had availability and made the phone calls, and he visited the actual locations.

I cannot begin to count the number of locations that looked great online but in reality they were very much the opposite.

Even just a drive-by to see the complex in general can be helpful because the state of the property can tell you a lot. Are the buildings well-maintained? If there’s a pool, is it relatively clean? Is there trash everywhere? You are paying your hard-earned money to live here, after all, not to mention all the maintenance fees they require.

Ideally, you would visit the neighborhood both during the day and at night and take note of the kinds of people and behaviors you see hanging around there. Are they families with kids? Young adult singles? Seniors? A mix? Maybe some extra nightlife that might be a dealbreaker for you? Seeing this will help give you an idea of what to expect from your possible future neighbors.

Decide What You Need

Those floor-to-ceiling windows might be calling your name, but do you really need them? Knowing both what you want and what you need will go a long way in your decision-making process.

Make a list of the features you need your living space to include, and use this list as you research your different options.

Consider the practical things, such as location, pets, and appliances.

Do you feel safe? Are you going to feel comfortable walking to/from your car at 11 p.m. if necessary, or do you wish there were metal bars on the doors and windows?

If you don’t have a car, is this location walking distance from public transportation?

If you do have a car, how will the location affect your gas usage?

Do you have a pet or want one in the future? Understand the complex’s pet policy. Many allow them but also have restrictions about what breeds are allowed.

How will you do laundry? Will you need to purchase a washer and dryer? Is there space for them in the unit?

Asking questions like these about the various aspects of apartments you are considering can help you figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Take Note of Any Damages

Walk through your unit and take note of any pre-existing damages you see (from normal wear-and-tear to bigger problems). You are not responsible for damages left by the previous tenant, but when it’s time to get your security deposit back you don’t want there to be any question about who did what, so make sure you report anything and everything to the property manager/landlord in writing as soon as possible. Request that the manager initials and dates the report as well, and ask for a copy for your own records. It’s also a good idea to take pictures and keep them handy just in case there are any disputes in the future.

You probably won’t need any of this proof but it is always a good idea to get ahead of these things, just in case!

Read. The. Lease.

It’s a tedious business and there is so much legalese, but do not sign on that dotted line until you have read and understood your lease. And use the internet to help! You can find glossaries of lease agreement terms such as this one pretty easily, and they can give you the tools to figure it out.

Make sure you take note of the details, especially in areas that can be easy to overlook. For example, the guest policy. Did you know that the majority of apartment complexes have a limit to the number of nights a guest can stay without a pass? Be sure you know those rules.

Think about anything else you may have discussed with the property manager/landlord: Will you have a roommate? Do they need to sign the lease too? How long are you expected to reside there? Is it a contracted term, or must you renew month-to-month?

Also, if any special agreements have been made between you and the landlord, make sure they are reflected in the lease as accurately as possible.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Like I said, you are paying them your hard-earned money to live there. You can ask all the questions you want.

Finally, if you don’t understand something in the lease, don’t sign it. There is no kind of grace period after you have signed the lease and there will be a substantial fee for breaking the contract before the agreed upon date, so be sure you understand everything you are agreeing to.

Know Your Rights

Laws vary by state, but you do have rights as a tenant, so make sure you know them. If you don’t know your rights, this resource can help get you started.

You can also use this knowledge when you are reading your lease agreement. You probably won’t run into problems, but it’s always good to know what landlords can and cannot require of you and the best way to approach any future problems (if any).

Living on your own is a new and exciting adventure. While the process of finding your new living space can be tedious, these seven tips should help organize the chaos and make it a more manageable task.

Happy home hunting!

Written by Alexandria Garcia

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