How to Rent an Apartment for the First Time

Moving into an apartment is a rite of passage, but it isn’t easy. If you break it down, though, it starts to look less overwhelming. In this guide we’ll walk through the five steps it takes to secure an apartment, from deciding what you’re looking for to moving in.

1. Define What You’re Looking For

Searching for an apartment can be overwhelming if you’re not clear on what you need. Figuring out your budget and deciding whether you’ll take on a roommate will help guide your search. From there, you can narrow your parameters further by selecting ideal neighborhoods and creating a wishlist of apartment features.

Determine Your Budget

Before looking for an apartment, you need to determine what you can reasonably afford to spend on rent. One common rule of thumb is never to spend more than 30% of your monthly income on rent. However, the amount you are comfortable spending might vary depending on how much debt you carry, your monthly expenses, and whether or not you’re planning to share costs with a roommate.

Keep in mind that landlords in cities with competitive rental markets sometimes require prospective tenants to demonstrate earnings of up to four times the cost of the rent. Even if you can afford to pay the rent, a landlord may not be comfortable renting to you if it comprises too much of your monthly budget.

Once you establish your budget, begin looking at apartment listings in your city. Are there many rentals available within your budget? If so, that’s fantastic! If not, think about bringing on a roommate. 

Will You Be Living with a Roommate?

Living with a roommate is an excellent way to reduce your monthly expenses. Even if you can afford a place on your own, having a roommate can help you qualify for a nicer apartment than you would otherwise. Plus, living with roommates can be fun! 

It’s crucial to put a lot of thought into who you choose as a roommate. Not only do you want someone you will get along with, but you also need to trust that they’ll pay their rent on time and follow the rules of the lease. 

Ideally, you will choose a roommate before you begin looking for an apartment so the two of you can choose a rental that suits both of your needs. 

Clear communication is the foundation of any successful roommate relationship. Have conversations about important topics like how you’ll split the rent and other house rules before you move in together. This way, everyone’s expectations will be clear from the start of your roommate relationship. Drafting a roommate agreement can be an excellent way to hold you accountable to the house rules. 

Especially in a competitive rental market, you may have to compromise on your ideal apartment. It’s worth it to discuss up front which of the following you can – and can’t – compromise on: budget, size, location, or general quality of the apartment.

Hone in on Target Neighborhoods

Finding an apartment with a convenient location is arguably more important than finding one with all of your preferred amenities. Living in the right neighborhood can shorten your commute, reduce your need to drive, and make it easy to access the services and amenities you value, such as parks, shopping, or restaurants. 

In some cases, it may be tough to find an apartment in your price range within your ideal neighborhood, so it’s wise to have a couple of backup options. Think carefully about where you can realistically see yourself living. Which areas do you feel drawn to? Where do you spend most of your time? Which areas would make it easy to commute to and from work or school?  

2. Search for the Right Apartment

Once you’ve outlined your budget, chosen a roommate (or not), and established where in the city you want to live, it’s time to hunt for your ideal apartment. Having a list of the features and amenities you’d like to have in a rental is a good idea, but be aware that it could be challenging to find a place with every one of them. 

Here are a few amenities you might consider:

  • Dishwasher
  • Parking
  • Air conditioning
  • Storage
  • Building security
  • Which utilities are included?
  • In-suite laundry
  • Pet policy
  • On-site amenities, such as a gym or community roof access
  • Neighborhood amenities, such as parks and grocery stores
  • Availability of public transport

This list is just a starting point. Come up with your own based on your lifestyle.

If you’re apartment hunting with a roommate, work together to prioritize your wishlist. With two people involved, finding a place with evenly sized bedrooms or multiple bathrooms might be more of a priority than nice-to-haves like a dishwasher or an on-site gym.

Deciding on an Apartment

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of finding a new rental, and it could cause you to overlook some of the finer details of the unit. 

Here are a few things to ask yourself when deciding whether a rental is right for you:

  • Is the property well-maintained? Not only should the apartment be in good repair, but the property should appear well cared for too. If the building is in disrepair or the landscaping seems neglected, it could signify that the landlord is unreliable. 
  • Are there any red flags within the unit? As you tour the rental, look for potential maintenance issues. Are there signs of moisture or water damage, such as stains, mildew, or mold? Does the unit have any strange odors? Does it seem soundproof? How is the ventilation? Does it feel excessively warm or cold within the unit?
  • Do you trust the landlord? Do you feel like you can rely on this person to respond to any issues that may arise, keep up with maintenance, and ensure that the property is a safe and pleasant place to live? If not, your search continues. 
  • Is the location good overall? Are there any potential downsides to the location of the rental? Is it on a busy street? Is their construction nearby or a bar next door that could disrupt your quality of life? Do you feel safe in the neighborhood? Is the commute to work or school realistic?
  • Are there any potential dealbreakers for you (or your roommate)? Even if an apartment meets most of your criteria, issues like a lack of natural light or not having a parking space could be dealbreakers. Think through any potential problems like this carefully. They might not bother you initially, but is there a chance that will change over time?
  • Are you comfortable with the cost of rent? Ask yourself if the rent price is genuinely realistic or if you’re stretching your budget because you like the apartment. It’s easy to get excited over a beautiful place, but sometimes it’s worth compromising if it will leave you feeling overextended. Plus, you’re legally obligated to pay the rent once you sign the lease. You need to be sure it’s realistic.

Negotiating the Lease

If you can position yourself as an excellent tenant, you may have some bargaining power regarding the terms of a lease. 

Depending on the type of rental, you might be able to negotiate for a lower rent price, especially if you offer to help out with building maintenance or yard work on the side. You could also convince a landlord to do things like overturn a pet policy, throw in a parking space, or cover the cost of utilities. 

If you find a unit you really like, you may be able to edge out your competition for a rental by offering to pay several months of rent up-front. 

Don’t be afraid to get creative when negotiating for a place you love. Keep in mind that this tactic works best with independent landlords who own the property directly. Landlords who work for a large company have less flexibility.

3. The Rental Application Process

Once you find a suitable rental, it’s time to fill out the application. During the rental application process, you will likely be asked to disclose your age, employment status, proof of income, and whether you have pets, smoke, or require a parking space. They’ll also run a credit and background check.

There’s a good chance your prospective landlord will also ask for references, so think about who you can count on to vouch for you. If you don’t have a past landlord, ask your boss, a coworker, or a family friend to attest to your reliability as an individual. Note that prospective landlords are not legally permitted to ask about your race, religion, gender, or whether you have a disability. 

In the rental application process, landlords want to make sure you can pay the rent. That usually means some combination of the right level of income as well as a credit score north of 620. Keep in mind that landlords look at the whole package. And if one element of your rental application is weaker than the others, you may be able to offer to pay more months’ rent up front, or bring on a guarantor to help you qualify for the rental.

4. Sign the Lease

Once your landlord has run background checks, spoken with your references, and approved your application, it’s time to sign your lease. The lease is a set of guidelines that both you and your landlord must follow. It will outline the terms of your rental agreement, including the length of your initial tenancy, how much you’ll pay in rent each month, and the amount you must pay for your security deposit.  

Other clauses commonly found on lease agreements include:

  • The building’s pet policy
  • Subletting policies
  • Who is responsible for utilities
  • Property use guidelines, such as quiet hours
  • The lease termination policy

Read your lease thoroughly before you sign, and ask your landlord to clarify anything you don’t understand. 

Once you sign your lease, you will pay the first month’s rent and the security deposit. The security deposit is usually the equivalent of one month’s rent, but it may be more depending on where you live. Look up the security deposit laws in your state to ensure your landlord is charging you fairly. 

As long as you keep your rental in good condition (aside from normal wear and tear), your landlord is required to return your security deposit when you move out. 

5. Make the Move

Here are a few things you can do to ensure your move-in goes smoothly. 

Set up Your Utilities

If you’re responsible for the utilities in the rental, try to set them up in advance. Usually, you can do this online. In some cases (namely internet service providers), a technician may have to come to the rental. If you can’t schedule this for move-in day, plan to go a few days without internet access.  

Forward your Mail

It can take a few weeks for mail forwarding to go into effect, so do this ahead of your moving day, so you don’t miss any essential correspondence. Begin by changing your mailing address on credit cards and bank statements in the days leading up to your move. 

Check Building Policies Around Move-ins

Depending on the type of rental you’re moving into, there may be rules to follow regarding move-ins. Some apartment buildings require that new tenants reserve move-in time slots to avoid disturbing existing tenants. There may be rules around which elevators you can use, where you can park, and more. If in doubt, ask your landlord for guidance.

Request a Walk-through

Before you move anything into your new rental, ask your landlord to do a walk-through with you to take note of the current state of the rental and document any existing damage. It might seem like a hassle, but when you move out and request your damage deposit, you won’t be crossing your fingers that your landlord remembers that the scratch on the kitchen hardwood floor was already there. 

Additionally, the walk-through is an opportunity to note anything that needs to be repaired imminently, such as a slow drain or a door that doesn’t lock properly. If the turnover between you and the former tenant was quick, there’s a possibility that some maintenance issues went overlooked. 

Protect Against Damage

The last thing you want to do is cause property damage while you’re moving into your apartment. Consider what steps you can take to protect your apartment while moving your belongings in. You may need to place protection over the hardwood floors or request that your movers remove their shoes to avoid staining the carpets. 

Even well-planned move-in days can feel chaotic and overwhelming. You can make it easier for yourself by preparing ahead of time. Label your boxes clearly so you can find your essential items when you need them. Packing thoughtfully makes unpacking significantly more manageable. If you’re pressed for time on move-in day, hire movers (or enlist your friends) to ensure you get everything from A to B as efficiently as possible. 

Apartment Living

Moving into your first rental is a huge step, and you’re bound to have questions come up, especially over the first few months; many of them will be answered within your lease agreement, so keep a copy somewhere easy to reference. 

Since you’re now juggling rent payments with utility bills, student loans, and other expenses, it can be a lot to stay on top of. Consider automating your payments online, so you don’t risk making a late payment.