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How to Rent an Apartment for the First Time

Moving out on your own is a rite of passage. But it’s also a process. To rent an apartment for the first time, you’ll need to first consider what sort of apartment you want and where you’d like to live. Then you need to figure out how much you can spend before you start searching for apartments, applying for one, and signing a lease.

Renting an apartment for the first time is a big decision, one that can cost a lot of money if not done correctly. It’s worth your while to have a plan before just going out and renting the first apartment you hear about or see online.

Here are seven steps that will guide you from looking for apartments to signing a lease.

1. Figure out what you’re looking for

Before you search for an apartment, think about the sort of place you’d like to live in. There are many apartments out there to choose from, all with a different set of amenities. Note the features that are important to you, and rank them from most important to least important. You might not get everything you want in your first apartment, but you can at least try to get what’s most important to you.

Here’s a checklist to consider:

  • Unit size: Will you be living alone, with your partner, or with roommates? The answer can help you determine the size of the unit you’ll need. You can get away with a small unit if you will be living alone. You’ll probably need a little more space if you’re sharing the unit with your partner, and you’ll likely need the most space if you’ll be living with roommates.
  • Appliances: Check whether the unit comes with all the appliances you’ll need, and if so, whether they’re new and modern. Also consider whether each unit has a washer/dryer (or hookup for one) or whether the washer/dryer is located in a communal space.
  • Storage: Consider how much storage you’ll need based on what you need to store. It’s best if your unit has adequate closet space, but if not, this one doesn’t need to be a deal breaker: You can always rent a storage unit if need be.
  • Pet friendly: If you have a cat or dog, you’ll need a pet-friendly apartment. Some apartments even go a step further than just allowing pets — some encourage pet owners by offering off-leash dog parks and dog washing stations. Note that it’s never a good idea to try to sneak in a pet. If the landlord or property manager finds out, you could be evicted, which will probably make it more difficult for you to rent another place.
  • Parking: Check out what sort of parking the complex offers. If you plan to have regular visitors, you might want a building that offers visitor parking spaces.
  • Community areas: A plain pool and barbecue area have been in apartment complexes for decades, but newer buildings tend to have kicked up the community experience a notch and offer fitness centers, resort-style pools, business and conference rooms, coffee bars, and rooftop decks.
  • Concierge services: This is typically reserved for buildings in city centers, so if that is where you’ll be, you’ll want to consider whether having a concierge service is important to you. A concierge can take packages and dry cleaning or store your bicycle, for example.
  • Smart technology: If the newest gadgets are important to you, check to see whether the apartment offers a smart thermostat, keyless entry, and a Ring doorbell, for example.
  • Security system: If apartment safety is a top concern, look for gated communities, security guards, and cameras.

2. Consider the location

The reason the real estate term, “location, location, location,” caught on is that location is the most important factor in real estate. Why? Real estate cannot be moved. Once you choose a place to locate, that is probably where you will spend much of your time. You can change features of a home, but you can’t change its location.

Certain locations will probably be more desirable to you than others. You might want to be near work, school, or family. Maybe you want to live in a certain urban neighborhood, or maybe you prefer a suburban apartment complex.

Tip: Want to know exactly how long it will take to get to work or school? Pull up the directions on your phone while you’re visiting the apartment. Make sure to adjust for time of day – rush hour can add a lot of time onto your commute. That way, you can figure out exactly how much time it’ll take to get around every day.

3. Create a budget

Now that you know exactly what you want, take a deep breath as reality sets in, namely, the budget. If money is no object, then by all means, get your dream apartment now. But if you have a budget to consider, you’ll need to make some compromises. For example, you might need to live further out, or you might need to rent a smaller apartment with fewer amenities to be able to afford your first apartment.

Keep in mind that your apartment, while probably the most expensive item in your monthly budget, is not your only payment to consider. To create a budget, first write down your net income — how much you keep after taxes. Then list all your expenses. Here’s a sample of what to include:

  • Rent
  • Credit card payment
  • Car loan
  • Student loan
  • Utilities
  • Insurance (auto, renters, etc.)
  • Groceries
  • Essential clothing
  • Gas for your car
  • Medical expenses (out of pocket)

(You should also have a category in your budget for savings and entertainment, which you can determine later.)

Now you can take your income and subtract your expenses. You should have more income than expenses. A good budget to strive for is the 50/30/20 budget. Using this budget, you would spend 50% of your net income for all your expenses. This is usually harder than it sounds. It’s often not doable, but it’s something to strive for.

Once you account for expenses, you can use 30% of your income on the fun stuff: entertainment, eating out, shopping, sporting events, and other wants. Finally, 20% would go to savings.

4. Search for apartments

Now that you’ve ranked the importance of your amenities, chosen where you want to live, and found out how much money you have to spend, you can start your apartment search. You might search for something like, “Apartments near X under X per month,” or you might want to search for “3-bedroom apartments [city or zip code].” Save the ones you like the best, and then visit your favorites.

5. Visit apartments

When you visit, make sure you look for your most important amenities. Do you care about security, condition of kitchen, size of the unit, a dog park with a washing station? The point is to make sure the apartment fits your needs.

Take photos of whatever stands out to you in the apartment, both the good and the bad. If you’re visiting lots of facilities, this can help you decide. You might even want to name the apartment. For example, you could call one “the apartment with the green accent wall,” or whatever. That will help you remember how much you like or dislike a place.

A bonus of photographing what’s wrong with the apartment is that it provides proof that the damage or problem was there before you moved in. This could come into play at move-out time if your landlord tries to charge you for the pre-existing damage.

It’s possible to pick an apartment just from what you see online, but it’s better to visit the place in person – you can’t see smells or hear noisy neighbors online. If you’re relocating and can’t visit yourself, try to get someone to go there for you while FaceTiming with you.

6. Apply for the apartment

After you pick your favorite apartment, you’ll need to put in a rental application. You can do this in person or online. There is generally an application fee so the landlord or property manager can run a credit and background check on you.

The credit check lets the landlord or property manager know how responsible you are with credit because that is an important indicator of whether you will pay your rent on time. Besides your credit score, your landlord will want to know how much of your available credit you’re using — the less the better. Landlords also look to see if you have accounts in collections, and if so, how many and whether they’re from long ago or are recent or current.

The background check shows any arrests, convictions, and evictions.

If you know you have something negative on your credit report or background check, it’s a good idea to tell your landlord about it first. Hoping they won’t discover it is not the best plan because they probably will. It’s better to explain yourself before your landlord discovers the problem.

Here’s what else you should be prepared to provide when you apply:

  • Your contact information
  • Where you work, your start date, and what you earn
  • Your previous address
  • How many pets you own, the type, and the breed
  • References

It’s also a good idea to tell a little about yourself on the application, especially if there is an optional field that you can fill out.

Expect your landlord or property manager to ask for additional information, such as your tax returns and recent pay stubs. If you’re self-employed or a gig worker, you might be asked to show that you have enough money in your bank account to afford three months’ or so worth of rent.

If you and your roommates don’t have a strong enough credit profile or don’t make quite enough money to afford the apartment, you might need a cosigner. This person will be responsible for the rent if you don’t pay it, so your cosigner will need to be able to show they can afford to pay the rent if it comes to that.

7. Sign a lease 

If you get to the stage where you’re presented with a lease, congratulations! You are on your way to moving into your first apartment. Although a lease is not the most exciting reading material, it’s important to read it through before you sign. A lease is a legal contract, and you are obligated to its terms for as long as the lease term runs.

If you aren’t sure you will be able to stay for the entire lease term, make sure you know whether you are allowed to sublet, and if not, whether there is a fee for breaking the lease. Review the lease start and end dates to make sure they are what you want. Find out whether there are any additional fees, what the security deposit is, and whether you’re required to buy renter’s insurance. (Hint: it’s a good idea to buy it whether you are required to or not, as it protects your personal belongings.) If there are items in the lease you don’t like, you can try to negotiate them. If there is no room for negotiation, you will at least know what you are signing up for.

It’s a lot to go over, so you’ll want to request a copy of the lease before it’s time to sign. That way, you’ll have all the time you need to review the lease — and if there are any surprises, time to negotiate without the pressure to sign right away.

The bottom line

Renting your first apartment is a big deal, and it may seem a little overwhelming. But once you do break it down step by step, it becomes much more manageable. Good luck!