Finding your ideal apartment rental, whether moving out of a dorm or leaving your parent’s house, can be daunting without a bit of guidance. As a tenant-to-be, you’ll be taking on new tasks and responsibilities, and the process can seem overwhelming. Use this article as a step-by-step guide for renting your first apartment.
Step 1: Determine your budget
As you consider moving into an apartment, the first thing to look at is your budget. Paying rent month to month is not the only cost involved. It’s common for first-time apartment renters to overestimate how much rent they can afford. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recommends that your rent not exceed 30% of your gross income.
This is only a broad guideline as in some areas of the U.S., particularly Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York, this is not realistic, even for individuals with well-established careers.
You might be able to get around those issues by finding roommates and sticking close to your budget. If you can’t afford rent, it’s best to keep looking for an apartment that fits your budget.
To find out how much you can afford, determine the following:
- Location: Narrow down your neighborhood search. If your lifestyle revolves around restaurants, museums, theaters, or other local attractions, look for neighborhoods close to such amenities. If you rent in a suburb and commute some distance to work, you may actually pay more for parking and fuel than you would if you chose to live closer to work.
- Transportation: If you have a car, will you need to pay for parking space? Can you walk, bike, or ride public transit to work and do errands?
- Utilities/groceries: Utility costs can vary seasonally, so you’ll want to estimate an average over all seasons. Renters often pay separately for electricity, gas, internet, and cable. A general rule is to plan for $200 per month in utilities or 7% of your annual income. Groceries cost between $200–$250 a month per person.
- Lifestyle: Plan for extras like dinner with friends, movies, art museums, or other entertainment. Without a plan, these costs, incurred regularly, can unexpectedly eat into your budget.
- Emergency expenses: At some point, you may need to pay for a medical expense, new tires, or an unexpected trip. A reasonable estimate is to add 10%–15% to your overall expense. For example, if you currently spend $1,000 per month on all of your bills, add $150 to cover emergencies.
Follow these steps to determine what your overall budget looks like now:
- Write down your net income, which is the amount you bring home from your monthly paycheck. Net income is after any payroll deductions and taxes.
- Subtract your monthly income and recurring bills such as car payments, student loans, credit cards, or gym memberships.
- Estimate and subtract your transportation, utility, grocery, lifestyle, and emergency expenses.
- With the amount left over, you’ll know how much you can spend on rent. If you’re having trouble finding an apartment in that price range, take a realistic look at where you can cut expenses.
A quicker way to calculate your rental budget is to use an online rent calculator.
Step 2: Gather key documents
Landlords and property management companies require potential tenants to provide specific information and complete an apartment application to rent an apartment. This information may include your credit report with your credit history and credit score, rental history, proof of income (W-2, pay stubs, or tax returns if you work a cash or contract job), past landlord and personal references, and your social security number.
These are the most commonly requested documents for renting an apartment:
- Paystubs, W2s, tax returns, or income statements
- Bank statements
- Employment history or letter of intent to employ
- Credit report
- Photo ID (driver’s license, passport, social security card, state-issued ID)
- Rental history
- Proof of vehicle insurance and registration
Step 3: Understand your credit score
A large part of the landlord or property management’s screening process is determining if you will pay your rent on time. To do this, they will ask for your credit report with a credit score. A credit score is a three-digit number used to determine your credit risk, typically between 300 and 850. Your credit score is based on the information in your credit report, including:
- The amount of debt you have
- Your payment history
- The length of your credit history
A higher score means you have demonstrated responsible credit behavior. Here are typical ranges for credit scores and assigned ratings:
- 300-579: Poor
- 580-669: Fair
- 670-739: Good
- 740-799: Very good
- 800-850: Excellent
Why is your credit score important?
Landlords and property managers consider potential tenants with higher credit scores as likely to be more responsible with their rent payments and move them to the top of an applicant pile.
How to rent an apartment if you have poor credit or no credit history
If you have not had the opportunity to establish a credit history or you’re trying to rent with bad credit, you may need to find a guarantor or cosigner.
- A guarantor is someone willing to help pay rent, rental fees, or damages you cannot pay. They will be asked to sign the lease as a guarantor.
- A cosigner is someone who signs your lease, guaranteeing that if you don’t pay your rent, they will take responsibility. They often live with you as a roommate. A cosigner must complete the apartment application process and all background and credit checks. If rent is not paid by either the renter or cosigner, any past due payments will negatively affect both parties’ credit scores.
Step 4: Decide if you need roommates
If you can’t afford to rent an apartment without a roommate to share costs, be sure the person or people you choose will mesh with your lifestyle. Typically, a roommate is added to the lease and must go through the rental application process and credit checks. The landlord might increase the security deposit or rent due to additional “wear and tear” on the apartment. Ask the landlord or property management company about their policy concerning roommates.
Step 5: Know the best time of year to look for an apartment
Rent prices often change seasonally. If your move timeframe is flexible, winter is typically the least competitive time of the year when you are more likely to find the best deals. By being strategic about when you search for an apartment, you may be able to save money on rent.
Step 6: Create a checklist for your apartment requirements
Not every apartment allows you to rent with pets, comes with parking or storage, and includes desirable amenities. Before you start your search, write a move-in checklist of your needs and priorities.
- Parking: If you require parking, you need to know if the apartment offers assigned parking, whether garage space is included or for rent, if on-street parking is available, if it’s tandem parking, and if any fees are involved.
- Amenities: You might be enamored with a building’s pool, tennis courts, and gym. And granite countertops or hardwood flooring can also be very appealing. Slow down to understand if you “need” these amenities or are they just “nice to have.” Having some amenities built into your rent may actually save you money. For example, renting an apartment with a fully equipped gym can save you from paying for a gym membership. You can economically host your friends if your apartment has private outdoor spaces with access to grills, entertainment areas, and lawn games.
- Appliances: If you cook at home, you’ll want a stove and oven that works, a refrigerator and freezer to store food, and possibly a dishwasher.
- Space and number of rooms: Consider the size of your bedroom, if you want or need an en suite bathroom, and the size of other living spaces outside your bedroom.
- Security: Depending on your location, you may want to live in a building with extra security for your apartment so only people with key access can get inside.
Step 7: Research potential apartments
Finding the perfect place could take a few months, depending on your requirements and apartment availability. Start your search before you need to move from your current home.
An in-person apartment tour will tell you more than online photos, which can be misleading. Ideally, you can at least have a virtual showing of the unit you’ll be renting if you can’t actually tour the apartment so that you can get a feel for the unit and the building. The best case is to visit in person, so you’ll know if other residents are friendly, whether they are likely to be noisy, and if the complex is in good condition.
Here’s a list to review during an apartment tour:
- Check locks on windows and doors to ensure they close properly. Condensation on the windows inside indicates they do not close properly.
- Look for spots on the walls or ceilings that could indicate a leaky roof or pipes.
- Turn on every faucet to ensure the water pressure is good and that it runs clear with no discoloration.
- Flip on every light switch and make a note of any burnt-out bulbs.
- Check if the floor slants look warped, which could signify previous or existing water damage.
- Look around for outlets to ensure there are enough, and their locations are good. Feel free to test them with a phone charger or clock.
- Sunlight can affect your overall mood, so large windows are ideal.
- Try out the appliances. If a unit doesn’t work or is outdated, ask the property manager if they’re willing to replace or fix it and get a written confirmation.
- Try your cell phone to make sure you have service in the apartment.
- Listen for noise from other apartments. If you can hear other residents, they can hear you.
- If it’s a walk-up apartment, keep in mind you’ll have to carry groceries upstairs regularly.
- To update your budget, ask about any additional fees and average monthly costs for utilities.
- Ask about amenities and parking.
Take notes so you can remember each unit after your tour.
Other things to consider when researching apartments
- Look for problems/concerns like damage, mold, and loud noises: You want a unit that’s clean, safe, and livable. Things like mold or insect infestations can affect that livable condition. Inspect the apartments for signs of damage caused by previous tenants. You don’t want to be responsible for paying for repairs if you didn’t cause the damage, and you don’t want their damage to cause you an injury. Visit the apartment complex at different times during the day and night to determine if it is an environment in which you want to live. If the neighbors above you play loud music or have pets barking at all hours of the night and day, you may want to choose a different apartment.
- Research the location: Use walkscore.com to see if you’ll need a vehicle for most activities and whether you feel comfortable in the area. Also check out what restaurants, shopping, and other services are in the area..
- Ask current tenants about their experience and look for reviews online: Ask landlords if they can refer you to a current tenant who will talk to you about their experience living in the apartment. You can visit Redfin News for regional trends and other websites for online reviews.
Step 8: Ask questions when looking for apartments
If you don’t ask, landlords and property managers may not be overly forthcoming. Here is a list of questions to ask when renting an apartment:
- How do I pay rent?
- How are late fees assessed?
- Where can I park my car?
- How far in advance do I need to give notice before moving out?
- Can I sublet my apartment?
- How can I break my lease?
- What kind of changes can I make to my apartment?
- How do you handle emergency repairs?
- Is rental insurance required?
- What is the pet policy?
Step 9: Fill out the rental application form
Most landlords and property managers charge an application fee. The fee covers your credit and background checks. Because you pay these fees upfront, apply only for apartments you are interested in. If you do not have a credit score or have poor credit, have a reference letter handy to help prove your worthiness as a prospective tenant. Such a letter can come from a work manager, colleague, previous roommates, or others who know you well.
Other things you’ll need to know and get together when applying for an apartment:
- Gather all documents needed: Having your documents in hand will speed up the application process, which will help you in a competitive market.
- Be prepared to pay your security deposit: You’ll likely have to pay your security deposit and first month’s rent in advance. The security deposit can equal one month’s rent or more in some areas. Landlords and property managers collect a security deposit to cover any damages you cause over and above normal wear and tear. These funds hold the apartment for you while your application is under review.
- Be prepared to negotiate specific lease terms: While the lease is a legal document, not every point in the lease is set in stone. You can always ask. Learn more about what you should know before signing a lease agreement.
Step 10: Prepare to move into your new apartment
Now that your application has been approved and you’ve signed your lease agreement, it’s time to move into your new apartment. Moving can be stressful, especially for a first-time apartment renter, and planning is the key to making your move smooth and easy.
- Organize your move: Discuss the earliest move-in date with your landlord. With a date set, you can start packing. Your landlord may allow you to move in before the lease date.
- Purchase moving boxes: You can find these at your local office or home supply store, and local moving companies. Or look for free boxes on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, as well as ask family and friends.
- Ask your family and friends to help you pack: This is less expensive than hiring professionals but requires patience and coordination to work around everyone’s schedules.
- Hire a moving company: Be sure the movers are licensed, bonded, and insured. Companies who move locally usually charge by the hour, while long-distance movers charge by weight and distance.
- Pack your belongings carefully: Label every box to make it easier to unpack. When packing, use smaller boxes for heavier items and larger boxes for lighter items. Keep a box of essentials and important documents, including your lease, with you when you move.
- Call the utilities and internet provider: Set up accounts in your name and have them activated on moving day. You can set up most utilities online, but some areas may require an in-person visit and proof of residency, such as a signed lease.
- Change your mailing address with the USPS: You’ll also want to set up mail forwarding. You can do this several weeks before you move.
- Deep clean before unpacking if possible: Ask your friends and family if they will help or if a professional cleaning company can do this for you. Always schedule a deep clean of your apartment before moving in.
- Make a move-in checklist: As a first-time apartment renter, you have endless details to remember, from towels and sheets to all of the kitchen gadgets. Here is a comprehensive moving-in checklist to get you started.
Before starting your search, take time to understand the entire process of finding and applying for an apartment. Your big move will be successful with good preparation and help from family and friends.