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First Time Apartment Renter's Guide: 20 Step Checklist

Renting an apartment for the first time can be intimidating. This jam-packed guide holds everything from apartment rental checklists to first-time renter tips.

Whether you are moving out of your parents’ house or leaving your dorm room days behind, you likely need a first-time apartment renter checklist to navigate the ins and outs of apartment hunting, including applications, fees, budgeting, packing, and more.

To make the transition as smooth as possible, we put together a checklist for renters so you have everything you need to know about renting your first apartment for a successful move.

First Time Apartment Renter's Checklist

1. Determine Your Budget

It’s common for first-time renters to overestimate how much they can spend on rent and other necessities. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, you shouldn’t spend more than 30% of your gross income on renting an apartment. However, because this rule doesn’t always work in expensive cities like New York, Boston, or San Francisco, you should do your best to keep your housing expenses to 30% or under. Teaming up with a roommate or creating an income-generating side hustle can help offset your living expenses when getting your first apartment.

A rent calculator can help give you a better idea of what you can and can’t afford. Plug in your location, your desired number of bedrooms, and your gross monthly income, and let the rent calculator do the rest. We’ll provide you with a recommended rent figure and apartment options in your area that fits your budget. Take the time to learn more about what you should include on your first apartment budgeting checklist.

Interested in a deeper dive into financial considerations for first-time renters? Check out this video from Practical Personal Finance:

2. Choose Your Neighborhood

When you’re new to renting, narrowing down your dream neighborhood can feel like one of the more daunting things to do before getting an apartment. But some of the best advice for first-time renters comes from narrowing down your choices and considering the following:

  • How close am I to work?
  • Do I prefer driving, taking public transportation, or walking?
  • Do I need quiet, or do I want to live in the middle of it all?
  • Is my dream location more expensive than its surrounding neighborhoods?
  • How far do I want to be from museums, restaurants, and attractions?

How to Find Your First Apartment

3. Decide if You Need a Roommate

Another top first-time renter tip: If rent soars above the 30% recommended rule, consider looking for a roommate with whom to split the rental costs. But before you tap into your personal network or Craigslist, consider the pros and cons of having a roommate and whether or not you’re willing to make compromises along the way as a shared apartment renter.

Once you’ve decided that a roommate is suitable, it’s time to start finding a roommate. If it's your first time renting an apartment with another person, consider what makes a compatible roommate, what kind of lifestyle you want, and what you can’t tolerate. Here are some ideas:

  • Are parties allowed? If so, how big and how late?
  • Do I need to live with someone who’s excessively clean?
  • Do I care if a roommate comes with a pet? Will we then need a pet-friendly apartment?
  • How long can guests stay, and how often?
  • Whose name will the utilities be in, and how will that person collect payment from the other?
  • Who will buy the furniture, and who will take it if someone moves out?

4. Consider the Parking Situation

Some neighborhoods like downtown Seattle or Boston rarely require personal vehicles, as they offer plenty of public transportation options. Suburban areas, on the other hand, require reliable parking, impacting what kind of apartment complex you choose.

Gauge your comfort level and the type of car you have when looking for an apartment. Consider whether you need a covered space, assigned parking, or if on-street parking is readily available and safe. It’s also important to look at your car insurance policy. You may discover your rates could go up or down depending on your long-term parking situation.


5. Think About the Amenities

Always prioritize amenities and location as a first-time renter. In some areas, apartment complexes have options like swimming pools, on-site fitness centers, rooftop terraces, on-site laundry, and more.

Outdoor amenities can be essential for a first-time apartment. If your apartment community has private outdoor spaces with access to equipment like grills and lawn games, you can host some spectacular gatherings with your friends. Plus, you won’t have to worry about spending money on those items yourself.

6. Consider Which Floor You Want to Live On

The floor you choose in an apartment complex also matters. There’s no right or wrong answer regarding which floor you should live on, but you can narrow down your choices with a pros and cons list.

For example, a bottom-floor apartment may prove cheaper than others, with less legwork to get to the main door and amenities. You also don't need to worry about a dog or children running around and disturbing neighbors below you. However, the views are usually the worst in the building.

Essential Tips for First-Time Renters

7. Know the Best Time To Look for an Apartment

If you have some flexibility on when you can move, there are certain times of the year when the rental market is less competitive and less expensive. Rent prices are subject to change based on seasonality, and you can save on rent by being strategic about your search.

Generally, getting an apartment for the first time in the winter will be the best for deals. This rule can even apply in warm-weather cities when families are reluctant to move their kids during the school year, college students are busy with exams, and people are busy with the holidays.

Learn more about renter tips, including the best time to rent an apartment.

New renters may ask themselves about the process of moving into an apartment — perhaps, “How long does it take to find an apartment?” It might take a few months to find the right fit, so start your search early, but first-time renters can also use these tips on how to find an apartment fast. If you’re moving from out of state, renting an apartment sight unseen is also completely possible thanks to virtual and video tours.

You may also discover that finding an apartment with a pet can make things a little more challenging. Learn the ins and outs of finding a pet-friendly apartment with our apartment rental guide.

9. Ask Questions During Your Tours

Before signing a lease agreement for your starter apartment, ask as many questions as possible. Start with our apartment rental checklist of questions to ask when renting an apartment. Don’t forget to think about the noise levels when you tour, and ask about how hot and cold it gets there in summer and winter. Be specific regarding your concerns, and if anything needs fixing, ask before signing the lease. Here are some other questions you might want to ask:

  • How much does rent cost? (Feel free to ask about security deposits, application fees, and any other financial obligations.)
  • Am I responsible for covering utilities?
  • How is parking handled?
  • What amenities will I have access to?

10. Know How to Spot Rental Scams

Knowing how to rent an apartment on a budget is challenging, often complicated by listings that are too good to be true. Knowing how to identify rental scams comes with experience, and first-time apartment renters will be more susceptible than others. The FBI reported a 64% increase in real estate and rental scams in 2021 from the previous year.

Not sure what to look out for? Use these tips for first-time renters on how to spot and avoid rental scams.

Common First-Time Renter Mistakes

11. Be Open With Your Roommate or Significant Other

Moving in with a roommate or your significant other? Don’t assume you’re on the same page about your living situation. Keep the lines of communication open. Get started with these tips for apartment hunting with a significant other.

Ideally, you want to operate under a “two yeses or no” premise for everything from furnishings to rent prices and neighborhood choices. If you don’t agree on a major decision, avoid confrontation and resentment by considering other options until you can find something you both like.

12. Budget for All Upfront Costs

A first-time apartment renter doesn’t always realize the extent of the upfront costs involved. You’ll need to budget for a security deposit, the first and last months’ rent, and an apartment application fee. If you’re moving in with a pet, you may have to pay a pet deposit or fee, as well as the first and last months’ pet rent. Make sure to study your lease to determine how you get your security deposit back and any conditions for reimbursements.

Here are a few additional upfront costs to keep an eye out for:

  • Hiring movers
  • Renting a PODS container
  • Buying a renters insurance policy
  • Purchasing new furniture
  • Paying upfront move-in fees, including pet rent

Study your lease regarding conditions for reimbursements and terms to get your security deposit back. You can also learn more about how much an apartment really costs by spotlighting hidden rental costs.

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13. Remember Future Expenses

Upfront expenses are only a portion of your apartment rental costs. Other costs may include utilities, parking, repairs, new furniture, and utility costs. If you’re not sure what to expect, here's how much the average utility bill costs for renters.

It’s common for renters to pay for gas, electricity, internet, and cable. You should also factor in any subscriptions and the cost of transportation or gas, food, gym memberships, and other ongoing expenses.

14. Gather Your Paperwork

Most landlords and property managers require specific information from tenants in the rental application. This information may include your credit score, rental history, proof of income (pay stubs and/or W-2), personal references and contact information for past landlords, and your social security number. However, you don’t need to provide your social security number if you are completing a credit check. Learn more about the forms needed to rent an apartment.

Below are some of the most commonly required documents for renting an apartment:

  • Proof of income (pay stubs, bank statements, tax returns, job offer letter, etc.)
  • Completed apartment application
  • Identification documents (driver’s license, state-issued ID, passport, social security card, etc.)
  • Rental references
  • Proof of vehicle insurance and registration

Once you have your paperwork gathered, it’s time to prepare your apartment rental checklist.

15. Prepare an Apartment Inspection Checklist

Once all the legwork and paperwork are complete, it’s time to think about furnishing your apartment.

As a first-time apartment renter, you may feel there are endless details to remember, from linens to baking trays. Here's an apartment inspection checklist for renters to make moving day a breeze. Use this as your guiding light as you look for all your apartment essentials.

16. Purchase Renters Insurance

Renters insurance protects renters who live in an apartment, condo, or home and typically covers unexpected personal property damage from specific, pre-approved emergencies and mishaps, including:

  • Fire
  • Wind and hail
  • Smoke damage
  • Lightning
  • Vandalism
  • Theft
  • Falling objects
  • Water damage
  • Hail
  • Explosions
  • Volcanoes
  • Snow and ice collapse
  • Wind damage
  • Mold (in some circumstances)

A good renters insurance policy offers invaluable peace of mind for your next rental and can help sway your landlord in your favor. If your market is competitive, your landlord will probably be more willing to rent to someone with existing renters insurance or with the intention to purchase it.

17. Read and Understand Your Lease Agreement

When moving into a new apartment, few renters are dying to dig deep into their lease agreements. But they're hugely important and can make or break your experience. Study your lease to set yourself up for a smooth transition.

Look for essential aspects of your lease agreement as a first-time apartment renter, including:

  • Lease length and monthly rent
  • Security deposit details
  • Pet policy
  • Utility costs
  • Noise regulations

Understanding your costs, such as utilities and security deposit, will help you plan for your budget. Fortunately, you can also furnish your apartment on a budget with a little creativity.

Steps to Take After Renting Your First Apartment

18. Furnish Your Apartment on a Budget

Moving out on your own as a first-time apartment renter requires an investment in new furniture and essential household items. However, you don’t have to break the bank to furnish your apartment on a budget. Check out our guide on how to buy cheap furniture for your apartment.

Online shopping that sells bulk or overstock items is a win for saving money. You can also scour local discount retailers or secondhand stores for inexpensive hand towels, cleaners, and sponges. Remember to personalize your new apartment with plenty of decor and unique artwork. Here's a resource for where to buy cheap art for an apartment and outfit your new home in style.

19. Organize Your Move

Now that you finally signed the lease and are ready to decorate your apartment, it’s time for the big move. Skipping the stress and prioritizing a smooth transition are key. Here’s how to do it: \

  • Schedule your move-in date. Talk to your landlord about a move-in date and either enlist the help of your family and friends to start packing or hire professional movers.
  • Secure moving boxes. Purchase supplies at your local hardware store, or save money by finding free moving boxes.
  • Pack your belongings. Make sure to declutter, donate items, and start packing early.
  • Set up your utilities. Double-check your lease for which utilities you’re responsible for — usually electricity, cooking gas, and Wi-Fi.
  • Change your mailing address. Fill out an online form and set up mail forwarding with the U.S. Postal Service.

Once you’ve gotten your move organized, prep your apartment before you arrive for a seamless move-in experience.

20. Deep Clean Your New Apartment Before You Move In

If possible, schedule a deep cleaning of your apartment before you move in. A cleaning company can take care of everything for you, although they will charge a premium for the service. You can also do it yourself with this ultimate apartment cleaning checklist.

Make Your Move: Start Apartment Hunting

When you’re a first-time apartment renter, you need a proactive, organized approach to finding the perfect place for you. This apartment rental checklist will keep you focused on everything you want and need to make your move to your next place while staying on alert for rental scams.

If you’re ready to take the next steps toward your first apartment, sign up with Apartment List. With us, you’ll spend 5 minutes and save 50 hours searching.

First Time Apartment Renter FAQs

How Does Renting an Apartment Work?

As a first-time apartment renter, you’ll need to:

  • Determine your budget
  • Choose your neighborhood
  • Decide if you need a roommate
  • Consider the parking situation
  • Think about amenities
  • Consider which floor you want to live on
  • Know the best time to look for an apartment
  • Give yourself time to search
  • Ask questions during your tours
  • Know how to spot rental scams
  • Be open with your roommate or significant other
  • Budget for all upfront costs
  • Remember future expenses
  • Gather your paperwork
  • Prepare an apartment rental checklist
  • Purchase renters insurance
  • Read and understand your lease agreement
  • Furnish your apartment on a budget
  • Organize your move
  • Deep clean your new apartment before you move in

How Much Should I Spend on Rent?

As a general rule of thumb, a household should spend no more than 30% of its monthly income on rent. Use our rent calculator to determine how much you can afford to spend on rent.

How Do I Prepare My Apartment Application?

Most landlords may ask for your credit score, rental history, proof of income, references, and social security number to conduct a credit check. Give the landlord a call to ensure you have all the proper documents.

Do I Have to Pay for Utilities?

Depending on the apartment complex, tenants may be responsible for certain utilities. These utilities should be outlined in your lease agreement.

When touring an apartment, make sure to ask your future landlord or property managers which utilities they'll be covering and which ones you'll have to pay for.

How Much Money Should You Save Before Moving into Your First Apartment?

The 30% rule states that no more than 30% of your net income should go to rent each month. Using this rule, you should make at least $3,000 net each month to afford an apartment that is $1,000 per month.

At What Age Can You Rent an Apartment?

Across the country, the standard is that you must be 18 years old to rent an apartment. Landlords may have the right to refuse to rent to anyone under 18 years old.

What Do Landlords Ask For When Renting?

Landlords will typically ask for the following items when renting:

  • Proof of Income (pay stubs, bank statements, tax returns, job offer letter, etc.)
  • Completed apartment application
  • Identification Documents (driver’s license, state-issued ID, passport, social security card, etc.)
  • Rental references
  • Proof of vehicle insurance and registration

Do Apartments Check Credit?

Most landlords will conduct a credit check during the rental application process. A credit score of 650 or higher is typically ideal for a first time apartment renter.

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Dr. Katherine Blake
Dr. Katherine Blake is a content editor with Apartment List, where she helps ensure our renter and rental management content is fresh and informed by the latest data. Read More
Tristian Brown
Tristian Brown is a Senior Content Marketing Associate at Apartment List, where he manages high-quality content that helps modern renters find the perfect home. He brings an immense wealth of knowledge to the team, having earned a Bachelor of Arts in Marketing and European Management from the University of San Diego and EM Strasbourg Business School. Read More
Susan Finch
Susan is an accomplished freelance writer whose passion for rental real estate, travel, and digital marketing has been the driving force behind her nearly 15-year career. Throughout her professional journey, Susan has become a seasoned veteran in creating compelling and informative content focused on the tenant/landlord relationship. Read More
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