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First-Time Renter's Apartment Guide and Checklist

May 3, 2019

Whether you are moving out of your parents’ house or making the jump from dorm to an apartment, moving into your first apartment is a super exciting time in your life. Moving to an apartment also might be your first major step into adulthood. You’ll have new freedom as well as new responsibilities.

Finding your first apartment, applying to live there, budgeting for rent and utilities, and making the move won't be easy. To make this transition smooth, you will likely need some guidance, but you are in luck! We put together a first-time renter guide and checklist to teach you everything you need to know about renting your first apartment.

1. Figure out how much you  can afford.

To enjoy your journey as a renter, you shouldn’t be scraping for pennies when it’s time to write a check to your landlord. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, one should spend no more than 30% of their gross income on rent. To help you with the math we created a rent calculator to give you an idea of what you can afford. Just plug in your location, desired number of bedrooms, and your monthly gross income. We’ll provide you with a recommended rent figure and apartment options in your area that will fit your budget. Keep in mind, to live in some urban areas like San Francisco or New York you may need to be willing to spend more than 30% of your gross income or get a roommate.

2. Decide if you need a roommate.

Depending on where you live, renting can be expensive. If rent costs you an arm and a leg, look into getting a roommate to split the rent costs. But before you go on Craigslist in search of a roommate, make sure to consider what you’re looking for in a housemate and be prepared to compromise.

To help you with this difficult decision, weigh the pros and cons of having a roommate. Once you’ve decided that a roommate is right for you, it’s time to start your search. Finding a roommate is not that easy, as you have to make sure that you are compatible in terms of cleanliness, schedules, pet preference, and are on the same page when it comes to partying and guests. You can include those conditions in your future roommate agreement.

Keep in mind, having a roommate can be an amazing experience, especially for your first apartment. If you live with a friend or someone you get along really well with, the social aspect of living with a roommate in your first apartment can be a huge plus.

3. Know the best time to look for an apartment.

Did you know that figuring out the best time to rent an apartment can save you a lot of money? Rent prices are subject to change based on seasonality, so you can save on rent by being strategic about your search. For instance, applying for an apartment in winter can help you score some great deals since the demand for rental housing is at its lowest during that time of year. Therefore, it’s harder for landlords to fill their vacancies. Look here for more information on the best time to start your first apartment search.

4. Start your search ahead of time.

It might take you a few months to find an apartment that’s right for you, so start your search early. Don’t have much time and need to move ASAP? Don’t fret! We have some useful tips for speeding up the search. When using Apartment List, you can specify your move-in date, as well as desired amenities in the quiz and we’ll pull a list of rentals fitting your criteria.

If you don’t live in the area and can’t tour apartments, check out our tips on how to rent an apartment remotely. Also, keep in mind that renting with a pet will likely add complications to your search. Follow our advice, and you’ll find a pet-friendly apartment in no time!

5. Ask questions.

Before signing a lease, make sure to ask as many questions as possible about the rental. In particular, be sure to ask these 12 questions when touring an apartment. Don’t forget to check noise levels and ask about how hot it gets there in summer, and how cold it is in winter. Be specific and thorough, and if anything needs to be fixed, ask for it before you sign the lease.

6. Know how to spot rental scams.

Finding a good apartment on a budget is a challenge on its own, and it’s easy to fall for too-good-to-be-true listings when they come your way. Knowing how to identify rental scams comes with experience. For a first-time renter, it might not be as easy. In fact, a whopping 5.2 million U.S. renters have lost money from rental fraud. To help you learn how to tell legitimate rental listings apart from the fraudulent once, follow these tips on spotting rental scams.

7. If you are moving (in) with your significant other, make sure to communicate with them.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but oftentimes we think we know what’s important to our loved ones when that's actually far from the truth. Don’t make assumptions and put together a list of things each of you requires and wants in an apartment. Make sure to differentiate your absolute must-haves from your nice-to-haves to help get your priorities in check. Follow these tips for apartment hunting with your significant other to make the process as pain-free as possible.

8. Make sure you can afford all the upfront costs.

Renting an apartment requires some upfront expenses, which can quickly add up. These expenses typically include a security deposit, first and last months’ rent, and an apartment application fee. If you’re moving in with a pet, this could also include a pet deposit or pet fee, as well as first and last months’ pet rent.

The abovementioned expenses should be discussed prior to signing a lease. When it comes to reimbursable fees such as security and pet deposits, make sure to read the fine print of your lease agreement as it should specify conditions for reimbursement.

9. Figure out your future expenses and know how to budget for them.

Upfront expenses are only a portion of the total costs associated with renting an apartment. Other costs may include utilities, parking, repairs, and so on. Make sure to ask your landlord which utilities and repairs are their responsibility, and which ones you have to pay for.

Utility costs vary but be prepared to pay an average of $100-$150 a month. More often than not, you will be responsible for paying for gas and electricity, as well as the internet and cable. Additionally, you have to factor in subscriptions, and the cost of transportation or gas to get you to and from work or school. Try following our first apartment budgeting checklist to get started on the right foot.

10. Get your paperwork together.

Most landlords and property management companies will require you to provide certain information along with your rental application to consider you as a potential tenant. This information may include your credit score, rental history, proof of income (pay stubs and/or W-2), past landlords and personal references, and, sometimes, social security number. Keep in mind, that you don’t have to provide your SSN if you are completing your own credit check.

Oftentimes, you also have to pay an application fee, so be sure to only apply for apartments that you really like and are eligible for, because those fees can add up. Find out more by reading our articles on forms needed to rent an apartment and on the apartment application process in general.

One of the most important things you’ll need, especially if your credit is less than stellar, is a rental reference letter. It can be obtained from your former managers, colleagues, roommates, or other reputable sources that know you well. If they don’t know how to write a rental recommendation letter, forward them one of our reference letter templates.

11. Prepare a checklist of essentials for your first apartment.

This wouldn’t be a complete first-time renter’s apartment guide, if we didn’t include a checklist of all the essentials you’ll need for the first rental. It’s easy to forget what you already have and what you need, so make sure to have our first apartment checklist handy when shopping for your new home. You’ll likely need the following:

Living room:

  • Sofa+pillows
  • Chairs
  • Tables (coffee table, end table or console table)
  • Area rug
  • Lamp
  • TV+stand
  • Wall decor
  • Coasters
  • Decor


  • Bed frame
  • Mattress and mattress topper
  • Pillows
  • Sheets
  • Pillowcases
  • Comforter
  • Blankets
  • Blinds or curtains
  • Nightstand
  • Fan
  • Space heater
  • Clothes organizer/rack
  • Dresser
  • Trash bin
  • Hangers
  • Shoe rack
  • Mirror


  • Toiletries
  • Toilet paper
  • Toothbrush holder
  • Soapdish
  • Shower organizer
  • Bath and towels towels
  • Shower curtain
  • Towel bar or hooks
  • Air freshener
  • Bath mat
  • Plunger
  • Toilet brush
  • Cleaning supplies (heavy-duty cleaner and/or bleach)
  • Trash bin
  • Hairdryer
  • Medicine cabinet
  • Laundry basket
  • Laundry detergent
  • Fabric softener

Kitchen and/or Dining room:

  • Kitchen table
  • Chairs
  • Placemats
  • Pots and pans
  • Microwave oven
  • Blender
  • Plates
  • Bowls
  • Glasses
  • Coffee mugs
  • Utensils
  • Cutting board
  • Coffeemaker
  • Oven mitts and potholders
  • Can opener
  • Corkscrew and bottle opener
  • Colander
  • Baking tray
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Drawer organizer and utensil tray
  • Cooking utensils (whisk, spatula, ladle, slotted spoon)
  • Bag clips
  • Tupperware
  • Dish soap
  • Sponge
  • Dishtowels
  • Dish drying rack
  • Paper towel holder
  • Paper towels
  • Aluminum foil
  • Baking paper
  • Saran wrap
  • Trash bin and bags
  • Compost bin and bags


  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Broom
  • Dustpan
  • Mop or Swiffer
  • Heavy-duty cleaner, floor cleaner, window/glass cleaner, stainless steel cleaner (optional)
  • First aid kit
  • Iron or steamer
  • Ironing board
  • Sewing kit
  • Sewing kit
  • Microfiber cloths
  • WiFi router
  • Extension cords
  • Speakers

12. Furnish your apartment on a budget.

Moving to your first apartment requires investing in new furniture and essential household items. However, you don’t have to break the bank to furnish your place. There are a ton of places where you can buy new and gently-used items on a budget. If you enjoy online shopping, make sure to check out Wayfair and Overstock. If you prefer to see the items before you buy them, stop by Target, IKEA, and your local outlets. For more options, check out our lists of places where you can find cheap furniture and home decor.

13. Organize the big move.

Now that you finally signed the lease, it’s time for the actual move. We strongly believe that relocating to a new place doesn’t have to be stressful. The pain of the move can be avoided by putting extra effort into preparation. That’s why we thought that our first-time renter’s apartment guide wouldn’t be complete without some advice for a hassle-free relocation. Just follow these steps for a smooth move:

  • Talk to your landlord and figure out the earliest move-in date. Although the lease may start on a certain date, your landlord might let you move your stuff before that if the previous tenants have vacated the unit earlier.
  • Enlist the help of your family and friends, or hire professional movers. Asking friends is cheaper and can be a great excuse to throw a party. However, it requires a lot of coordinating. If organizing people is not your strongest suit, contact a moving company and they’ll do the planning for you. Keep in mind, that for local moves companies tend to charge by the hour and for a long-distance move by distance and weight. Cross-country moves can be more difficult, so check out our advice specific to this type of relocation. As a bonus, we included a list of long-distance moving companies.
  • Get moving supplies. You can purchase boxes at your local hardware store. If you are trying to save money, there are a ton of places you can get them for free. For instance, Nextdoor and Craigslist. And don’t forget to ask your neighbors, friends, and family.
  • Pack your belongings. Use smaller boxes for heavier items and bigger boxes for lighter items. Try using organizing apps like Sortly. It allows you to categorize your household items by boxes and create a printable QR code for each box. When you need to unpack, just scan the code and you’ll know exactly what’s in that box! To learn about other useful apps for moving and chores, check out our list of helpful household apps.
  • Set up utilities. Now it’s time to set up utilities for your first apartment. Most utilities can be easily set up online. Make sure to schedule it ahead of time to avoid ending up without the internet or cable.
  • Change your mailing address with the USPS and set up mail forwarding. This has to be scheduled in advance, ideally at least a month before the move. It usually takes time for the change to take place in the USPS system and some mail might not be forwarded.

14. Deep clean your apartment before you move in.

If your landlord allows you to start moving your belongings before you have to move out of your old place, you are in luck! It’s important to deep clean the new apartment before you move anything there. That’s the cleanest your rental will ever be since it’s the only time you’ll have access to every nook and cranny in your new place. If you’ve never done it before and don’t know where to start, check out our comprehensive first apartment cleaning checklist before you move in.

Hopefully, this guide will help make your first-time renter experience a breeze. It can be quite a hassle, so focus on your newly-attained freedom and enjoy this fun and exciting time in your life. And don’t forget to throw a housewarming party in your first apartment!

Frequently Asked Questions

How much should I spend on rent?

Figuring out how much you should spend on your first apartment isn't easy. As a general rule of thumb, a household should spend no more than 30% of its monthly income on rent. To figure out how much you can afford to spend on rent, use the rent calculator.

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. Have those ready for your apartment applications.

Do I have to pay for utilities?

Depending on the apartment complex, you might be responsible for certain utilities. This information 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.

By: Sania Tran
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