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How to Rent Your First Apartment: Apartment Guide and Checklist

By: Sania Tran
July 2, 2020

Whether you are moving out of your parents’ house or making the jump and leaving your dorm room days behind, becoming a first time apartment renter is a rite of passage and exciting time in your life. Of course, figuring out how to rent an apartment comes with new tasks and responsibilities, as well as freedom to pick and choose the perfect place.

Even the most ambitious and organized first time apartment renter can get overwhelmed with the process. Apartment hunting, applications, fees, budgeting, packing, and all the logistics of moving come with their headaches, but is well worth it. To make the transition as smooth as possible, we put together a first time apartment renter checklist of everything you need to know about how to rent your first apartment for a successful move.

1. Determine Your Budget

It’s common for a first time apartment renter 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 rent. This isn’t always possible in expensive cities like New York, Boston, or San Francisco, but 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.

A rent calculator can help give you a better idea of what you can and can’t afford. Plug in your location, desired number of bedrooms, and your monthly gross income and the rent calculator will do the rest. We’ll provide you with a recommended rent figure and apartment options in your area that fits your budget.

2. Choose Your Neighborhood

Narrowing down your dream neighborhood as a first time apartment renter can feel daunting. To narrow down your choices, consider the following:

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

The more you can narrow down your preferences, the easier it is to settle on the perfect location for you.

3. Decide if You Need a Roommate

Figuring out how to rent your first apartment can feel impossible if finances are tight. Depending on where you live, renting can prove incredibly expensive. If rent soars above the 30% recommended rule, consider looking for a roommate to split the rental costs. But before you start tapping your personal network or Craigslist, make sure to weigh the pros and cons of having a roommate and whether or not you’re willing to make compromises along the way.

Once you’ve decided that a roommate is right for you, it’s time to start your search. Consider what makes a compatible roommate and what kind of lifestyle you want, and what you can’t tolerate. Here are some ideas:

  • Are parties allowed, and if so, how big and how late?
  • Do you need to live with someone excessively clean?
  • Do you care if a roommate comes with a pet?
  • How long can guests stay, and how often?
  • Whose name with the utilities be in and how will you collect payment from the other?
  • Who will buy the furniture, and who takes it with them if someone moves out?

It’s also important to keep in mind about what will make your roommate happy and what kind of conditions they prefer. You can include all of those conditions in your future roommate agreement.

As a first time apartment renter, a roommate can be a big win. You could end up as lifelong friends, keep your costs down, and enjoy the support and comfort of having someone around.

4. Consider the Parking Situation

A car isn’t necessarily required when considering how to rent an apartment and where to park. Some neighborhoods like Downtown Seattle or Boston rarely require a car and offer plenty of public transportation options. More suburban areas need a reliable parking situation and could make an impact on what kind of apartment complex you choose.

Think about your comfort level and the type of car you have. Consider whether or not 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

A first time apartment renter should always prioritize amenities, as well as location. In some areas, apartment complexes come loaded with options like swimming pools, on-site fitness centers, rooftop terraces, and more.

In addition to shared amenities, think about what you want inside of your apartment. An updated kitchen, outdoor space like a balcony, oversized bathroom off the master bedroom, and closet space are all worthwhile amenities to consider.

6. Consider Which Floor You Want to Live On

The floor you choose in an apartment complex comes with their own pros and cons. 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 neighborhoods below you. However, the views are usually the worst in the building.

Middle floors are often the most popular options and offer consistent temperature. Heat rises, making top floor apartments hotter. You also end up with decent views. Top floor apartments usually have the best views, but are often more expensive to rent and harder to cool down.

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to which apartment floor you should live on and depends on your personal preference. To narrow down your choices, here's a round-up of pros and cons on which is the best apartment floor to live on.

7. Know the Best Time to Look for an Apartment

If you have some flexibility on when you can move, there are times of year when apartments are 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. As a general rule, winter is the least competitive time to look for an apartment and when you can score the best 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 the best time to rent an apartment.

First time apartment renters may be asking themselves: “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. If there’s no time to spare, you can use these useful tips on how to find an apartment fast.

If you're ready to begin your apartment search, just get started with the quiz above!

If you are planning a move to a new city and don't have time to make a trip to apartment hunt in person, worry not! Nowadays renting an apartment sight unseen is completely possible thanks to virtual and video tours.

Also, finding an apartment with a pet can make things a little more challenging. Learn the ins and outs of finding a pet-friendly apartment.

9. Ask Questions During Your Tours

Before signing a lease as a first time apartment renter, make sure to ask as many questions as possible. Start with these 12 questions to ask when renting an apartment. Don’t forget to think about the noise levels when you tour, and ask about how hot it gets there in summer, and how cold it is in winter. Be specific and thorough with all of your concerns, and if anything needs to be fixed, ask for it before you sign the lease.

10. Know How to Spot Rental Scams

Knowing how to rent an apartment on a budget is a challenge on its own, but it’s complicated by too-good-to-be-true listings. Knowing how to identify rental scams comes with experience. A first time apartment renter will be more susceptible to others, and over 5.2 million U.S. renters have fallen victim to rental scams. Not sure what to look out for? Use these tips on how to spot and avoid rental scams.

11. Keep Lines of Communication Open with a Significant Other

Moving in with your significant other? Don’t assume you’re on the same page about your living situation and keep the lines of communication open, including expectations and budget. Get started with these tips for apartment hunting with a significant other.

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, 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. Make sure to study your lease regarding the terms to getting your security deposit back, as well as any conditions for reimbursements.

Need more help figuring out how to rent your first apartment? Learn more about hidden rental costs and how much an apartment really costs.

13. Consider Future Expenses

Upfront expenses are only a portion of the total costs associated with renting an apartment. Other costs may include utilities, parking, repairs, and new furniture.

Utility costs can vary depending on your location and the season. If you need an idea of what to expect, here's how much the average utility bill costs for renters. It’s common for renters to pay for gas and electricity, as well as internet and cable. You should also factor in any subscriptions, the cost of transportation or gas, food, gym memberships, and any other ongoing expenses. Get our checklist and tips for how to budget for your first apartment.

14. Gather Your Paperwork

Most landlords and property management require specific information from tenants, along with the rental application. 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, 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.

A first time apartment renter may be surprised by additional expenses like application fees. Only apply for apartments you are truly interested in to keep costs down, and familiarize yourself with the apartment application process.

Many renters overlook the reference letter when figuring out how to rent an apartment. However, a rental reference letter is crucial, especially if your credit score is less than impressive. Ask your former managers, colleagues, roommates, or other reputable people in your network that know you well. If they need help, here's a template and samples on apartment reference letters.

15. Prepare a Checklist of Essentials for Your First Apartment

Once all of the legwork and paperwork is completed, it’s time to think about furnishing your apartment. As a first time apartment renter, there are endless details to remember from linens to baking trays. Here's a first apartment checklist to make moving day a breeze.

Living room:

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

Bedroom:

  • 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

Bathroom:

  • 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

Other:

  • 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

16. 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. For more options, here’s where to buy cheap furniture for your apartment.

For online shopping, try Wayfair and Overstock for big ticket items, or Target and IKEA to browse in person. The Dollar Store is also an inexpensive stop for hand towels, cleaners, and sponges. Remember to personalize your new apartment with plenty of decor and favorite artwork. Here's a resource for where to buy cheap art for an apartment and outfit your new home in style.

17. Organize Your Move

Now that you finally signed the lease and are ready to outfit your apartment, it’s time for the big move. It’s no secret that moving can be stressful, especially for a first time apartment renter. However, a hassle-free move is possible, and prioritizing a smooth transition is key. Here’s how to do it:

  • Discuss the earliest move-in date possible with your landlord. Although the lease may start on a specific date, your landlord might allow some flexibility if the former tenant is moving out early.
  • Enlist the help of your family and friends to start packing, or hire professional movers. Asking friends is cheaper and can be a great excuse to throw a party. However, it also requires a lot of coordination. It’s often less stressful if you hire a reputable, bonded moving company to do the planning for you. Local moving companies usually charge by the hour. Long-distance moves are calculated by distance and weight. Long-distance moves can also be more difficult. To simplify the process, check out this resource for moving out of a state.
  • Get moving supplies by purchasing moving boxes at your local hardware store. You can also save money with these places to get free moving boxes, including Nextdoor, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace. 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 that allow you to categorize your household items by boxes and create a printable QR code for each box. When you need to unpack, scan the code and you’ll know exactly what’s in that box.
  • Set up utilities. Most utilities can be easily set up online, although some areas may require an in-person visit. Make sure to schedule everything ahead of time to avoid a lack of internet or cable.
  • Change your mailing address with USPS and set up mail forwarding. It’s best practice to schedule mail forwarding as soon as possible, such as a month before your move. Otherwise you could end up without your mail for several weeks.

18. Deep Clean Your Apartment Before You Move In

If possible, always schedule a deep clean 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.

Frequently Asked First Time Apartment Renter Questions

Still have questions as a first time apartment renter? Here are some questions and answers that can help.

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. 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. To ensure you have all of the proper documents, give the landlord a call.

Do I have to pay for utilities?

Depending on the apartment complex, tenants may 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.

Now that you know how to rent your first apartment, the only thing left to do is to start looking. This first time apartment renter checklist should set-up you for a smooth and successful move.

If you need help finding the perfect apartment, we are here to help. Just get started with the quiz at the top of this page.

AUTHOR
Sania is a content manager and contributing author at Apartment List. Sania previously worked in marketing at Habitat for Humanity and Samsung Electronics. Read More
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