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How to Rent Your First Apartment: 8-Step Checklist

By: Davina Ward
June 16, 2020

Renting your first apartment can be an exhilarating experience. Who wouldn’t love the chance to find their dream apartment?

That said, before you start mentally decorating your perfect space, it’s essential that you’re proactive in your search.

Our guide to this process starts with setting your standards and works its way all the way through move-in. It takes a lot of work to perfect your apartment search strategy. But with the following tips and tricks, you’ll be waking up in your dream apartment in no time.

This guide will help you get the most out of your apartment search. It’ll make it easy for you to find a place that meets all your needs at a price that’ll make your wallet happy.

Here’s everything you need to know about how to handle your first apartment search like a pro.

1. Set Your Standards

Here's the thing: you can't find the apartment of your dreams if you don't know what you're looking for. Understanding your needs and wants for your first apartment can help to make the search significantly easier.

Not only does this give you a great foundation in which to start your search, but it’ll also help you rule out apartments that simply don’t meet your standards.

It’s best to stick to the golden rule of apartment hunting. That is: "Your apartment should fit your lifestyle, not the other way around."

In other words, you shouldn't have to make major changes to your lifestyle when you move in.

That's why it's important to list out every aspect of your lifestyle that you want an apartment to meet. Here are some factors to research before starting your apartment hunt:

  • Commute: How long would your new commute be from your chosen neighborhood?
  • Transportation: Is the apartment near public transportation routes? Could you rely on public transportation from your home?
  • Groceries Stores: How close are the grocery stores in the neighborhood? Are they affordable & good-quality? Do they have a wide selection?
  • Safety: What is the crime rate in the neighborhood? Would you feel safe living on the first floor?
  • Amenities: What amenities are nearby and will you have access to them? For example, community pools, libraries, gyms, and parks.
  • Parking: If you have a car, would you be able to safely park in a garage, the driveway, or the street?
  • Pets: Does the apartment allow pets? Are there any breed or species restrictions?
  • Size: How many bedrooms are you looking for? What square footage?

Based on your answers to these questions, you can confidently start your search for an apartment in a neighborhood that matches the standards you’ve set.

2. Determine Your Budget

One of the most challenging aspects of renting your first apartment is creating and sticking to a budget. A budget must account for all move-in costs and monthly living expenses. Those can add up quickly.

Some of the initial move-in costs include a security deposit (typically the cost of one month’s rent), application fees, background check fees, and utilities.

To start creating your budget, it’s a good idea to commit only 30% of your monthly income to housing costs. This can be challenging, as it may limit the number of apartments you can comfortably afford. However, paying a higher percentage can lead to financial distress.

Utilizing a rent calculator can help you determine how much you can afford to pay monthly.

You may find that you can’t afford to live alone. However, that’s not a cause for concern. If necessary, recruiting a roommate can cut your living expenses in half or more, depending on the number of roommates you need. More on that in the next section.

3. Find a Roommate (if applicable)

If you find yourself in need of a roommate, don’t rush to find one. Take your time. You’ll be living with this person long-term, so it’s essential to make an effort to find a person with whom you’re compatible.

Trust us, you don’t want to spend the next year of your life living with someone you can’t stand. To avoid this, here are some tips to help you find a roommate that won’t make your life miserable:

  • Search for a roommate within your social media network, utilize roommate finding services, or simply post an ad.
  • Make sure they can afford to pay for half of the bills.
  • Ask about their lifestyle (smoking, partying, job, pets, recreation).
  • Discuss hygiene and cleaning.
  • Come up with a roommate contract.
  • Tell them about yourself and what you’re looking for in a roommate.

It may seem intensive, but that’s the point. Learning as much as you can about a potential roommate upfront can help you avoid a roommate nightmare in the long run.

4. Go on Apartment Tours

Apartment tours give prospective renters the opportunity to thoroughly explore the apartments that they’re interested in. This is the time to get a feel for the unit.

You can use an apartment tour to check for any repairs the unit will need, review the layout of the space, and take measurements. Overall, an apartment tour will help you determine if the space is actually one that’ll work for you before moving forward in the renting process.

Keep in mind that although apartment tours are generally done in person, renting sight-unseen is also an option. Virtual tours allow prospects to take a 3D tour of an apartment and navigate through it as you would in-person. Additionally, many listings also come with a blueprint of the layout of the apartment.

Regardless of whether you see the unit in-person or virtually, do your due diligence to ensure that you’re renting a unit that is as described. Brings a list of questions to ask while touring apartments.

5. Submit your Apartment Application

Once you find an apartment that piques your interest (“Why, hello, exposed brick walls”) and meets all your needs, grab an application to get the process of renting it started. The key to filling out a rental application is to be 100% honest in your answers. Make sure to fill it out completely.

Rental applications act as a sort of blind first impression for landlords and property managers. Many use rental applications to weed out prospective tenants who don’t fit the criteria, such as income or rental history, especially for popular rentals.

That said, by filling out your application thoroughly, answering all questions honestly, and submitting it quickly, you can greatly improve your chances of moving on to the next stage.

6. Renting with No (or Bad) Credit

When it comes to renting, a solid credit history paired with a great credit score can really amplify a rental application. However, many first-time renters won’t have a high credit score or an established rental history.

If you’re looking to rent with bad credit, don’t worry! Here are some tips for renters with poor or nonexistent credit:

  • Limit your apartment search to those that don’t require credit checks.
  • Show proof of employment and stable income.
  • Offer to pay a higher security deposit.
  • Provide your landlord with reference letters.
  • Get a lease guarantor.
  • Pay off debts.

Really, the trick to renting with bad or no credit is to prove that you’re in a position to comfortably afford rent and that you’ll be able to pay on time. Most landlords understand that not every prospective renter has great credit, especially for renters who'll be renting their first apartment. Many are willing to be flexible when it comes to that standard.

7. Read Your Lease Carefully

Don’t sign a lease agreement that you haven’t read thoroughly! Lease agreements are legally-binding agreements. If you don’t read through one before signing it, you could face legal consequences for not complying with it.

Your landlord should provide you with a copy of the lease agreement before signing. This is the time to read it and record any questions or concerns.

If you have any amendments that you would like to make to the agreement, bring this up prior to signing. Even if your landlord verbally agrees to certain terms such as allowing your large breed dog or replacing the refrigerator in the unit, they aren’t bound to uphold them if it isn’t in writing.

Additionally, be sure to read up on tenant rights before signing a lease agreement. For example, if your state limits security deposits to a certain amount and what your landlord asks for is an amount outside that limit, don’t sign the agreement until they lower it.

Finally, it’s essential to specify the lease term in the agreement. If you’re looking for temporary housing, a month-to-month lease agreement will suit you better than a year-long one.

That said, landlords can be flexible when it comes to lease terms. So, if you’re looking for an unusual term like 4 months, ask if they’d be willing to accommodate you.

8. Consider a Renters Insurance Policy

Renters insurance is a good idea for any renter. However, it can be especially useful for first-time renters.

Typically, renters insurance protects renters from liability if an injury occurs in the apartment and covers the costs of replacing lost or stolen items. Generally, renter’s insurance is a sort of safety net that provides peace of mind in case the unexpected happens.

However, in the event of natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, don’t expect any help from your insurance policy. They typically don’t provide coverage in those events.

Keep in mind that renters insurance policies can differ from provider to provider. You’ll have to do your research to determine what policy works best for your needs.

Final Thoughts

Renting your first apartment is a fulfilling and exciting experience — if you do it right. There’s a lot of work that goes into finding the perfect apartment. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all the due diligence and research that goes into the process.

However, the benefits of the resulting happy abode often outweigh the work it took to get there.

That said, if you’re starting your apartment search, simply follow the tips listed above to ensure that you get the most out of your first apartment search. Ready to get started? Start with the quiz at the top of this page!

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Davina Ward is a contributing author at Apartment List and freelance writer specializing in real estate and digital marketing. She received her B. Read More
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