How to Rent an Apartment: A Complete Renter’s Guide

Getting a new apartment is exciting, but also a bit overwhelming.

Apartment living is quite popular with adults of all ages, from young professionals to retirees tired of dealing with household maintenance. The benefits of apartment renting can include fabulous amenities such as swimming pools and spas, convenient access to shops and attractions and on-site maintenance staff to take care of problems.

The steps to renting an apartment can sometimes be a little complicated, especially when it comes to applying for a rental and dealing with the lease. This comprehensive renters guide provides tips and ideas on how to rent an apartment. So, if you're not sure what to look for when renting an apartment or when to start looking for your dream apartment, this renters guide will help.

If you need a place to live where you aren't tied down or have to deal with lawn care and other home improvement projects, an apartment rental might just be for you. If you're ready to take the leap, the best time to start the apartment hunt is now!

In this guide:

Create a budget

1. Budget for your apartment

When studying how to rent an apartment, don't forget your budget. Calculating exactly how much you can afford is one of the most important steps to renting an apartment. It doesn't just help you in determining what to look for when renting an apartment. You'll need to have a reasonable budget in order to get approved by the property manager.

A landlord probably won't rent to you if the monthly rent far exceeds your monthly income. In fact, they often expect that your gross income is at least three times your rent. So, you'll need to come up with a reasonable rent budget that matches your income.

How much should you pay for rent?

The standard rule you'll see in an average renters guide is to spend no more than 30 percent of your income on rent (your gross income before taxes). However, rent prices are increasing every year. With the high cost of rent in highly competitive markets, spending more than 30 percent on rent is not unheard of.

If you follow the 50-20-30 rule, then you would spend 50 percent of your net (after-tax) monthly income on necessities like rent, utilities and transportation, 30 percent on recreation, hobbies and entertainment and 20 percent on savings.

You can use Rent.'s free online rent calculator to determine how much rent you can afford.

Apartment application fees

The apartment application process will be covered in more detail below, but you need to account for the rental application fee at every place you apply to move in to. A single application fee usually isn't much on its own, but if you're expecting to go through the application process at many different places, that cost can start to add up.

Utilities and other living expenses

Rent is your biggest expense, but it's not going to be all that you have to pay for. There are a number of other expenses that can come up, with utilities such as electricity, water, and internet being some of the biggest ones. Check with the landlord to find out what is covered in the rent, or charged to you alongside your rent payments. Some landlords also require renters insurance for all tenants, an expense that can easily catch you off-guard.

You'll also want to budget in a small emergency fund to cover any unexpected expenses that come your way.

Budgeting with roommates

A common way to afford a better apartment is by having roommates to split the costs. While this can help you afford a better place, roommates add some complications to the apartment hunting process. While most properties allow roommates, note that all potential roommates will have to go through the same apartment application process, including the background check, credit check and rental history screening. It's a good way to get started, especially for those college students or someone looking for their first apartment, but it can add some complication.

Apartment building

2. Choose the type of rental you want to live in

Renting a home doesn't necessarily mean you need to stay in a one-floor apartment. This renters guide will outline the various different housing options, including traditional apartments, duplexes, lofts and limited housing.

Apartments for rent

Apartments are housing units that usually have different families living in different, separated dwelling spaces in a single building or a set of buildings. Most apartments are single-level, meaning, they're only one floor and don't have internal staircases. However, sometimes, you'll find an apartment that has a second floor (often called duplexes or townhouses).

Apartments are usually identified by the number of bedrooms or the size of the unit. Common apartment sizes are one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments. You can sometimes find three- or four-bedroom apartments, but these are not as common as one- and two-bedroom units and are obviously a bit more expensive.

A garden apartment is a low building that typically does not have an elevator but is generally in a “garden-like" (or suburban) setting. A walk-up is any apartment where units are on the upper floors without an elevator. For example, walkups are typical in older urban apartments (i.e., a “third-floor walkup") but you can also find them in garden apartments.

Another type of apartment is the studio or efficiency apartment. These are apartments where there's no separate bedroom, but the living room, bedroom and kitchen are all part of the same small room. You will have a separate room for a bathroom unless you're in a building where bathrooms are communal.

Lofts for rent

A loft is not quite the same thing as a studio but may have a combined living and workspace where you may not have a separate bedroom area. Lofts are rather large (and expensive). They often have a stairway going up to the “loft," which is an overhang area (not quite a full second floor) where a bedroom or office is. Lofts are often created out of old warehouse spaces, but can also be built from scratch with modern construction techniques.

Lofts are popular housing options for artists, who sometimes have a public work and display area “downstairs" where visitors can come watch the artist in action and peruse their art pieces.

Duplex apartments for rent

A duplex rental is basically an apartment that has a split level (two floors or more) and may have a small garden or patio in the back. Depending on the part of the country where you live, it might also be called a townhouse, but townhouses are technically owned and not rented.

Duplexes connect to other units much like rowhomes, but unlike an old-fashioned rowhouse, duplexes are usually made of modern construction and part of a bigger complex. That is, a single company (landlord) owns an entire complex of duplexes, whereas historic rowhomes are usually owned by individual homeowners and bought and sold like single-family houses.

Duplexes are good options for young families that want a home-like experience but aren't ready yet to own their own detached house.

Limited housing and accessible apartments

Limited housing includes communities specifically for seniors and low-income housing. These rental communities will have restrictions on who can rent based on variables such as age or income. Many states offer programs to help low-income people with housing costs. Contact your local government for guidance on how to apply.

If you're looking for an accessible apartment, many apartment communities may provide options that aren't directly advertised. Contact the apartment manager to find out what accommodations might be available.

Tour apartments

3. Schedule tours

An important step in the apartment search is touring the potential units of interest. This is the time when you'll have an opportunity to physically inspect the space. It's also a great time to ask questions of your potential landlord or property managers.

These days, you can also conduct a virtual apartment tour, but if you can make it in person, there's no substitute.

Planning your apartment tours

Setting up times to tour potential apartments should also be a part of your rental timeline. It can impact when to start looking for apartments because visiting and reviewing apartments in person can take some time. You'll typically need to coordinate with the property managers to see the place, although sometimes you might be able to set up a time with the existing tenant.

Be on time for your apartment tour appointment and don't get lost on the way to the leasing office. You want to make a good impression on the person who is responsible for approving your apartment application.

Creating an apartment tour checklist

By the time you've set up an appointment for an apartment tour, you should have already honed in on the type of apartment you want, such as a one-bedroom vs. a two-bedroom. Now, you'll want to focus on refining your options so you can compare apartments.

Before you go to look at a potential apartment, jot down a list of wants and needs for your new home. Everyone will have different criteria for what makes an apartment enticing. But some things to consider include access to parking, availability of amenities (such as a gym, pool, etc.), policies on guest visitors, on-site laundry and other features.

You might find two apartments that are relatively equivalent when it comes to price, size, number of bedrooms and location. But perhaps one apartment has a dishwasher while the other one does not. This might be the one detail that helps make your rental decision for you.

Touring larger apartment communities

For a small apartment complex or single unit that might be attached to a home, you'll probably get to view the actual unit you'll be moving into.

For larger apartment communities, you might get to view a variety of apartments and floor plans. The downside is you may not see the actual unit you'll be renting. Instead, you'll be given a tour of a “model" unit or another vacated unit instead. You can try to ask to view the specific unit you want to rent, but if someone lives there when you're touring, you may have no choice but to rent the apartment without seeing it.

Most of the time, your new unit is in decent condition if the apartment complex has a good reputation and positive reviews. So, not getting to see your actual apartment unit before signing the lease isn't a deal breaker most of the time. Just be prepared to document everything in your new apartment when it's time to move in, and don't be afraid to report issues or even ask for a different unit should your new unit not be up to par.

Questions to ask when looking at apartments

The apartment tour is a great time to ask the property manager about the building and its policies. Here are some questions to ask when looking at apartments:

  • How does the security deposit work?
  • How are rent payments handled?
  • Are pets allowed? If so, what are your specific policies for pets?
  • How thick are the walls? Are the apartments noisy? Are there quiet hours I need to know about?
  • Do I get a parking space? Do I need to pay extra for one? Where would my parking spot be?
  • Can I have overnight guests? Is there a parking spot my guests can use?
  • What is the age of the carpet (will it be replaced)?
  • How are utilities handled? Do I need to get my own internet access?
  • Where is the mailbox? How are incoming packages handled?
  • Are a washer and dryer included in the unit? If not, where is the laundry room?
  • What is the apartment community like?

Why these questions?

These are just a small sample of the kind of questions you can ask during tours.

Some of these questions are to find out what type of landlord you have. Asking a variety of questions about various policies (such as guest regulations) can help you determine whether your potential landlord is reasonable or controlling.

Other questions can help you determine which unit to choose if you're given multiple apartment options in a large complex. You might be given an option of renting unit A or unit B, both with the same floor plan and both with a second-floor walkup. Unit A might be closer to the mailbox, which might just help you decide which unit you want to select.

These are just some questions to start with and you're sure to have your own, so write them down beforehand so you won't forget in the middle of the stress of apartment hunting.

Check out the neighborhood

In addition to the apartment community, you'll want to take a look at the surrounding neighborhood. Do you like the feel of the place around you? Where is the nearest grocery store? Is there nearby public transportation? All of these questions are as important to the apartment search as trying to find apartments that you like.

Finishing your apartment tour

Once you've finished your apartment tour, you have two options: One, you can go home and “think about it" or two, you can immediately apply and get started on lease signing. If you're living in an area where the apartment market is super hot and places get snapped up quickly, prepare to apply and sign the lease right away.

Apply for an apartment

4. Apply for an apartment

Unless you're living in a small town or dealing with a friend of the family as your new landlord, you'll likely have to fill out an application, and the apartment application process can be daunting. Applications usually include background and credit checks and thus, have a fee. The application fee costs can vary but range from $35 to $75 and up and are usually not refundable. However, some apartment complexes might credit your application fee to your rent if you end up signing the lease.

Credit score and background check

The property manager will be looking for past evictions on your record and possibly a criminal history. They will also get to see your credit scores. This is so they can avoid having tenants who cause problems or skip out on the rent.

If you're worried about failing the application and don't want to waste money on a non-refundable fee, you can explain the situation to the apartment manager first and find out if they offer any workarounds. Sometimes, people with a low credit score or other high-risk applicants are able to rent simply by putting down a much larger security deposit or bond.

What if you have bad credit?

If you have a bad credit history, don't panic. Deciding whether or not to rent to you is based on more than just your credit report. What is a lot more problematic than a bad credit check is a prior eviction in your rental history, in which case, you may need a co-signer to help you get the apartment. A co-signer is usually a close friend or family member with good credit or you might be able to use a co-signer service for a fee.

Having a co-signer

Having a co-signer is much more than a simple formality to get you an apartment. They have to go through the same credit checks that you have to do, and their name will be on the rental agreement, allowing them the same rights to enter your apartment that you do. They will also be obligated to pay rent for you if you are unable to, a financial arrangement that can place heavy stress to place on your relationship with that person.

What to bring for your application

Along with your completed rental application, most landlords will usually need to see some form of identification, such as a driver's license or passport. You should also bring some sort of proof of income, if possible, which can include recent pay stubs, tax returns or a letter from an employer, along with bank account statements to show how much money you currently have. If you're using a friend or family member as a co-signer, they may need to provide their documents, as well.

Since your prior rental history is so important, most landlords will want a letter or other reference from your previous landlords. If your income or credit check causes concerns, previous landlords putting in a good word for you can give you an edge. Personal references are also helpful, and you'll need to provide personal contact information for those references so the landlord can check that those references are valid.

You should ask the apartment manager before arriving onsite what they specifically need for their rental application process so you don't come unprepared.

Read the lease

5. Read and understand the lease

One of the most critical aspects of renting an apartment is the lease. The apartment lease is the legal document that gives you the right to reside in the apartment. It also outlines the rental costs, as well as your rights and obligations as a tenant. If a conflict comes up between you and the property management company or landlord, your lease agreement will become a very important document.

Leases can seem a bit intimidating at first, but it's important that you take the time to read through all the details and fine print. In the lease, you'll find important information outlined, such as what the late fees are if your rent is late or whether you need to pay for garbage removal.

Rental lease terms

While you can potentially rent an apartment month-to-month, most apartment landlords will want you to sign up for a lease term, ideally for a year or more. The longer the lease term, the less you'll typically pay per month. However, you may have to pay a penalty if you break your lease early.

The best time to sign a lease

In certain cities that have hot rental markets, rental prices may continually go up. However, they can also fluctuate depending on the time of the year. Certain times of the year, such as the summer or fall in college towns, might be when the market gets more competitive. The landlord may raise rental rates during these times. Conversely, slow periods, such as the holidays or summertime, might be when rent prices drop.

If you don't have to move right away and can wait for a better rental rate, you can certainly try to time your move.

Rental increases

The lease should also provide some sort of stipulation regarding rent increases. This will help you to budget your rental costs in the long term. You can expect to pay more at the end of your lease unless you live in an apartment under strict rent control.

Ask how much the rent increases each year when you are looking at apartments. You don't want to get into a situation where you're stuck in an apartment where the rent skyrockets after your lease term is up.

Lease negotiation

You can potentially negotiate rent rates, so it never hurts to try. If demand is low, then you'll have a better chance of negotiating.

Other items are more negotiable depending on the company. For instance, you may ask for late fee grace periods, early lease withdrawal penalties, security deposits, additional fees and some other rules.

Monthly rent and your security deposit

Pay close attention to these numbers in the lease agreement. Whatever was discussed before, the numbers in the agreement are what you're going to pay. It's not likely that someone will try to bait and switch you by claiming rent is lower than what's in the lease, but checking the numbers for the rent and security deposit helps you make sure that you were budgeting with the correct numbers.

You likely also have to pay rent upfront, usually just the first month's rent to get things started, alongside your security deposit.

How to pay rent and contact the property management company

Do you know how you interact with the property management company? How do you make rent payments? Online payments are most common, but there may be other options. Information about this should be in the lease, but even if it's not, finding out this information now is important. You don't want to sign without knowing what to expect in your interactions with the property manager.


If you have a pet, you'll need to find a pet-friendly apartment. Don't make the mistake of trying to get in “under the radar" and hiding your pet from a property manager who doesn't allow pets. This is a sure-fire way to get yourself (and your beloved pet) evicted.

Many pet-friendly apartments offer fenced-in dog parks and areas to walk your pet as amenities. This is critical for your pet's happiness. Some may even have special areas to bathe and groom your pet.

However, “pet-friendly" may still mean you can't have certain pets, such as certain breeds, dogs over a certain weight or more than one or two animals. You'll want to get clarity on the pet policy before signing the lease.

Also, remember that most communities will charge an extra security deposit for each pet, some of which aren't refundable.


6. Move to your new apartment

Moving is never fun, but it's one of those inevitable steps to renting an apartment. When determining when to start looking, make sure you give yourself enough time for moving. An overlap of at least a few days between when you're leaving your old home and the move-in date on your new lease is essential.

DIY or hire movers?

If you're in the same city, you might be able to get away with having friends move your stuff in a pickup truck or U-Haul rental. It's up to you to decide whether this is the best option, or if you should find professionals. Rent.'s Moving Center can help you get quotes from movers.

Getting ready for your move

Check with the property manager at the new apartment what the policies are regarding moving trucks, portable storage containers and unloading furniture. Find out where to park the truck. If it's far away, you may need to plan for additional dollies or helpers. If the apartment has elevators, see if a freight elevator is accessible for your move, which is tremendously helpful.

Don't forget to change your address with the post office — you can now do it online.

Additional resources

For additional information on how to rent an apartment, check out the Rent. blog, which has helpful articles on renting, as well as information about popular cities.

The Rent. Moving Center also provides valuable information to help make your move successful.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.