how to rent an apartment

10 Steps To Follow When Renting an Apartment

Whether it’s your first apartment or your 10th, finding and renting an apartment is an overwhelming process. You have to consider everything from your monthly income and budget to the ins and outs of the rental application itself. While finding potential apartments is a lot of work, you can simplify it if you’re organized and know exactly what you need to do.

Don’t let the stress of finding and renting an apartment get in the way of your decision to move. We’ll walk you through everything from the rental application to the responsibilities the landlord owns. By following these 10 steps, you’ll figure out how to rent an apartment in no time.

1. Know your budget so you can pay rent

First, it’s important to understand how much you can comfortably afford to pay. Typically, no more than 30 percent of your monthly income should go towards your rent payments, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For example, if you make $65,000 a year, you’d allocate $19,500 annually — or $1,625 per month — toward rent payments. Use our rent calculator to find out how much you can reasonably afford.

When breaking down your budget, you’ll also need to consider other elements of housing costs. This includes expenses like the application fee, first month’s rent, the security deposit, utilities and renters insurance. These expenses are not usually included in the rent itself so you’ll need to add this into your budget before you start looking for your ideal apartment.

Also, you’ll likely need to run a credit check to find out our credit score, which can influence the rental agreement. Most landlords prefer to rent to people with high credit scores because it’s a good indicator of your financial history. Before you sign the lease or rental agreement, the landlord will run a credit report to ensure you have good credit and can fulfill your financial renter responsibilities.

Once you have your financial ducks in a row, you can start looking for your own place to rent and move on to the next phase of the apartment hunt.

Roommate dinner among college students to celebrate a new apartment

2. Decide if you’ll have a roommate

People have roommates for a variety of reasons. Some people like the companionship that comes with having a roommate. Others choose to live with a roommate for financial reasons. And sometimes, it’s a combination of both.

If you’re worried you can’t afford an apartment on your own, you may want to find a roommate to share the security deposit and monthly rent, utilities and household expenses. Splitting a place with one or more roommates means you could get a bigger apartment in a building with more amenities.

Roommates are also a good option if you have poor credit and need a co-signer on the rental agreement. A co-signer is someone who signs the lease agreement, too, and is legally responsible for paying the rent in full should the other renter not be able to pay the month’s rent. Co-signers should understand their legal and financial responsibility before committing to signing the lease.

Regardless of your reason for wanting a roommate, you should choose someone who is financially responsible and whom you’d be comfortable living with for at least a year. Unless your rental agreement is month to month, you’ll likely be locked into a lease for 12 months.

3. Determine where you want to live

Next on the list of things to do when looking for a rental unit, is to determine where you want to live. You need to decide which apartment complexes to look at in certain neighborhoods and cities.

When making these decisions, consider things like safety, walking distance to work or public transit and how many restaurants, parks or recreational facilities are nearby.

Once you’ve found the location you want to live in, you need to decide what type of place you want to rent and what amenities are important to you. You could rent anything from a studio apartment to a two-bedroom apartment to a single-family home. Check out the property’s amenities, such as an onsite fitness center, laundry, pool, security or parking. Make a list of your wants versus needs. Your rent will likely increase if the property management company offers more amenities and on-site perks.

Make sure you take time to learn about the neighborhood you’re thinking about moving into, as well. Sign up for a virtual tour or make an appointment with a leasing agent to take a walk through the area. This could help you make up your mind about which unit you’d like to rent, especially if a few places are similar in cost or size.

You’ll want to visit the neighborhood during the day and also later at night to determine if it’s a good fit. This way, you’ll get a sense if there’s a bustling café or restaurant scene, whether it’s quiet at night or too rowdy for your taste and how safe it feels.

Generally, you can expect to pay higher rent if you want to live close to major metropolitan areas. However, your transportation costs and commuting time will increase if you move further away — so consider what’s more important to you.

Apartment tours with a potential landlord are important to securing that perfect apartment before making payments

4. Take apartment tours to see your options

The apartment hunt is equal parts exciting and overwhelming. If you’re searching for your first apartment, take the time to see a variety of options before you rent an apartment.

Whether you are taking a virtual tour or a self-guided tour, you’ll want to visit different apartments to find the one that best suits your needs. Try to limit your tours to no more than five at a time. Otherwise, the units will blur together and the process can become overwhelming.

It’s a good idea to snap photos of the exteriors and interiors of each apartment and take a few notes during your tour so you can compare them later. Don’t forget to ask questions about the building as you visit, so you can collect as much information as possible that will help you decide which place works best for you.

One other thing to consider is that your first apartment isn’t necessarily your dream apartment. You want to find a place that meets your needs and budget, so try not to fixate on finding the dream apartment and skip over places that are good choices, too.

5. Line up personal references for reference letters

First-time renters often need to convince landlords they’ll be excellent tenants. Since you may not have a rental history or credit history yet, you’ll need some solid personal references who can vouch for you and help boost your chances of getting the apartment.

You can get reference letters from a variety of people, but typically, references from friends and family don’t impress landlords because their recommendations will likely be biased. Instead, ask someone like your work supervisor who can confirm you’re dependable and trustworthy. Or, ask your former resident advisor if you lived in a dorm to act as your personal reference.

By having these personal references lined up in advance, you’ll be one step ahead of any other tenants who are looking to lease the same space.

Application will look at credit score, on time payments and more, so make sure you're ready for a credit check.

6. Fill out an apartment application

In hot housing markets, the first qualified applicant usually wins the apartment, so you’ll need to have everything to fill out an application form to move the process ahead quickly. Make sure to read the apartment application thoroughly so you don’t miss any important line items.

Landlords and property managers determine whether or not you’re a good candidate based on the information on your application forms. They look at things like salary, after-tax income, job history, credit and background checks to help make their decision.

The more paperwork and information you have on hand, the easier this step is. To complete an apartment application form, you will need things like:

  • Your personal contact information
  • Your driver’s license
  • Your personal references
  • Proof of income and pay stubs
  • Tax information and tax returns
  • The name of the co-signer
  • Your roommate’s name and information, if you have one
  • Proof of renter’s insurance, if you have it
  • The non-refundable application fee (these range from $25 to $100, depending on the apartment and the city)

7. Complete a credit and background check

A property management company and most landlords will conduct background checks on you to make sure you’re a qualified candidate for the potential apartment. They’ll look at your rental history to see if you’ve defaulted on loan payments or rental payments to ensure you can pay the monthly rent on time. They’re also using the credit check to see if you have bad credit as this can indicate your ability to pay rent on time. Lastly, they’ll also look to see whether you have a criminal history or not. Any of those things could cost you the unit.

The rental application and credit and background checks are the easiest ways for property management to determine if you can pay rent on time and if you’ll be a qualified, responsible tenant.

Read the lease with a family member, close friend or potential roommates before the first months rent

8. Review the lease or rental agreement in detail

It’s crucial that you read through the entire lease agreement before signing on the dotted line. Like any contract, this legal document has important information and rules that you have to understand before agreeing to move into the building. Understanding your basic rights as a tenant is part of renting an apartment, too.

Usually, the lease will lay out whether or not they allow things like pets or smoking. It will also outline the tenant-landlord checklist that highlights what you need to do and what the tenant needs to do. This is a good time to confirm which utilities come included in your rent, and how much other utilities cost. Some apartment buildings cover the cost of heat, hot water and electricity, while others also include things like Wi-Fi or cable TV.

Your lease will also detail things like if you get a parking spot and how much you need to pay for parking. It’s smart to ask about past car break-ins so you can understand the safety at the apartment complex, too. Break-ins can increase the cost of your car insurance, so it’s smart to know about the history of parking lot safety. Likewise, ask the landlord about any past property damage. Most apartments will keep a record of them for you to review.

If there are any clauses you don’t understand, ask the landlord or property manager what they mean before, and, if applicable, a co-signer, sign the rental agreement.

9. Pay your security deposit and fees

Most apartment buildings will ask you to pay a security deposit equal to the monthly rent at the same time you sign a lease. This fee will cover any future damage you cause to the unit during the time you’re living there.

You may also need to pay either one month’s rent or both the first and last month’s rent upfront. Some apartments also require additional fees if you have pets. Also, landlords may require you to have renter’s insurance and show proof of payment for that. These fees are in addition to the initial application fee you paid.

Make sure you ask what fees you’re responsible for paying in advance. You want to have them on hand when you’re finalizing your budget and when it’s time to sign the lease. You can bring a debit card, check or sometimes a credit card to pay these fees.

Get ready to move into rental apartment.

10. Plan your move

Now that all the paperwork is complete — start planning your move. Find out the exact move-in date. And ask your landlord or property manager where the moving truck can park on moving day. Also, find out if you have to reserve an elevator for the day of your move. Some buildings restrict moves to certain days or times, so plan yours accordingly.

Then, book your movers or truck rental, making sure to leave yourself enough time to pack. Contact the utility companies to put the contracts in your name. Then, everything’s turned on once you move into the apartment.

The bottom line

Figuring out how to find an apartment and live on your own means taking care of lots of details. But, if you get the basics taken care of early on, it’s easier to follow your plan and stay organized. After sorting out all the paperwork and moving details, you can enjoy the freedom and fun of having your own unit.

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.


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