11 Steps To Follow When Renting an Apartment

Figuring out how to find an apartment requires lots of steps between deciding to move out on your own and actually moving into your first place. From location to budget to the application form, there are important things to think about before signing a lease. Here's everything you'll need to know about how to rent an apartment.

1. Know your budget


First, it's important to understand how much you can comfortably afford to pay. Typically, no more than about 30 percent of your monthly income should go towards your rent, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Check out our helpful tool to calculate average rents and the cost of living in major cities, so you can factor in all recurring expenses, such as utilities, loan payments and daily living expenses.

You'll also need to know your credit score so you can figure out whether you'll need someone to co-sign your lease.

2. Decide whether you need a roommate

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

Consider asking a friend to look for a rental unit or have a look on websites such as Roommates.com to find someone who is responsible and respectful.

3. Narrow in on your search area

After figuring out your budget, start doing your homework to decide where you want to live based on what you can afford. You'll want to factor in things like finding a safe neighborhood, and whether it has the priorities you need such as proximity to work, public transportation, restaurants, parks, shopping and recreational facilities.

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.

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.

4. Don't visit too many properties at once

While it's important to visit different apartments to find the one that best suits your needs, look at 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.

5. Tour each community

Touring an apartment.

Make sure you take time to learn about the neighborhood you're thinking about moving into. 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.

You should also time your commute between the potential apartment and your office or school to make sure it works well for you.

6. Line up good references in advance

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

Ask your work supervisor who can confirm you are dependable and trustworthy, your former resident advisor if you lived in a dorm or a neighbor that's known you for a long time to write letters on your behalf. This way, you will have them ready if a landlord asks for references.

References from friends and family don't impress landlords — don't bother getting those.

7. Fill out an apartment application

In hot markets, the first qualified applicant wins the apartment, so you'll need to have everything you need to fill out an application form to move the process ahead quickly. Landlords and property managers determine whether or not you're a good candidate based on the information on your form, such as income, job history and credit score. 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 references
  • Proof of income, such as pay stubs
  • Tax information
  • Your co-signer's name if you have one
  • Your roommate's name and information if you have one
  • The non-refundable application fee (these range from $25 to $100 depending on the apartment and the city)

8. Complete a background check

Most landlords or property managers will do a background check on you to make sure you're a qualified candidate for the apartment and that you will pay rent on time. They will be looking for things like whether you have bad credit, whether you've defaulted on loan payments and whether you have a criminal record. Any of those things could cost you the unit.

During the background check, a landlord might contact your references, your boss or a previous landlord if you had one to make sure you are reliable and responsible.

If you're planning to share your place with roommates, each of them will be subject to a background check, too.

9. Once you're approved, review the lease before signing

Reviewing a lease.

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 what your responsibilities are and what the landlord takes care of. 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 WiFi or cable TV. Your lease will also detail how much you need to pay for parking.

If there are any clauses you don't understand, ask the landlord or property manager what they mean.

10. Pay your security deposit and fees

Most apartment buildings will ask you to pay a security deposit equal to a month's rent at the same time you sign a lease. This fee goes to cover any damage you cause to the unit during the time you're living there. You may also need to pay both the first and last month's rent upfront. Some apartments also require additional fees if you have pets.

Make sure you ask about what fees you're responsible for paying in advance so that you have them on hand when it's time to sign the lease.

11. Plan your move

Packing up a box for a move.

Now that all the paperwork is complete — start planning your move. Ask your landlord or property manager where the moving truck can park on moving day, and find out if you have to reserve an elevator. 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 so that everything's turned on once you move into the apartment.

You might also want to take out a renter's insurance policy, which will cover your belongings in case of fire, theft or a flood.

The bottom line

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

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Wendy HelfenbaumWendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal-based journalist and television producer with 25 years of experience. She writes about real estate, design, architecture, DIY, gardening and travel for many publications and websites, including Apartment Therapy, Metropolis, AARP, Home in Canada, PBS’ NextAvenue, Realtor.com, Country Gardens and dozens more. Downtime passions include skiing, travel, DIY, waiting for the next Springsteen tour and hoping the Montreal Canadiens finally win another Stanley Cup.

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