How to Rent an Apartment – 4 Steps for New Renters
You finally have your degree or new job offer in hand, but the apartment hunt looms in the distance. Renting is a good option for young people who aren’t ready to buy a home, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility and potential headaches. This article covers the following four steps to make finding that first apartment a little easier for the new renter:
- What to do before you rent
- How to find an apartment
- How to read and negotiate your first apartment lease
- How to protect your security deposit, rental history, and credit score
Before you pick up the “For Rent” section of the paper, you must determine how much rent you can afford. According to most financial experts, your rent should equal no more than thirty percent of your monthly gross income. Stick to this figure, and don’t be tempted to look at apartments with higher rent. Your rental and financial future are on the line if you fail to make your monthly rent payments.
After you determine your ideal monthly rent, research your local rental market. Ask friends and colleagues for their opinions to find out which neighborhoods are safe, interesting, and within your budget. Also consider the amenities you’ll require in your new apartment or neighborhood. Consider parking, nearby grocery stores, gyms, and proximity to your workplace. You can obtain most of this information simply by walking through various neighborhoods or searching for information online.
One mistake most new tenants make is learning their rental rights and responsibilities through trial and error. This method often leads to troubling and costly inconveniences. Prevent these mistakes and research your state’s rental laws so you know what to expect as a tenant. Pay particular attention to security deposit laws, illegal lease provisions, repair requirements, discrimination laws, and eviction processes. Search for a local tenant organization or union that can explain these rental laws to you in layman’s terms.
Your rental law and tenant right research is also a good starting point to help you think of questions to ask each landlord during your search. In a small notebook, write down questions about neighborhood safety, lease terms, security deposits, rent due dates, the frequency of rent increases, and any other questions that come to mind. This notebook will come be useful as you move on to the second step of the rental process – how to find an apartment.
Your research thus far will help you lead a thorough and organized search for your first apartment. Visit web sites like Craigslist.org or Apartments.com and search for apartments according to the requirements you’ve decided upon. In addition to local newspapers and magazines, apartment rental agencies are also good resources for new renters – especially those who are very new to an area or need to locate an apartment right away.
Bring your notebook and a camera to each apartment viewing. Be sure to ask all of your questions and jot down the landlord’s answers. Take pictures of each apartment so you can remember room lay-outs and other details when you’re trying to decide which apartment to rent. It’s not uncommon to visit five or ten apartments before you choose one. Also note any damages you see while looking at apartments. Feel free to turn on faucets, test window and door locks, and check radiators for heat. Keep in mind that you should settle for nothing less than a habitable, safe, and secure first apartment.
Most landlords require landlord references, proof of employment, and a credit check to qualify tenants. If you don’t have a rental history, take copies of an offer letter or your employer’s contact information and your credit report with you as you’re looking at apartments. You can obtain a credit report from one of the following agencies – Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. Most landlords will accept these documents to qualify new renters.
While the landlord qualifies you as a tenant and checks your background, you too should qualify the landlord. Don’t hesitate to ask current tenants to describe their experiences with the landlord. Also check the landlord’s legal record by searching small claims cases and police reports, either in person at your city or county courthouse or online if available. You may be able to find informal landlord complaints by visiting your local tenant organization or landlord review web sites.
New renters often sign a lease before carefully reading it. Make sure you read your entire lease, and look for any illegal provisions you learned about in your rental law research. Pay attention to any undesirable terms such as those that allow your landlord to enter the premises without prior notice, raise rent at any time during the lease term, or automatically renew the lease months in advance of its termination. If the landlord promises to address any repairs noted during your apartment search, make sure they are written into the lease.
This is a good time to negotiate any undesirable provisions and additional lease terms. If you want to make cosmetic changes to the apartment such as painting the walls, obtain permission from your landlord. If you're unhappy with the rental price, offer to clean the building entryway or sign a longer lease in exchange for a discount. Always remember to get all negotiated terms in writing.
Once you sign your lease and move in, it’s your responsibility to protect your financial and rental record. One of the largest financial investments you make when you move in to your first apartment is the security deposit. Security deposit limits vary widely from state to state and cover damages outside of normal wear and tear as well as unpaid rent.
Fortunately, landlords are required to return the deposit to you at the end of the lease term, minus the cost of damages and skipped rent. Protect your security deposit refund from the moment you move in by thoroughly documenting the state of your apartment. Take date-stamped photos and fill out an apartment check-in form. Forward the photos and form to your landlord and keep copies for your records. Be sure to follow up with your landlord – verbally and in writing – to address any outstanding repairs. If the landlord does not comply, consider contacting your local building inspector or small claims court.
Both you and your landlord are responsible for keeping your apartment in clean and safe condition. Promptly repair any damages resulting from your own negligence. Ask your landlord to immediately take care of any repairs you’re not liable for. Or, ask if you can pay for the repairs and be reimbursed later.
A poor relationship with your landlord can affect your pocketbook as well as your ability to rent in the future. Throughout your tenancy, maintain good communication and document all interactions with your landlord. Get repair and rent extension agreements in writing. If your landlord reneges on these agreements, continue paying your rent on time and revisit your state’s rental laws to determine a legal course of action. Tenant organizations rarely advise tenants to withhold rent for any reason. A landlord will evict and sue for unpaid rent, leaving you with a damaged rental history and a lower credit score.
The time you spend on your first apartment hunt may put your longest college cram session to shame. However, follow these four steps to find a good apartment and become a savvy tenant.