Conquering Your First Rental Paperwork

PaperworkSearching for an apartment, while stressful, also has its enjoyable moments. You daydream of your view overlooking the park, or imagine the grandeur of living in a historic building, hardwood floors at your feet, chandeliers lighting the hallway.

And then you get to the paperwork part of the process. There’s nothing glamorous about reading sprawling paragraphs of legalese and writing checks with an intimidating amount of digits. It can be daunting, especially if you’re not entirely certain what paperwork is even involved and why each piece matters. We’ve put together a list of what you should expect, at a minimum. (Necessary disclaimer: Please understand that, as always, our information should be considered a rough guide but not a substitute for expert advice or due diligence. Circumstances vary widely by state, by city, and by individual, and not all of this information may apply precisely to you or be accurate for your situation. It’s imperative that you do your own research and ask your own questions to determine what paperwork to expect in your particular case. Okay? Great.)

Here’s the basic overview of the paperwork you’ll encounter, the necessary link between you wanting to lease a particular apartment and that moment when you actually move in.

Rental Agreement: Your rental agreement provides all the specifics of what you’re getting into. This is one of those times when you should definitely not just skim the big blocks to text before signing at the bottom, as Katherine discussed in her post about making sure you get your dream apartment. Read your lease agreement. We can’t emphasize that enough, so let’s repeat it, bold-faced: be sure you actually read your rental agreement and know what it says. Seriously. It will detail things like how many people will be renting the unit, whether or not pets are allowed (and, if so, if you have to pay more rent), what day rent is due, how much notice you have to give before moving out, whether or not a parking space is included in your rental fee, and a host of other genuinely important things that you need to understand before signing. Make sure the landlord signs it, too, and provides you with a copy. Keep it in a safe place for later reference.

Deposit: In addition to paying your first month’s rent right up front, you’ll also have to pay an equivalent amount as a security deposit, and very often the last month’s, too. So if your apartment rents for $800 per month, you’ll have to pay at least $1,600 and likely as much as $2,400 before the landlord gives you the key: $800 for the first month, $800 for the last month, $800 for the security deposit, which you should get back when you move out, assuming you’ve left the apartment in good shape. Your landlord may ask for a nominal application fee, too, to cover such costs as running a credit check.

Pay stub or other proof of income: For obvious reasons, landlords want to make sure you have the ability to pay the rent. The general rule is that you should spend no more than 30 percent of your gross monthly income (before taxes) on housing expenses. So if you’re applying for an apartment that rents at $800 per month, you should be making $2,667 a month (=$32,000 a year), or you may very well be rejected. If you work on a freelance basis or have other income that doesn’t come with convenient pay stubs, you may be asked to provide other documentation to prove your income, such as your tax returns from the previous year or two–and realize that you may need to be proactive in providing  this documentation (remember, landlords aren’t mind-readers and can’t be expected to understand all your income streams unless you document them).

Reference check: It’s common to ask for your rental history, including contact information for past landlords. As our guest blogger Joe put it, “your rental history is your rental resume.” What they’ll ask for, specifically, is a list of all addresses at which you’ve lived in the past few years–so the answer may be a college dorm or with your parents (they’ll vouch for you, right?). If you’re a first-time renter, don’t worry about the lack of landlord references too much, but do be prepared to furnish other references, such as your current employer or someone who can vouch for the fact that you’re responsible and reliable (that is, you’ll pay the rent on time and won’t trash the place). The landlord will also probably call your employer to verify that you really do work there and earn what you claim you earn.

Credit check: This actually doesn’t involve any real effort or paperwork on your part, but it’s something landlord is going to take very seriously. We’ve posted about the importance of a good credit score several times before (see, for example, Alex’s post “The Latest Scoop on Renting and Your Credit Score” and Alissa’s “Credit Score Traps–and How to Avoid Them”), but it bears repeating. Your credit score is how potential lenders, landlords, insurers, and even some employers verify your financial responsibility and credit risk–it’s a numeric indicator of whether or not you pay your bills on time or carry too much debt, among many other factors. Your credit score is the key that unlocks your access to big-ticket items like a car or, yes, renting an apartment. Now, you may have heard that you can check your full credit report for free once per year at And that’s true and useful–you should go look it up so you can see how you’re doing–but it’s not the same as your credit score, which is essentially a distillation of the report. And in the end, your credit score is what lenders and landlords (etc.) use to give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Even once you know the difference between the credit reports and credit scores, it’s more than a bit tricky to understand exactly what you’re looking for when you go out to track down your own score–as Credit Sesame writer John Ulzheimer pointed out last year, a single person can have 49 different credit scores, depending on the source of the numbers and how they’re calculated.

The key thing to know, the essential detail in this confusing swirl of numbers and terms, is your generic FICO risk score. The score ranges from 300 to 850, with higher being better.  If your score is in the 650-700 range, you are in pretty good shape for getting the rental, if it is much lower your may be asked for a higher security deposit or a guarantor.  To understand exactly what the numbers mean and how they’re calculated, your best bet is to read FICO’s handy, thorough (and, thankfully, approachable and not too jargon-y) PDF pamphlet, “Understanding Your FICO Score.” Obtaining your FICO score will cost about $20 through the FICO website; The Motley Fool blog recently posted about different options for obtaining your credit score, and what the different types of score actually mean.

And after you have your paperwork under control, check out Alex’s tips on how to sound like a rental pro even if this is the your first time in the game.

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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Comments (3)

  1. Avatar Anne


    I just wanted to say thank you all for this blog. I will be moving out in a few years, and though it’s certainly pretty far away, early planning is important to me as I want to land on my feet and not be another sad example of a starving college student, haha.

    All of your guides have helped so much; from deciding if I want roommates, how I can go about getting them, what to save, where to look, what to look forward and even how to furnish and save money on apartments.

    After reading through every post in the archives, I can definitely say that this will be my favorite blog, and an excellent guide to keep me motivated and remind me that however daunting, it’s never impossible.

    So thank you, to everyone that’s contributed to this blog. Although you get a lot of silent lurkers like myself, there will always be thousands of people that benefit from this blog, and I hope to see it last for years to come =)

    • Alex Alex

      Hi Anne,

      Thanks for the very flattering compliment! We’re happy to help – and we look forward to continuing to provide great content far into the future. :-)

  2. Avatar Tracey March

    As a former attorney who practiced landlord-tenant law, I couldn’t agree more about the importance of reading and UNDERSTANDING the rental agreement.

    While you may be super-excited about the prospect of living in a particular apartment, you need to understand the requirements for living there. There may be limits on whether you can have a pet, get a new roommate, or have a grill on the balcony. You may be required to maintain the yard, respect quiet hours, or allow a realtor to show the property (if the landlord is trying to sell it). There could be a fee if you pay rent late, or if you lose a key and get locked out.

    My advice is to read the agreement carefully, and ask questions if you don’t understand. Once you’re in, follow the rules and be a great tenant. That way, if you ever need something done quickly, or if you have an issue, the landlord will be more likely to work with you–if you’re a good tenant, your landlord will do whatever he or she can reasonably do to keep you.