3 Common First-Time Renter Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

doug mistakesMoving into your very first apartment creates a range of emotions as broad as anything you’ll find in Oscar-winning film. Drama! Inner turmoil! Giddiness! Apprehension! Triumph! In the emotional flurry of searching, packing, and moving in, it’s understandable if you feel overwhelmed and distracted, and make a few rookie mistakes. Here are some common ones and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Not getting everything in writing … or reading the lease.
This is the real world. Handshakes aren’t good enough. Your lease agreement must be in writing and you must have your own copy, signed by the landlord and by you. If there are any other things that aren’t covered in the official lease but seem pretty important–like use of a parking spot or special permission to have a pet–get that in writing, too, and have everyone sign and date it. If you have roommates, make sure you’ve established and put in writing who is paying what amount. If there’s anything at all that seems like it might potentially cause a headache in the future, put it in writing. (Here are some items that a typical lease will cover.)

Also, make sure you fully understand what that writing says–particularly the lease, including those long, legalese-filled paragraphs that make your eyelids droop. Go through the text line by line and if you don’t understand what something means, ask the landlord. Make sure all the basic information is clearly covered, such as how long your lease is, how much your rent is and when it’s due, and how much notice you need to give to terminate the lease. Also pay attention to any specific restrictions on painting walls or making other aesthetic alterations. If you miss those and use wrong color paint, you can kiss your security deposit goodbye.

How to avoid it: Read everything carefully and have someone your trust read it, too–ideally someone with experience reading contracts or legal documents. Use confirming emails to put in writing anything that is not in the formal contracts. And make sure you get copies of all documents you sign for your own files.

Mistake #2: Spending more than you should for the apartment.
If all your money is tied up in your apartment, you will be stuck there, miserable, as your friends have fun. Remember that as a rule of thumb, you should pay no more than one-third of your monthly income for rent–so, no, you probably can’t afford your dream apartment. There are ways to keep your expenses down and make your budget stretch, such as having a roommate or only using public transportation, but make sure that these options will be feasible before you count on them–it’ll be tough to find a roommate willing to share a studio apartment (no matter how sweet) or to actually use public transportation if you don’t live on near a bus or train line. Be realistic and understand that you probably won’t be able to find your ideal apartment first time around.

Also keep your budget in mind when filling your apartment. Yes, you’ll need to shell out for a few things, so that you have a place to sit, a place to sleep, dishes to eat off of, and so on. But be reasonable. Do you really need a giant television, brand-new furniture, and the finest game system money can buy? Nope. You don’t. Living on your own requires careful and constant consideration of your finances–don’t start off in the hole by racking up credit card debt (which, by the way, will make it harder for you to rent next time around).

How to avoid it: Figure out a monthly budget for all of your living expenses, as precisely as possible–and stick to it. (Use this as a guide to types of expenses most renters have.) Determine your upper limit for monthly rent–again, no more than one-third of your monthly income–and don’t even look at apartments outside your reach.

Mistake #3: Not thoroughly vetting the apartment and the surroundings
Don’t be swayed by initial appearances or the proximity to your favorite hangout. You need to make sure the apartment, the building, and the neighborhood really are a good fit for you. Is there laundry on-site (and if so, how much does it cost)? Do the mailboxes actually lock? Make sure things work: the locks on the doors and windows, the oven, the hot water in the bathroom, the toilet. Meet some of the neighbors and see what they think about the building. Also, check out how Alissa scouts out a rental and how Maya looks for signs of common pests.

Similarly, scout out the neighborhood. A nice vibe at 2pm may turn into a scary scene at 2am. Ask people who already live there; also see if you can find neighborhood crime statistics, which are often available online. If you don’t have a car, is the building near public transit, and are there amenities such as a grocery store in easy walking distance?

How to avoid it: Do your homework. Search the internet for information about the neighborhood, and then hit the ground and see it for yourself. Visit on different times of day and on different days of week. Make sure you give the apartment a good look-through and do the same for the building, Sometimes a walk through the basement to the laundry room can tell you all you need to know about the building.

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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 www.douglasmack.net or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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Comments (1)

  1. Avatar Will Johnson

    Hey folks! Great stuff. As someone who’s worked in and around the property management industry, I’m always interested in the points of view of our customers. This is a great blog. If you folks are ever interested in putting together anything aimed at property managers from the resident perspective, hit me up.

    Will Johnson