What You Need to Do Before You Start Looking for Your First Apartment

pre apt huntIn apartment-hunting, as with so much else in life, sometimes the most daunting thing is just figuring out where to start, how to wrap your mind around the task at hand. So let’s begin at the beginning–not moving in, not looking at apartments, not even searching listings. Before any of that, before you take any other steps on the path toward your first apartment, there are three main things you need to consider:

  1. Your financial situation, including your income and your credit score
  2. Where you should live
  3. With whom you should live

1. Your financial situation.
First, figure out your budget. Check out some of our past posts for guidance, in particular Alex’s post on “How Much Money Do You Need to Save to Move Out?” The standard guideline is that you should spend no more than one-third of your monthly income on housing. But bear in mind that in addition to rent, you’ll have a security deposit, utilities (including heating, electricity, water, phone, and internet; some may be included in your rent). You’ll also have first apartment start-up costs for buying all the things that go into your apartment, from big-ticket items like a bed and a couch to smaller things that add up quickly, like towels and cleaning supplies. And depending on where you live, your transportation costs may change–more buses, a parking spot, and so on.

Bottom line: start saving, and start crunching the numbers to determine how much you’ll be able to spend.

On a related note, potential landlords are going to look up your credit score to make sure you’re someone they can trust to pay the rent on time. It’s really important to understand your score and to keep it at an acceptable level. Check out our past posts on how to monitor your score and how to raise it.

2. Where to live
We’ll assume that you already have a state and city–or at least a region–in mind (if not, head here for guidance). Now the question is, what general things do you need–truly need, not just want–from your apartment? For example, if you don’t have a car but do have a job, you’ll need to have access to your workplace, either on foot or via public transit.

Think about what other people and places are part of your everyday routine–family, a girlfriend or boyfriend, the community center where you volunteer or play pickup basketball. If you’ve lived in the area for a while, chances are good that you’ve built up a community. Again, if you have a car (which cuts into the rest of your budget), you’ll be able to get anywhere. Otherwise, think about your priorities and where, in general, it makes sense for you to live.

Draw up a list of your broad-level preferences (trying not to get too specific at this point), in terms of the sort of neighborhood you’d like, the general location, and any broad concerns about the unit or the building.

For example, maybe you decide that you want to live in the north part of Chicago, within walking distance to a grocery store, but you really hate heights so it needs to be a ground-level unit.

Again, try to be as broad as possible–don’t start picturing your dream apartment yet, or even the building or the street or the specific neighborhood. But think about those apartment-hunting building blocks of what you need, what you want, and what you can live without.

3. With whom to live
To have a roommate or not to have a roommate? It’s the eternal question, one Hamlet surely would have asked if he’d been apartment-hunting rather than brooding in a graveyard.

The first two pieces of the puzzle will affect this one. If you’re on a tight budget, a roommate can be a huge wallet-saver. And it can be fun to live with friends. Of course, it can also be stressful and frustrating.

Think about whether or not you want a roommate–or roommates, plural–and consider how this will affect your budgeting. If you have a potential roomie in mind, and he or she is also starting from scratch, work together to draw up your budget and “Where to Live” list. This will help you both feel ownership in the process, and will provide a good, amicable start to your new living arrangement.

Once you’ve finished these three steps, let the hunt begin!

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Author My First Apartment

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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 Kielvin

    I love how helpful your tips are. They might be simple but that’s the beauty of it. Thanks for sharing this post.