Looking for an apartment, especially your first apartment, can be overwhelming. To find the right rental you need to consider many variables, including the neighborhood, your budget limitations and your lifestyle.
We have broken the whole intimidating process down into three manageable steps that will coach you to find an apartment that is right for you.
Step 1: Figure Out Your Finances
The first important step in finding an apartment is figuring out your budget. You don’t want to fall in love with an apartment only to find out you can afford it. There are two simple ways to estimate how much rent you can afford. If you are paid an annual salary, take your salary – before taxes or any deductions – and divide that amount by 40. If you are paid hourly, take your average monthly take-home pay and multiply by 0.35. OR you can use our super simple Affordable Rent Calculator and let the calculator estimate how much you can afford to spend.
(If you end up with a disappointingly low affordable rent estimate, don’t get discouraged. It might just mean that you have to look for an inexpensive roommate share to start with, or stay where you are a little longer while looking for ways to boost your income.)
Start saving immediately! Once you find a rental you will need enough to cover one month security deposit, first month’s rent, application fees, credit-check fees, other moving costs and some basic furniture. We estimate that you’ll need to save at least three times your monthly rent to cover all the costs. If you use the above Rent Calculator it will also tell you the amount you need to save before you can realistically afford to move out on your own.
When you submit your application, the management company will check your credit. Whether you like it or not, your credit score affects your renting capability. The higher your score, the more likely you are to get a place, and the lower the score, the harder it will be to rent. Use the free Annual Credit Report website, which is sponsored by the Federal Government to see how your credit fares. If your credit score is above 700 you should be in good shape. If it is below 650, you’ll probably need to find someone (parent, friend, relative) to co-sign your lease, or give several months’ rent as extra security deposit.
For a complete list of paperwork you’ll need to have on hand as you start your active search, read Doug’s advice on Conquering Your First Rental Paperwork.
Tip: Management companies charge you a fee for pulling your credit report. But since you already pulled it, ask if they can use your copy and save some money.
Step 2: Conduct The Search
It is important that your neighborhood fits your lifestyle, so if possible, visit a few potential neighborhoods. Also if you know people (co-workers, friends) who already live in the area ask them what they think. Another important factor is affordability. You now know your rental budget, so go online and see the average cost of apartments in that location. You should see at least a third of the listings in your price range. If there are less than that, you may have limited options.
The easiest way start your search is to go online. There are many rental search engines like StreetEasy, Trulia, Renthop, Zillow, etc., that make looking at listings a breeze. You can also cold call management companies or walk/drive around your desired neighborhood and respond to “for rent” signs or stop by buildings you like and ask if they have a leasing office. And don’t forget to spread the word through all your social media contacts. This is especially important if you are looking for a roommate share.
In some cities the rental market is super competitive and you may need to use a broker. Brokers typically charge one month’s rent or if you are looking in NYC it’s 12-15% of one year’s rent. OUCH! Using a broker makes most sense if you are planning on staying in the apartment for at least two years.
For more information about brokers, read Do You Need A Broker To Find A Rental?
Tip: Do an online search of the management company or landlord. You do not want to rent from people involved in poor business practices.
If you find an apartment that’s within your budget, in desired neighborhood and has a reputable management company, put in an application. There is normally an application fee that ranges from $25 -$150.
Step 3: The Lease And Beyond
Your lease is a legal contract, so it is very important that you read it before you sign it. If you have any questions or issues with points in the lease, discuss them with the management company and sometimes they can be clarified or altered before signing. Here are a few things you should look for: the penalty for breaking the lease early, the policy for fixing problems with the apartment, how much notice you must give if you want to renew and the rules for getting your security deposit back.
The walk-through is an essential step that is often forgotten. You and someone from the management company literally walk around the empty apartment before you take possession. This is your chance to document and take pictures of any pre-existing problems you find in your apartment. Test everything in the apartment from the toilet to the stove burners. If you find a crack in a tile, stain on the floor, take a picture and let the landlord know. If the landlord needs to fix something, always get it in writing. This is the best way to protect yourself, your future home and your security deposit.
Call the utility company and internet/cable company at least 1 week before your move in. This way there is some buffer in case there is an issue. Wonder what your utilities will be? Look at results of our utility cost survey for some guidelines. Also, remember to change your address with the postal service. In addition, depending on your situation you may need to get renter’s insurance, a new driver’s license (if you are moving states), or new parking stickers for your car.
Schedule your move with your new landlord. Some building only allow people to move in on certain days or at certain times, so make sure you get that settled before you pack up the car. If you are going to use a moving company, keep in mind that depending on time of year, you may need to book them a few weeks in advance.
Packing always takes more time than you think, so start as soon as you know you’ll be moving.
Tip: Remember to label all boxes and have necessities like toilet paper and cleaning supplies on hand on your moving day.
Here are some articles to help you post move: