3 Key Steps to Getting Your First Apartment

Young Man Packing Cardboard BoxLooking 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.

Credit Check

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

The Lease

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.


woman between moving boxesSchedule 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:

Things You Need For Your First Apartment: The Ultimate Checklist

Super-Budget Decorating Tips From the Pros

7 First Apartment Decorating Mistakes To Avoid

Fitting In: Buying Furniture for a Small Apartment

Apartment Housekeeping Plan






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Author My First Apartment

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Jennie is a recent business school graduate living in NYC. She lives with a roommate in a quaint 2 BR brownstone apartment. Jennie is currently working as a start-up/digital marketing consultant while looking for a full time job. She loves bargains and her guilty pleasure is reading the DailyMail.com.

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Comments (10)

  1. Avatar Daphne Gilpin

    Thanks for the tip to start by figuring out our finances. My husband and I want to locate a good luxury apartment to rent. Your tips should simplify the process of looking at and choosing luxury apartments.

  2. Avatar Trayson Evans

    It can be so hard to find an affordable apartment these days. I like your tips on saving immediately. Once you find the apartment of your dreams, you’d better ready to put down your deposit so you don’t lose it to somebody else who was ready right away.

  3. Avatar Danni Black

    I really like your tip about starting to save immediately when it comes to finding an apartment. My husband and I are going to be getting our first apartment in the next few weeks so we will have to keep this information in mind while we are searching. We are really excited to get the process started, thank you for sharing!

  4. Avatar Elsa Anderson

    I’m very excited to move to my very first apartment by myself, but I’m nervous I won’t know how to put myself in a good financial situation to prepare for it. I like how you mention to start saving immediately and to save at least three times your monthly rent to cover all costs. I don’t have that much in my savings account, so I should probably stock up so I have enough to pay rent should I become unemployed.

  5. Avatar King’s Wharf

    You’re totally right, everyone should keep in mind these three major things before buying an apartment. Thanks for sharing this valuable information.

  6. Avatar Wade Joel

    Getting your own apartment is awesome. It can be difficult barbecue there is a lot of research you have to do before getting an apartment you would like. I didn’t know that you had to put in an application to get an apartment.

  7. Avatar Nathan Johnson

    I will be moving next month and I am still trying to figure out where I will move to. One of the hardest things is finding an apartment that fits in the budget but is still kind of nice. I really like your calculations for finding out how much rent you can afford. That should help me figure out what I can really afford to spend. Thanks for sharing!

    • MFA Editors MFA Editors

      Hi Nathan,
      Thanks for your nice words. Happy to hear the calculator was helpful.

  8. Avatar John Donovan

    Finding your first apartment doesn’t need to be stressful. As long as you take the time to do your research, you will find a good fit. One big tip is to make sure that you stay within your budget so that you are sure to afford it!

  9. Avatar Madeline C

    Great tips! We’d love to see apartminty.com added to the list of search options. Our free, specialized service would be a great supplement to the search sites that can overwhelm you with results. Check us out and let us know what you think!