Welcome to First Things First! This series will help you prepare for a range of life changes. Think of each installment as an instruction guide that will either give you time to locate a safe landing spot or help you hit the ground running. Each article will contain a handy checklist you can reference so you can remain calm, cool, and in control of whatever life hands you.
Finding Your First Apartment
The good thing about adulting and getting your first apartment is that you get to make it your very own place. The bad thing about adulting is that you are responsible for paying for your very own place, what goes on in your very own place, and complying with the lease for your very own place.
Finding your first apartment is the real challenge. Stalking, spotting, and then closing in — apartment hunting is almost its own sport. And we want to help you succeed!
1) Determine How Much You can Afford
Large places cost large sums, so chances are good you’re not going to be able to afford as big a place as you’d like. So, how big is big enough? One bedroom? Two? Just a loft?
Now comes the sticker shock: the amount of money due at lease signing can amount to a small fortune. It’s typically the first and last month’s rent PLUS a security deposit PLUS any additional fees. And NONE of these include what you’ll need to set up any additional services – energy, water, phone, cable, internet, satellite, and more. Basically, you’ll need three to four months of living expenses saved up before you’re really ready to start searching.
Be vigilant! Unexpected deals can pop up in ideal surroundings. Tell your network of friends and coworkers you’re looking for a new place. If you’re moving in from across the country on a tight schedule, consider working with a real estate professional. While they might charge you a finders’ fee for the service, it may wind up saving you time and reduce stress.
If all this sounds exasperating, you’ll need figure out just what you can afford. For a little extra help, take a look at our post on Budgeting.
2) Location! Location! Location!
All too often, the amount you can afford for rent determines where you can afford to live. The most practical method is to pick three ideal general locations, stake out places that meet your needs, and then visit them.
- Is it close to your work (or at least an easy commute)?
- Is it close to shopping and places to eat?
- What are the neighbors like? You can learn about neighborhoods via private social network sites like Nextdoor.
- Is the neighborhood safe? Research crime in the areas that interest you. Are you looking for an apartment that offers extra security?
3) Ask Questions and Do Research
It’s important you understand the basics of apartment living in your area.
- Does the apartment lease cover utilities, or are you responsible for them?
- What appliances come with the apartment? What does the lease cover concerning HVAC, landlord-owned appliances, and plumbing?
- Does the apartment come with off-street parking? If so, are there stickers, reserved spaces, restrictions, or associated fees?
- Look for online reviews about the landlord and upkeep. If something breaks down, do they get right on it, or do they stall and stall?
- Figure out the local ordinances. Some prohibit food gardens, hanging laundry, open garages, etc.
4) Ask About the Landlord’s Requirements
It’s even more important to understand your landlord’s big “Do’s & Don’ts” before you choose a place.
- Be ready to pay an application fee. Landlords also want to know about you and will do background checks on prospective tenants. They pass this cost on to you.
- Increasingly landlords or apartment leasing companies to require proof of employment, recent pay stubs, and perhaps other financial statements. If you are using a relative to be a guarantor (someone who guarantees rent payment), they will probably need to supply their financial information as well.
- Find out more about the security deposit and policy. Security deposits are meant to cover any damage done to the place. Find out in advance what that amount is. Also keep an ear out for the landlord’s reputation of returning security deposits if there’s no damage. Remember to take these stories individually with a grain of salt, but be wary if you see a pattern in multiple accounts.
5) Closing the Deal
Before signing the lease, walk through of your new place. You don’t want to be saddled with fees when you move out.
- Document anything that look likes damage with your phone’s camera — any marks or pin-holes in the wall, scuffs on the floor, stains. ANYTHING. Provide copies of these images to your landlord promptly.
- Document any appliance that doesn’t work properly. If the landlord promises any repairs within a set time of your move-in date, get that promise in writing as part of the lease.
Remember, renter’s agreements are legally binding contracts. Be clear on the terms of the agreement:
- If you have a pet, find a place that lets you keep one. Yes, you might need to pay extra but it will be worth it. Seriously, dude, be an adult here. Sneaking a pet into a place that doesn’t allow them is a recipe for eviction, and it will be your own fault for violating the lease agreement.
- Rent payment due dates. Some will give discounts for electronic payments. Also be clear about late-payment penalties,
- Understand what you are responsible for on the property. For example: a tenant renting a duplex agreed to be responsible for all yard up-keep. When a huge thunderstorm toppled a massive 300-year-old oak tree on to the front yard, it had to be decided in court whether the tenant was fully responsible for the costly removal of the tree.
- Get move-in info. Some places will charge a variety of service fees, including just to use the service elevator.
One last thing
Pick up a “Tenant Rights Handbook” from your local government’s civil rights office. This will contain information and legal resources you might need if you have a dispute with your landlord. Also, check renters’ resources at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or at the links to state offices at TenantsUnion.org.
In the next installment of our First Things First series, we’ll walk you through buying your first new car.