Whether you’re a young adult about to live on your own for the first time or you’re going from a mortgage to a month-to-month rental in a new area, you need to be prepared before starting your apartment hunt. Finding the right place at the right price is no easy task, but it doesn’t have to be too overwhelming. After you figure out what you can afford, it’s simply a matter of finding the right apartment, agreeing to lease terms, and then signing on the dotted line.
To find an ideal apartment or rental home – and to make the search go smoother – there are a number of steps you can take to ease the burden and expedite the process.
Tips to Find a New Home to Rent
1. Determine Affordability
The U.S. Census Bureau suggests that your monthly rent should not exceed 20% of your monthly income – 30% at the most. For instance, if you bring home $4,000 each month, you should cap your search at around $1,200. Taking the time to update and polish your personal budget before you start looking for apartments can not only help you figure out your price range, it can also help you identify areas in your personal finances where you can cut back if you want to spend more on a pricier apartment. After scrutinizing the numbers, you may decide to drop that costly TV subscription to allow you more wiggle room in your budget for the right place.
Create your budget with a simple spreadsheet or an online service like Mint or PearBudget. Detail your income and expenses down to the penny, from fixed obligations such as phone bills, student loans, and car payments, to variable month-to-month costs such as groceries, entertainment, and clothing. You can lower your food bills by clipping coupons, and save money on your cable, smartphone, and Internet by bundling all three services under one provider. These small moves can really add up, giving you the funds you need for your future housing.
2. Lower Rental Costs
There are several things you can do to find a lower monthly rent:
Look Outside an Urban Area. While living in the city center may seem like a priority, it doesn’t mean much if you can’t afford the rent. Instead, check out apartments in the suburbs within a conveniently commutable distance to work.
Consider Transportation Costs. Urban areas generally require a smaller transportation budget, since you can likely take public buses or subways to get around. However, you still need to take transportation costs into consideration, whether it’s a bus pass or gas money, if you choose to live away from the city center.
Get a Roommate. You can slash the price of any apartment in half simply by sharing it with someone. You need a landlord’s approval before doing so, but having a roommate can significantly reduce the financial pressures of renting. Just make sure you have a written agreement with your roommate laying out all obligations.
Check for Subsidies. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) routinely offers subsidies for those with lower-income jobs who may not be able to afford rent. Search the HUD website to find affordable housing or see if you qualify for subsidies.
Think Small. Square footage comes at a premium in an apartment, particularly in the number of rooms. Going for a studio or one-bedroom may mean missing out on some space, but you make up for it with big month-to-month savings. Assess how much space you really need based on your lifestyle, visitors, pets, and storage. You may find that you’re happier paying less for a smaller place.
Negotiate. Unless you’re apartment hunting in a popular area with little renter turnaround, many landlords are amenable to negotiating. Check out the rates for comparable apartments with similar amenities in the area and bring your research with you to strike a better deal. You can also offer to pay rent for a longer chunk at a time (a landlord may lower the rate if you pay three or six months at a time) or choose to sign a longer lease to score a better deal overall.
3. Add Renters Insurance
For some, renters insurance is a choice, but for the vast majority, it’s required by a landlord. In either case, you should add it to your budget. It covers losses in case you suffer a break-in, and it also helps cover your landlord if you do damage to the property. A landlord insures the building, but renters insurance covers what’s actually inside it.
Luckily, it’s pretty affordable. Rates depend on geographical location, amount of coverage, and amount of rent paid, but, on average, you can expect to pay around $500 per year on $25,000 worth of coverage – about $12 to $15 per month.
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4. Run a Credit Check
Many landlords run credit checks to see if there are any glaring issues with potential tenants, such as unpaid bills or bankruptcy. You can also expect a background check. Although landlords run these checks prior to approving you, it’s actually a good idea to request your own free credit report on your own. That way, you can comb through to check for any potential roadblocks and contest any errors you may find.
All three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) are required by the FTC to offer one free credit report each year. It’s no cost to you and won’t affect your score if you request it, but you do need around three weeks to actually receive the report.
5. Start Hunting
Don’t leave apartment hunting for the last minute. In a perfect world, it should start around three months before your “must move” date. Many current tenants have to let their landlords know of vacancies in advance – the majority of areas require renters to give at least 30 days’ notice, but plenty give more.
While the features you want in an apartment are specific to you and your lifestyle, there are a several basic things you need to look for:
Price. Avoid looking at apartments outside of your budget. Landlords are unlikely to discount the rent, and you could end up either overspending or being disappointed when you can’t afford the apartment of your dreams. Instead, set a firm number and only look for places that fall within your budget.
Transportation. If you’re currently without a car, check every potential apartment’s proximity to public transportation. An apartment may be well-priced and in a great neighborhood, but if you have to spend most of your time walking or calling taxis, it might not be so attractive. What’s more, you need to factor the cost of transportation into your budget for a realistic picture of how much an apartment really costs.
Convenience. Choosing an apartment that is conveniently located can make your life a lot easier. Look for a place that’s close to work, shopping, transportation, and amenities such as laundry.
Safety. Not only should an apartment be in a safe neighborhood, landlords should make an effort to ensure their tenants feel safe inside. Proper locks on each door, private entrances, and security should all make you feel better about renting.
6. Gather Your Down Payment
Many landlords require a down payment, which usually includes the first and last month’s rent, along with a security deposit equal to one month’s rent. Therefore, if you’re forking over $800 per month for a new place, you need $2,400 ready to go when you actually sign your lease. Your first and last month’s rent is obviously retained by the landlord, but your security deposit is generally returned if you leave the property in the condition you found it. Otherwise, it can be applied to maintenance, repairs, and cleaning.
While you won’t need to give a landlord a security deposit until you sign the lease, it’s always a good idea to have the amount saved up in your bank account. That way, you won’t lose out on a potentially perfect apartment to a better-prepared renter simply because you didn’t have the money.
7. Prepare Documentation
Landlords take a substantial financial risk if they don’t thoroughly check out each applicant, so in addition to credit and background checks, some may require extra documentation. Gather the following papers and keep them on file in advance of your search:
Letter of Employment. A landlord needs to know you’re gainfully employed and able to make monthly payments based on your salary. This letter should be printed on company letterhead and include an affirmation that you work there, the duration of your employment to date, and your monthly or yearly salary. It should be signed by a supervisor.
Pay Stubs. These corroborate the information in the letter of employment.
Tax Returns. If you’re self-employed, tax returns from the last couple of years should suffice in place of pay stubs. You may need to offer extra explanation as to what you do for work and the amount you make annually.
Reference Letters. A landlord wants to know that you’re a great tenant. If you’ve rented before, ask for reference letters from past landlords explaining that you paid your rent on time and cared for the property. If you’ve never rented before, ask for letters from previous employers or acquaintances who can confirm that you’re responsible and honest. Just make sure they’re from people not related to you – glowing recommendations from your mom won’t do the trick.
8. Talk to Tenants
While you want to make a good impression on the landlord, you also need the landlord to make a good impression on you. The best way to find out if you really want to live in a certain property is to talk to past and current tenants. In general, you want a landlord who is courteous and safe, and who takes care of maintenance issues promptly. Ask about tenant turnover, infrastructure issues, and response times to complaints.
This is also the ideal time to ask about living expenses in the area, especially if you’re moving to a new neighborhood. Current tenants can give you a rundown of what they spend on transportation, utilities, and entertainment, as well as information about the neighborhood, such as where to eat, the location of specific school districts, and the best local amenities.
9. Do a Walk-Through
Don’t sign that lease just yet. After everything checks out and you’re happy with the apartment, location, and landlord, you should do a final walk-through before signing on the dotted line. Because previous tenants may have caused damage or maintenance issues, you need to be sure that you won’t be responsible for any issues that weren’t your fault.
Come prepared and check for the following:
Turn on lights and faucets, and flush toilets throughout the apartment to make sure they all function properly.
Check for rodent or insect infestation, particularly in cupboards and storage spaces. Chew marks or droppings are a major red flag.
Bring along a cell phone charger and plug it into the outlets to make sure they all work.
Check smoke alarms and look for fire safety equipment, such as an extinguisher in the kitchen.
Open and close and lock and unlock doors and windows.
Turn on all included appliances to make sure they’re working.
Examine floors and walls for any type of damage. Carpet, hardwood, linoleum, drywall, and tiles should all be inspected.
Take pictures of any problem areas with a digital camera and show them to the landlord. Save the file so if there are any discrepancies with maintenance or problems getting your security deposit back when you move, you have evidence to prove you didn’t cause the damage.
10. Read Over and Sign the Lease
Lease agreements vary depending on time frame and contract terms.
Periodic Leases Work Best for Shorter Durations. With a periodic lease, the landlord acknowledges that your situation could change from month to month, allowing you to pay and renew your lease monthly. However, these leases can be more expensive, and because you have to renew each month, the landlord reserves the right to raise the rent at any time. You need to give your landlord 30 days notice before vacating the apartment, so this arrangement is best only if you truly need short-term living space.
A Fixed-Term Lease Is Most Common. Contract with your landlord to stay in the apartment for a specific period of time – three months, six months, a year, even two years. In many cases, if you choose to move out, you’re still responsible to pay for the time left on your lease, whether you live in the apartment or not. This can mean locking in a lower rate, though, which is ideal for longer-term living situations. Occasionally, landlords let renters out of their lease if a penalty is paid, so be sure to discuss contingencies before you sign.
Subleases Are Three-Party Lease Agreements. They often occur when a renter needs to vacate an apartment, but is still in a lease with the landlord and responsible for the rent. With a sublease, the original renter finds another resident to take over lease payments until the term is up. The renter then pays the landlord for the duration of the contract. Subleases must be approved by the landlord, so if someone offers you a great deal on the down-low, it could be suspect.
Whatever the term, your lease includes articles such as security deposit amount – and conditions under which the deposit is retained by your landlord – terms for rental, how to inform your landlord you’re vacating the property, and behavior and issues that could result in eviction, such as late or non-payment, destruction of property, or anything else the landlord deems unacceptable.
While the price of a rental may not be negotiable, the lease often is. Sometimes, you can negotiate the cost of utilities or get a guarantor to co-sign if your credit score is less than perfect. You may also be able to negotiate on price if you need to go outside for amenities, such as laundry, or pay more for transportation. Depending on the apartment’s desirability and location, as well as the current status of the housing market, you could potentially get a break if the landlord really needs to rent the space.