Guides Real Estate

First Time Renter’s Guide: Finding the Right Rental

While you might be incredibly ecstatic about finding your first apartment, chances are you have a ton of questions on your mind that are giving you doubts.

For example, you might want to know which area has the lowest rent. What is a good rent price anyway?

There’s no denying that the process can be daunting. If you’re a first-time apartment renter, follow this step-by-step guide to find your new apartment.

Steps to finding the ideal rental

1. Work out your budget

When you go apartment hunting for the first time, the first step is to determine how much you can afford to spend. Depending on your financial situation, you’ll have to decide what kind of property and neighborhood works best for you.

Many factors can affect rental prices. Get a general sense of how much rent and other expenses you can afford by looking at your pay stubs and figuring out how much money is in your budget. This will help you narrow down your apartment search to neighborhoods you can afford, making it that much easier to find the perfect home.

Generally speaking, renters should set aside up to 30% of their monthly income for housing expenses. That being the case, use this simple math equation to calculate this number: Take your annual income, multiply it by 0.3, and divide it by 12.

2. Decide where you want to live

Here are five things to consider when choosing a location:

  • Proximity to work or school. Walking may be an option if your house is close to your job or school. You’ll have to drive or take public transportation if it’s further away.
  • Transportation options. Find out if there are subways, trains, or buses nearby.
  • Neighborhoods. Explore the local shops, restaurants, and businesses in the area.
  • Safety. Keep things like parking and lighting in mind. Also, neighborhood apps are great for investigating crime and other safety concerns. 
  • Convenience to neighborhood attractions. Whatever you enjoy, make sure it’s convenient for you and easy to access. Whether you want to work out at a local fitness center or go bar hopping, you want amenities that are convenient.

3. Determine your needs and create an apartment checklist

As you continue your search for the perfect apartment, you need to understand what your specific requirements are. After all, there’s a big difference between your rental needs and your rental wants. Ultimately, everyone has certain necessities they need to feel at home — whether that’s a pet policy, a dedicated parking spot, or access to a swimming pool.

Unless you own a car, you’ll need a home close to public transportation. For pet owners, it’s important to find a pet-friendly community that accommodates their pets.

A “want” is what you’d like to have in your home but can live without it. This category might include your own laundry room, an on-site weight room, or an extra bathroom.

4. Do your research 

When you’ve had a busy day, your home is where you’ll rest and recharge. So, when you visit a showing, make sure the home meets your needs.

Check every space in the home, including shared areas, outdoor spaces, parking, gyms, and laundry rooms. It’s common practice to test faucets, appliances, doors, and locks. While you’re at it, do some quick measurements to make sure your furniture will fit.

At the same time, you’ll want to consider the level of security in the building, the amount of noise in the building, and the quality of lighting in the home. Take note of how long it’ll take to move in, if there are stairs or an elevator, what floor you’ll be on (if it’s an apartment, condo, or townhome), and where you can park for moving day.

When doing a virtual showing, ask the landlord or listing agent to confirm anything you’d check in person. Ask the agent about room measurements, try out appliances or fixtures, and ask to see outside spaces. 

Other things to consider when searching for an apartment for the first time

Type of management

It’s important to think about whether you prefer to rent from a landlord or a property manager when looking for your first rental. Even so, you might be wondering why this even matters. Besides, aren’t they both the same thing? Not really.

Landlords own rental properties, such as houses and apartments. It is the landlord’s responsibility to provide habitable rental housing, which includes maintaining the plumbing, gas, heating, and water systems. In order for a tenant to live safely and comfortably, they must ensure that a building is functioning properly.

Property management companies, on the other hand, are third parties that manage all types of properties. Typically, these companies are involved with setting, collecting, and adjusting rent. Depending on how big the complex is, property managers might conduct background checks and credit checks, and ask for proof of income.

At the end of the day, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to choosing between a landlord and property manager. In some cases, landlords can provide a level of customization. Moreover, they might be more more concerned with keeping the property in good condition and keeping you happy.

The downside of having a landlord is that you may lose accessibility and timeliness when it comes to repairs. In addition, landlords may become overwhelmed by their responsibilities, especially if they do more than just oversee properties.

Property managers clearly outline what you can expect. While the arrangement is more rigid, it can also be beneficial. When you go this route, repairs are generally completed faster and 24/7 support is more likely.

However, a property manager may not work with you if you encounter a difficult situation. The same may be true of customized lease terms.

Ultimately, you have to decide what’s most important to you. Based on your needs and preferences, you can then move in the right direction.

Get familiar with the different types of rentals

Rental properties come in a variety of types

Consider how much space you need for everyone living with you when choosing a rental property. The next step is to consider your budget and what amenities you want. Listed below are six types of rental properties, along with their pros and cons.

Among these larger categories, there are also countless subcategories. Still, these five types of rental properties are the most important.

  • Single-family homes. A single-family home is a detached dwelling that is designed to be occupied by one family only.
  • Small multi-family buildings. Unlike single-family homes, these small rental properties feature two to four separate rental units, including duplex apartments, triplex apartments, and fourplex apartments.
  • Townhomes and row houses. In contrast to the above categories, these rental properties share an entryway, yard, and/or a connecting wall and may be either single-family or multi-family.
  • Condominiums. Unlike apartment buildings, condominiums and cooperatives are privately owned units within multi-tenant buildings.
  • Apartment buildings. One of the most diverse types of rental properties, apartments can be found in walk-ups, low-rise buildings, or high-rise buildings. Apartment complexes can have hundreds of rental units in different buildings or they can have as few as a half dozen units.

This list doesn’t include luxury properties, typically marketed to wealthy renters, and vacation properties, designed for short-term stays. There’s a possibility that both of these types will fall into more than one of the categories above.

Don’t forget: Ask questions during real estate tours

In spite of how helpful online photos are when it comes to narrowing down your options, you may important miss details — like how well the community is maintained, if there is ample parking, or how spacious the laundry rooms are.

Before filling out an apartment application, visit the community if possible. You can learn more about an apartment community by scheduling a tour or attending an open house. 

During your tour, make a list of questions to ask. While searching for your first place, there are some things you need to know. The landlord may be able to answer your questions for you or you might have to do some research on your own. The following questions are must-asks, but you may add others to this list based on your circumstances:

  • How much does rent cost?
  • Do you allow month-to-month leases?
  • What utilities are included? If not, what’s the average cost?
  • Is there a security deposit? Do I have to pay first month’s rent and last month’s rent at the same time?
  • When and how do I pay for rent and utilities?
  • Do I have to pay for parking? 
  • Does the home allow pets, and if so, what are the fees?
  • Can I get my deposits or fees refunded at the end of my lease?
  • Is renters insurance required?
  • Are there any fees associated with the application process?
  • Approximately how long is the lease?
  • Are rent increases frequent and how much?
  • Can I make alterations to my house/apartment?
  • What is the process for home maintenance? 
  • Do you have a property manager?
  • Is maintenance my responsibility?
  • Are there any nearby amenities?
  • Should I be aware of any particular policies?

These are just a few questions to get you started. You will likely have special needs or preferences that should prompt additional questions. Whatever you decide, make a list of these questions and record the answers while touring. 

Get a feel for the neighborhood

Choosing a safe and comfortable neighborhood is important. First-time renters often sign a lease without fully exploring the neighborhood before signing on the dotted line.

When you’re renting a home for the first time, you need to take your time. Try visiting the community at different times of the day before committing to a rental — perhaps in the evenings and weekends when most residents are home.

Does the neighborhood seem quiet? Does it feel safe to you? While you’re at it, you might want to ask some locals for their opinions about the neighborhood, too.

Learn the amenities

Since you’ll likely be living in the rental unit for 12 months or longer, it’s important to determine what amenities you want. An apartment or condo’s amenities include the features and services that renters have access to while living in the unit. Amenities include things like gyms, parking garages, and game rooms. Pet-friendly rentals often include pet-friendly amenities, such as pet runs and backyards. 

Evaluate the condition of the property

When it comes to renting, never judge a book by its cover. There may be more to that quaint, retro-style kitchen than meets the eye. For example, even if it looks nice at a glance, it could be a nightmare of rust and broken silverware drawers.

Instead of rushing into the process, make sure to inspect the property from top to bottom, inside and out. It can be awkward to have the landlord present for this. But you have no choice. If the landlord has any qualms about it, maybe they’ve got something to hide.

Before signing your lease, schedule a final walk-through with your landlord and conduct an inspection. The landlord may keep the water and power on so that you can test the faucets, hot water, shower, toilets, and light fixtures. If the electricity is on, ensure the appliances are working. Make sure the refrigerator and freezer are at the right temperature. Fire up the stove and the oven. Make sure the roof isn’t leaky, and inspect the home or apartment for evidence of insects or rodents, such as droppings beneath the sinks.

As a result of normal wear and tear, the home may have some scratches on the floor or on the countertops. Take pictures of any damage before signing the lease and notify the landlord. You never know when the landlord might try to make you pay to repair things that were already broken.

Make sure the price is right

The last thing you want to do is move into a new home and realize it’s too much for your budget. To avoid that fate, consider some of the expenses you might face when choosing a home. This includes:

  • Rent. Most people immediately think of rent when they think about monthly expenses. For a more accurate comparison, you should calculate the total cost of renting different homes (e.g., adding renters insurance and utility costs to the calculus).
  • Security deposit. The security deposit can vary depending on where you want to rent. For example, both Boston and New York require a security deposit equal to one month’s rent. Depending on the type of home, however, the security deposit will vary in San Francisco. The amount can’t exceed twice the monthly rent amount for an unfurnished home and three times the amount for a furnished home. Wherever you end up settling down, make sure your security deposit complies with local housing laws.
  • Application fees. Some landlords levy application fees in order to screen applicants. Checking the applicant’s credit history, past rental history, and other pertinent information are all part of determining their suitability. In many cases, the applicant pays these fees. In some states, these fees are refundable.
  • Utilities. Utility costs include water, electricity, and heat. There are two ways to charge the costs: either as part of the monthly rent expense or separately. Since every property is different, you just need to know what you’re getting into before signing a contract.

When renting, you might have to pay pet deposits, smoking deposits, or parking fees. You should review your lease carefully to understand how these deposits work and how much you’ll receive back at the end of the lease.

Go over the lease before signing it

Be careful when signing your lease agreement. While it’s tempting to glance over every page, don’t. The purpose of a lease is to protect the renter and the landlord. Take the time to read it carefully so you will know what to expect.

Can you have a pet? Do you have permission to smoke inside your home? Is there a subletting policy? The answers to these questions should be found in the contract.

Landlords are also held accountable under the contract. The document specifies how much notice they need to give before raising your rent or showing up at your home, as well as other provisions that protect you. Before signing a contract, read through it thoroughly; you’ll thank yourself for it.

Think about renters insurance

Whether or not your new place requires it, consider adding renters insurance, which helps you recover losses and damages to your personal property (e.g., in the event of a fire). If you’re interested in protecting your belongings, contact a licensed insurance provider to obtain renters insurance.

What you need to qualify for a rental

A good credit score

Before you sign a lease, you’ll need to prove to your landlord that you’ll be able to make your rent payments on time every month. Your credit score will be one of the ways they assess this. Having a good credit history indicates that you pay your bills on time, which reduces risks for the landlord.

Before applying for a rental, consider:

  • Getting a better understanding of credit and what factors influence it.
  • Finding out what your credit score is.
  • Improving your credit score if needed.

Prepare the necessary documents

During your application process, you’ll probably need a variety of documents, including:

  • Photo identification such as a passport or driver’s license
  • A copy of your last two paycheck stubs or other proof of employment and income, including tax returns, bank statements, or letters from employers
  • Personal and contact information (e.g., Social Security number, email, and phone number)

Some landlords will require contact information for your previous landlord (or a personal or professional reference if you’re a first-time renter) to verify your rental history. This will help them determine how trustworthy you are as a tenant.

If you always paid your rent on time, maintained a clean home, and never caused any disturbances at your last residence, you have a higher chance of getting your application approved at your next one. If you’re bringing a pet along, you might also be required to provide vet records (e.g., to verify vaccinations and general health).

It’s time to move into your new home!

After all that hard work, your dream rental has finally come true! Congratulations.

Check your budget to ensure that you have considered all the upfront costs you may encounter. The costs may include a security deposit, moving fees, and insurance.

Once you’ve moved in, take the time to deep clean your home — either on your own or by hiring a cleaning service. After all, you don’t want to settle into a dirty place.

To say that the search for your first apartment will be easy would be a massive understatement. By doing your due diligence, researching your options, and taking your time, you’ll end up with a place you can call home before you know it.

May this guide help you in your journey!