Budgeting,Renting an Apartment: Your Ultimate Guide

Apartment Whether this is your first time or you are a seasoned renter, finding the perfect apartment is not just about being good at searching. It’s a whole process that can take some time, so it’s important to not get discouraged. Especially if you’re looking for an apartment in a competitive market, stay strong and focused and use this guide to help you sign a lease with ease in that perfect place.


1. Searching for your apartment

Renting an apartment always begins with the search. A few key decisions will help you narrow things down. Before you begin to look, decide what size apartment you want, pick a few preferred neighborhoods and figure out what you can afford. Then, let the hunt begin.


Most experts will advise you to spend no more than a third of your income on rent. This means, if you’re making about $50,000 a year, you shouldn’t pay more than $1,383 a month in rent. If the rent doesn’t include utilities, like electricity, water or heat, you may want to pay a little less to afford those extra expenses.

Sometimes where you live and what you earn don’t coincide in a way to make this ideal budget work. In that case, you have to really prioritize what you want in your apartment and what you’re willing to go without to afford it. Putting more than a third of your income toward rent is possible, it just may require cuts somewhere else in your budget.

Timing your search

You may not have a choice for when you begin your apartment search, but the amount of available inventory varies from month-to-month. If you live in a college town, inventory can rise toward the end of the spring, as graduates move out. The beginning of September is a big move-in day just about everywhere, so if you’re able to begin your search in the summer, you may have more choices. The rest of the year has a lower inventory but could offer better apartment deals since property owners can struggle to find renters throughout the fall and winter.

If you can’t wait for peak inventory or off-season apartment deals, make sure to start your search 30 to 60 days before you need to move. This gives you plenty of time to find your perfect apartment.

Searching online

Starting your search online gives you access to the most inventory in the shortest amount of time. It allows you to see available units in a specific neighborhood or even a single building, at a glance. You can narrow down your search by price and not waste time going to see apartments you can’t afford. Many listings will post photos, allowing you to get a better sense of layout and overall space. Setting search parameters by apartment hunting online allows you to only view apartments that offer your must-have amenities — and none of your deal-breakers.

You can also use social media to begin the process by asking friends if they know of available apartments. You may even hear about an apartment before it gets listed if you know, or have a friend who knows, the current tenant.

Related: Four Tips to Sharpen Your Sales Person IQ

Touring potential apartments

Narrowing down potential apartments by searching online gives you a wish list of possibilities. The next step is to tour these potentials and make sure there are no surprises. Make an appointment with the property manager or owner and arrive on time. Try to be flexible when picking a time and date, even if it means taking time off from work. You may miss out on a listing if you’re only available nights and weekends to tour. It may also be harder to get an appointment.

Consider bringing a friend or parent with you on the tour. Having a second set of eyes to looking over everything means you’re more likely to identify any issues with an apartment. Your second person can also serve as a tiebreaker if you like two apartments equally. While you’re on the tour, keep an eye out for any structural issues like cracks in the walls or water stains on the ceiling. Follow up about any problems and confirm repairs were made or are scheduled. You also want to turn on the faucets, including the shower, to make sure the water pressure is good. Take photos with your cell phone, so you’ll remember what the apartment looks like. You should also make sure you have cell reception in every room. Nobody wants to live in a dead zone.

You can also use the tour as a time to get a little more information from the property manager. Ask questions about the rental process such as:

  • What is the application fee?
  • What documents are required with a rental application?
  • How much money will you have to pay upfront?
  • Are any utilities included with the rent?
  • Are there any extra fees outside the security deposit?
  • How do they handle late payments and is there a grace period for rent?

If the apartment building features special amenities, like a pool or clubhouse, make sure you get a tour of those areas, too, and ask about the usage rules and hours of operation.

Checking out the surrounding neighborhood

Once you’ve found a few apartments you like, whether you’ve seen them yet in person, save time to check out their neighborhoods. An apartment can be amazing on its own, but where it’s located also matters. You don’t want to find yourself living on a busy street that’s noisy all night long. You also don’t want to live too far from work or the coffee shops or restaurants you frequent.

Take some time to walk or drive around potential neighborhoods a few times, always at different times of day, on different days of the week. Take note of traffic patterns and the locations of the closest grocery store, drug store and gas station. If you use public transportation to commute to work, find the nearest bus or train station and make sure it’s accessible even in bad weather. Find the closest restaurants so you know where to grab a quick bite, and just spent some time getting a feel for the community.

You may also want to take note of other key issues that could impact living in the area, such as the parking situation for guests.

Using a broker

Brokers really only play a role in larger cities or places with a unique renter’s market. Think New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco. If you’re living in one of these cities, a broker can help you with your search, for a fee. The benefit of this service is that they really know the area, including where the best apartments for rent are located. They may even know of listings before they hit the market. They can also help negotiate your rent and terms on the lease. For special situations, they can help you save time, but most often, you’ll be able to conduct an apartment search on your own.

2. Filling out a rental application

Once you find that perfect apartment, the next step usually is to complete an application. You may also have to put down some money, so it’s always a good idea to bring a checkbook with you when visiting an apartment for rent. The application process gives property managers a chance to get to know you better as a renter. Think of it as a screening process that helps rate your potential.

Paying to apply

Usually with a rental application, there’s a non-refundable fee. This covers the costs of running a credit check, background check or anything else a property manager feels is necessary to vet your application. The average fee to submit a rental application is around $100.

Bringing along extra documentation

In addition to the rental application and the fee, there’s a little more information you’ll need to provide the property manager. Make sure to bring these documents with you when looking at an apartment just in case.

  • Social security card: The property manager may need a copy to run a background check.
  • Driver’s license: They’ll most likely want a copy of this, as well.
  • Proof of income: Your last few pay stubs will work best.
  • Rental history: If you’ve rented before, bring addresses and contact information for past property managers.

The property manager may require additional documents, such as personal references or bank statements. Make sure to ask before you tour an apartment so you’re fully prepared. You’ll also need to authorize a property manager to look into your background a little deeper, potentially filling out extra paperwork that says you’re okay with them running a credit check or background check.

There may be even more paperwork to fill out and money to put down if you have special circumstances, such as a pet. Property managers may want to see veterinary records to make sure the pet is up-to-date on vaccinations, and require you to pay an extra pet fee upfront.

Waiting for approval

Once you submit your application and pay any fees, the only thing left to do is wait. Typically, it takes one to three days to hear back from a property manager about your application. It does speed up the process to come fully prepared with all the right documentation. A glowing letter of recommendation from a previous property owner or your employer doesn’t hurt, either.

3. Signing the lease

After your rental application gets approved, the next step to renting an apartment is to sign the lease. While this process can feel quick and easy, you’re signing a legal document, so approach it with extra care. Take the time to read through the lease carefully and make sure you fully understand the terms before signing anything.

Understanding lease terms

Leases usually vary by the landlord or property manager but contain some general terms you should know before you sign on the dotted line. It will make it easier to read through the document and fully understand it.

  • Lessee and lessor: You’re the lessee and the property owner is the lessor
  • Term of tenancy: The length of time you’re renting
  • Grace period: This defines the amount of time you have, if you need it, to make a late rent payment without any penalties
  • Eviction: This is initiated by the property manager when certain conditions occur, which are also stated in the lease. It’s the process of terminating the lease early without penalty.
  • Sublease: If you decide to let someone else live in your apartment while you’re still on the lease, it’s considered sub-leasing. Some buildings may not allow it. Others will have a set of rules to follow, which are included in your lease.

You want to make sure your lease also has an abatement clause. This protects you, as the tenant, against having to pay for any damages that are beyond your control. It also allows you to stop paying rent, should you have to live elsewhere while repairs are made. A pipe bursting and flooding your apartment would be an example of this type of scenario.

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