Personal Finance

How to Rent Your First Apartment

Renting your first apartment is an exciting time. Whether you've been living at home or in a dorm at college, you probably haven't had many of the choices that await when it's time to find a place of your own (with or without roommates). That's about to change.

When renting your first apartment, it's important to consider everything from what you can afford to location to your income and credit score. Balancing all of these factors is key to finding a place that fits your budget and desires. Here's how to get started.

Decide on Your Apartment Budget

If you've never rented an apartment before, your first task should be determining how much rent you can afford. Apps and websites that provide scales to adjust your price range can be helpful, but you'll need to dig deeper when you're getting started. It's vital you avoid leases that are above your budget, and deciphering what that amount is can take a bit of forethought.

First, sit down with something to write with or a blank spreadsheet and figure out your income and expenses. Note your exact monthly income after taxes or, if your income is less predictable, what your average monthly income is over several months to get a clear picture of how much you have to work with.

Next, list out all your monthly expenses. Have recent bank statements and credit card bills handy to help you go through your typical spending. Start with your regular monthly expenses, such as student loan payments, insurance premiums, car payments, subscriptions and credit card payments. Add in necessities like gas and groceries, and discretionary expenses such as restaurant and takeout meals, clothing, gifts and travel costs. Finally, include the amount you set aside for savings each month.

You'll also need to account for any apartment-specific spending that awaits you, such as utility bills and renter's insurance (the latter costs about $15 a month on average). You may also be furnishing your new place, so don't forget about furniture, kitchen essentials and other necessities. Even if most will be one-time purchases, you'll need to figure it into the big picture if you're paying your own way.

Deduct all your monthly expenses from your income to find out how much is left over: This should be a reasonable representation of how much you can afford in rent. In general, your rent shouldn't exceed 30% of your gross (pretax) income; landlords will check this, too, by calculating your rent-to-income ratio.

Analyzing your budget shouldn't be a one-time endeavor. If you don't already have one, create an ongoing budget—which will eventually also include your rent and other apartment costs—to help you stay on track financially as you strike out on your own.

You might even be able to find some ways to reduce your budget. For example, maybe you can cancel your gym membership if your apartment complex has its own gym. Or, you might be able to cut back on gas costs by leasing within walking distance of your job. This brings us to the next component of renting your first apartment: location.

Spend Time Researching Neighborhoods

Finding a place where you both want to live and can afford to live is the key here. Popular sites for apartment hunting like Apartments.com and Rent.com provide helpful maps, but you should go a step farther with sites like AreaVibes.com, which offer a window into a community's atmosphere and can show you research on the local crime rates.

It's important to rent in an area where you feel safe, so peruse neighborhoods you're considering both during the day and at night. This also gives you the opportunity to gauge the local environment: You may be absolutely thrilled that the bar across the street has music thumping until the wee hours of the night; then again, you may not be so thrilled. Get a feel for the area to know.

Pay attention to current or upcoming construction, too, and determine whether the location works with your commute. Checking Google Maps, which factors in traffic and other obstacles, can help here, as can doing a mock commute from your potential abode to work. A gorgeous kitchen might not be worth it if you find out a nearby elementary school starts just before your job's start time. Find out about those things now, before you're late for work, stuck fuming behind a line of school buses.

Pay Attention to Apartment Amenities

Yes, the pool and fitness center may look lovely in the photos, but make sure you want and need the amenities your first apartment is offering—particularly since those all factor into how costly the rent will be.

Certain amenities can play significant roles in your first apartment. For example, you may want to search for a place with front desk security, off-street parking or an apartment above the ground floor. Consider which features you can live without, like in-unit laundry machines, a dedicated parking spot or a pet-friendly policy, even if they're amenities you'd prefer. Then think about the deal-breakers, such as the lack of an elevator to reach a sixth-floor apartment.

Check Your Credit Before Applying for an Apartment

Potential landlords will likely check your credit when deciding whether to approve you for an apartment. A history of responsible debt payment will help convince the landlord that you'll be a low-risk tenant; credit reports with many missing payments and other negative marks can do just the opposite. Start by checking your credit three to six months ahead of time if possible, which you can do for free through Experian.

If your credit score needs work, bring all debt payments current (and make all payments on time going forward) and pay down your credit card balances. Your potential landlord may require a steeper security deposit or cosigner if you have a subpar score—or may reject your application outright—so taking steps to improve your score is a smart move. While some landlords may rent to you with a poor credit score or no credit at all, you'll increase your chances of approval, and of lower deposit requirements, if you build your credit first.

Gather the Necessary Application Materials

Once you've narrowed your top choices down to the best combo of amenities, location and price, it's time to actually apply for your first apartment. You'll need a few things to get started:

  • Money: Apartments might have application fees you have to pay upfront, so have your checkbook handy. Some may require first and last month's rent to move in or a sizable security deposit as well. Having money in the bank shows you're ready to make that financial commitment.
  • Pay stubs:: Landlords may require you to show them proof that you have a steady income. Bank statements pointing out your work deposits may also be an option.
  • Identification: Be prepared to show your driver's license or passport to prove you are the renter you claim to be.
  • References: Since it's your first apartment, you may think you don't have these, but you can ask a coworker or even past dormitory supervisors or resident advisors to confirm in writing that you won't be a nightmare if they rent to you. Plus, some glowing recommendations can be extra helpful if you try to rent with a bad credit score.

The Bottom Line

Once you've put all the pieces together and found an apartment that fits your criteria and budget, you'll submit your application and wait for the good news. If you're approved, you'll be on your way to renting your first apartment—and all responsibility and adventure that comes with it.