12 Smart Steps to Take Before Renting Your First Apartment

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Carefully reviewing your finances, checking into options to help with the cost of rent and understanding all the fine print before signing can help you make the most of renting your first apartment.

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The time has come: Your first apartment awaits you. But before you get swept up in daydreams of picking up your key and skipping merrily into your perfect rental, you'll need to cover a few essential things.

Before you sign an apartment lease, make sure you've done your due diligence by following these 12 steps. We made the process simple, so you can get back to finding your new place (and avoid any unnecessary renter's headaches).

1. Determine Your Budget

How much can you realistically spend on your first apartment?

Start with your paycheck, then subtract all your other monthly bills and whatever you set aside for other expenses. Then, consider how you'll divvy up your income when rent comes into play. Keep in mind that you may have to present paystubs or other proof that you can afford the rent before your application is approved.

2. Check Your Credit

Many rental agreements require you to submit to a credit check by the landlord. They want to see at least a decent credit score (preferably above 670 on the FICO scoring model, though different properties have varying expectations) because a healthy credit score can indicate a responsible future renter

Be sure you check your credit report and score to avoid any surprises. If your prospective rental requires a higher score to reduce your security deposit or help you avoid other obstacles, consider taking steps to clean up your score at least a few months before you begin the application process.

3. View Multiple Rentals

Don't settle on the first apartment you find. Or even the second or third. Cast a wide net to catch the best rental for you.

Here's the key: Never look at rentals above your budget. You could get swept up with the fancy visions and find yourself woefully unsatisfied with what you end up with (or, even worse, renting at a higher rate than you can afford).

4. Consider Roommates

Roommates are a renter's ultimate quandary. They can open up doors (literally) to bigger, sometimes better rentals and more affordable rent, but you'll have to share your space with them—and whatever habits they bring along.

If you do opt for roomies, go over your ground rules and preferences before you commit to living together. You may even consider signing a document that states who's responsible for what expenses and chores, how you'll handle overnight guests and any other items that are important to you. Remember, you'll be legally stuck together for the length of your lease, so don't take this decision lightly.

5. Consider a Cosigner

Particularly if your credit is imperfect, a cosigner might be your ticket to renting.

It's best to only ask a trusted (and creditworthy) family member or friend to consider this step with you. Whoever cosigns takes on liability for your rent and any additional fees you may incur if you don't pay.

6. Gather Your References

You may need to provide your rental history or get the go-ahead from a previous landlord when renting an apartment. But for first-time renters, a personal reference can testify to your character if you have no landlords to call on.

Essentially, a coworker or friend can submit a short letter so the leasing office doesn't get too worried that you're a fan of breaking windows or hoarding exotic pets. To protect yourself and keep the process rolling, it may be a good idea to have a few reference options in your back pocket in case someone doesn't get back to you quickly.

7. Check Out the Neighborhood

Without proper prep work, you might end up in a retirement-esque community when you wanted to live above a raging nightclub. Or, you could end up across the street from a raging nightclub when you have a newborn child to lull to sleep.

Ask around and utilize tools like AreaVibes.com to get a good read on your neighborhood before you sign up to live in it.

8. Check All the Websites

Zillow may say one thing, while Apartments.com might have a whole other can of worms to open. You could find that the property won't rent to more than one tenant, or even discover a cheaper rent listed on another platform. You might find horrendous, game-changing photos of the place that didn't make it on the first website you viewed. That's why it's a good idea to research a property across various sites.

Check out reviews of the property and company too—if people have been complaining about pest problems or vengeful, petty management, you should definitely factor it into your decision.

9. Visit in Person

While this may not always be possible, it's wise to check out your rental options in person. Website photos often use wide-angle lenses, lighting and editing to show you the best possible version of the property.

10. Read the Contract Closely

Yes, it's probably long and very boring. But every rental has different fine print, and it's vital you read the details. For example, you might forfeit your security deposit just by hanging curtains or a couple of pictures.

11. Look for "Hidden" Fees

These extra expenses may not be exactly hidden, but they might not be outright apparent.

Your rent is one thing, but you should also find out about costs of non-included necessities like Wi-Fi, pet fees, parking and utilities to factor into your ultimate budget.

12. Ask the Right Questions

Go ahead and ask all your questions. How thin are the walls—and what are your options if your upstairs neighbor practices bowling every night at 2 a.m.? Is the cell service consistent, or do renters often mention dropped calls within their walls?

Determine which components are important to you, and bring those points up to avoid any unhappy surprises.

The Bottom Line

Your first apartment is an exciting—if somewhat expensive—new experience. Preparing wisely for your new rental, including viewing your credit report and making any changes to boost your credit, will make all the difference, so don't skimp on the groundwork. Unfortunately, we can't help you figure out how to fit your new couch through that door; that part is up to you.

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