Published February 11, 2013
When you’re looking for an apartment for the first time, it can be overwhelming. The best way not to panic is to break the process down into 10 sequential steps. The timeline will mostly depend on how long it will take you to save the upfront cash you’ll need, but after the money is in the bank, you should be in your own place in no time.
Determine your price range
There are two common ways to do this: You can divide your monthly take-home income by three. (For example, if you take home $1,800 a month after taxes, you could afford a place that costs up to $600 per month.) Or divide your annual gross income (before taxes and other deductions) by 40. (For example, if you made $40,000 a year, you could afford a place that cost up to $1,000 per month.) Either way gives you a rough idea of your maximum budget.
Before long, you’ll need to put down a security deposit (usually equal to one month’s rent), plus the first month’s rent. And that doesn’t even include application fees and credit-check fees you may be charged. So start saving now, particularly because moving itself can cost anywhere from $200-$2,000, depending on the distance of the move and how much you do yourself.
Check your credit
Management companies will be checking your credit once you start applying. You don’t want to be caught flat-footed, so check if there are any blemishes on your report at the free Annual Credit Report website, which is sponsored by the federal government. If you have great credit, you have nothing to worry about. If your credit has blemishes, you may need to ask a friend, parent or relative if they would be willing to serve as your co-signer on a lease. In any case, be ready to explain your low score to potential landlords and what you are doing to fix it.
Settle on a neighborhood
Whether you’re moving crosstown or across the country, the best way to decide on a neighborhood is to visit. Also, ask friends who already live in the neighborhood what they think. Another thing to consider is affordability -- we’d all love to live in SoHo, but most of us can’t afford it. In other words, be realistic. To determine the cost of a neighborhood, go online to see what an average 1- or 2-bedroom runs. A good rule of thumb is that at least a third of the listings in your neighborhood of choice should be within your budget. If it’s any fewer than that, you’re going to have limited options.
Find listings online, but also remember to network among friends and colleagues, respond to “For Rent” signs you see in-person and cold-call management companies that have appealing buildings. If the rental market in your chosen city is really tight, you may need to use a broker. That will typically cost one month’s rent, so to move in you’ll need to have three months of rent in cash. Ouch! Also, be wary of red flags. If you know a particular landlord or management company is involved in poor practices, don’t even bother looking at their places.
Another word of advice: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. When dealing with a potential landlord, the conversation should be respectful and straightforward. And remember to always Google the address of the building as a final precaution.
Put in an application
Once you find a great place, don’t get cold feet. If it’s within your budget, in a neighborhood you love and with a solid management company, then apply. If your credit score is good -- or you have a co-signer lined up -- you’re likely to get it!
Sign the lease
Your lease is a contract, so make sure you understand it. Often, if you have issues with certain points on the lease, you can alter or discuss them with the management company before signing. So read the lease carefully. A few things to look out for: the penalty for breaking the lease early, the policy for fixing issues with the apartment, how much notice you must give if you want to renew and the rules for getting your security deposit back.
Transfer/set up your utilities
Call the utility companies at least a week in advance, so you have a buffer in case you need to schedule an appointment. Other things to think about: You should get renter’s insurance before you move in, and you should also change your address with the USPS. Depending on where you’re moving, you may also need to register for parking stickers, change your driver’s license (if you’re changing states) and get a local library card.
Conduct a walk-through
During the walk-through, you need to document any pre-existing problems you find with the apartment, so that you’re not held liable. This means testing everything from the burners on the stove to the quality of the carpet to the functioning of the refrigerator. If anything’s off, document it. If the landlord needs to fix something, get it in writing. This is the best way to protect yourself, your future home and your security deposit.
Make the move
If you’re moving long distance, schedule movers several weeks in advance (prime dates book up quickly). If you’re finally moving out from your parent’s basement, they’ll probably help you pack up the station wagon and drive you! In any case, start packing early: It takes longer than you think, and if you’re not totally packed when the movers arrive, you’re courting disaster. Also, label your boxes and make sure you have staples such as toilet paper, light bulbs and cleaning supplies at the ready. You’ll need them right away when you move in.
This may all seem like a lot, but if you break it down step by step, finding and moving to a new apartment becomes very manageable. And nothing beats that great feeling you’ll have when you first walk into own apartment.
MyFirstApartment.com helps novice renters successfully navigate the first year of living on their own. The blog shares proven tips and tricks for everything from finding the perfect rental or roommate, to furnishing on a small budget or no budget, to dealing with landlords or roommate’s girlfriends.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.