Getting the keys to your first apartment is a rite of passage for first-time renters -- especially if you've been living under Mom and Dad's roof for too long. Ah, sweet independence! Time to cue the party playlist. But wait … let's hit pause and rewind first. You really need to know the following seven things before renting your first apartment.
1. How much rent can you afford?
Before you start apartment hunting, you need to determine just what you can afford. Your rent should be no more than 35% of your gross (meaning total, pretax) income, says Misty Soldwisch, a real estate broker in West Des Moines, IA. So if you make $5,000 per month before taxes, you should pay no more than $1,750 per month in rent. That's the max; ideally you'll want to pay less than that (so you can start saving up to buy a place one day, right?).
2. Find a real estate agent
Sure, you can take the Craigslist route and try to find an apartment on your own. But you may do better to get help from a professional. In most rental markets, you can work with a real estate agent free of charge, since the apartment owner typically pays the agent's commission. (Two exceptions are San Francisco and New York City, where the tenant covers the agent's compensation, usually a percentage of the first month's rent.) Search for a Realtor who specializes in rentals.
3. Consider intangibles
When viewing apartments, it's easy to get caught up in aesthetics, says Soldwisch. You know, like the deck where you could put a grill, or the spacious living room that will be perfect for dancing when you throw that housewarming party. Don't let these details prevent you from noting potential issues. Did you notice a noisy neighbor? How's your cell phone reception? How long will your commute be to work?
"For some renters, even a small issue can be a deal breaker," Soldwisch explains. So keep an eye out for your own personal pet peeves.
4. Understand the application process
Independent landlords and property management companies typically charge a $30 to $50 application fee per adult to run a credit and background check.
If your credit score is above 700, you should be in good shape. If you're below that marker, however, you may want to attach a letter to your application explaining your credit history -- and what steps you're taking to improve it. If your score is below 600, you'll need a co-signer who has good credit. Before asking Mom or Dad to co-sign, make sure your parent knows what it entails.
"Your co-signer is putting [his or her] credit score on the line," says Soldwisch, adding that the person is also liable for paying rent if you miss a payment.
5. Review the lease carefully
With your real estate agent -- who can help you survey the lease agreement to ensure you're getting a fair shake -- or on your own, consider these terms and conditions.
- Move-in fees. Many buildings charge a move-in fee (typically $300 to $500) or a small fee for using the freight elevator ($25 to $100). The lease should specify whether it is you or the landlord who is responsible for the cost.
- Rent increases. Most lease contracts enable the landlord to raise rent when the agreement expires. If there's no cap on the rent increase, try to negotiate one. One strategy: Many landlords will let you lock in the rate if you sign a two-year lease (as opposed to the standard 12-month) and may even offer a lower rent. But you'd better be sure the place is right for you!
- Subletting. The agreement should state the requirements for subletting. For example, the landlord may require any subletters to submit a rental application and add their name to the lease. Some leases prohibit subletting entirely.
- Notice of lease termination. When a lease agreement expires, you typically don't just pack your bags and leave. A standard lease transitions to month-to-month -- a switch that's often accompanied by a rent increase. Review the lease to see how much advance notice you need to give the landlord if you're not planning to renew. Thirty to 60 days' notice is normal, says Soldwisch.
- Miscellaneous fees. Your lease agreement spells out all of the fees (e.g., utilities) that you're responsible for paying in addition to the base rent. Many landlords require a pet deposit, says Soldwisch. Some might also charge you a professional cleaning fee when you move out that's taken directly from your security deposit. (You typically receive your security deposit back within 30 days.)
6. Do a thorough walk-through
You kick the tires when buying a used car, so do the same here. In other words, scrutinize your apartment for pre-existing damages when you move in. Take photos for documentation and provide copies to your landlord so that he or she can't deduct the cost of repairs from your security deposit later on. Also, don't just look at walls and floors.
"Check outlet covers, shower rods, and blind cords for wear and tear," says Soldwisch.
7. Always get renter's insurance
Many lease agreements require it, but if yours doesn't, renter's insurance is still a must. The average renter's insurance policy costs between $15 and $30 per month, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Consult your insurance company to ensure that you purchase adequate coverage. You can often get a discount by bundling it with your car insurance.