Between the two of them, my oldest children moved into new apartments six times in three years. Good grief, right? Helping them navigate their apartment searches took a lot of time, patience and energy. But the last thing any of us wanted was for them to end up hating their new place within weeks of moving in. Sound like something you’d like to avoid also? Follow these apartment hunting tips to increase your chances of finding a suitable rental that you’ll enjoy for the long term.
1 – Determine What You Can Afford
For financial security, rent should be no more than 30% of your monthly income. Utilities should be no more than 10%. Figure out what those percentages of your income equal. Knowing what you can realistically afford will help you narrow your search.
When you’re comparing apartments, remember to factor in the cost of transportation to your job from each of your final contenders.
Also include the cost of Renter’s Insurance in your budget. Basically, this insurance covers your personal belongings from theft, a fire, etc. Property management companies and landlords often require their tenants to carry renter’s insurance.
2 – Get Your Paperwork In Order
The landlord or property manager will want proof that you will be able to pay the rent and that you’ll be a good tenant. You may need to provide:
- A copy of your driver’s license or state-issued ID
- Copies of recent pay stubs
- Letter of employment on your company’s letterhead that states your position, salary and dates of employment (especially if you’ll be starting a new job in the area)
- Tax returns or bank statements (especially if you’re self employed)
- Referrals from previous landlord
- A copy of your credit report (although, if required, the landlord usually runs a credit check, for which you’ll pay a fee)
- References from prior landlords if you have rented previously
If you’ll be renting with roommates, each of you will need to provide this documentation.
3 – Decide What You Need
Before you start your search, make a list of features you’re looking for in an apartment. Then decide which amenities are crucial and keep this list of “must haves” to three to five things. The rest are bonus items. Drawing a hard line between wants and needs will help you to recognize where you’re willing to compromise. Accept that you WILL have to compromise on some things.
Obviously, this process becomes more difficult with the number of people you’ll be living with. If you’ll have roommates, compare lists to see where you can compromise to meet each others’ needs.
4 – Time Your Move
Plan ahead and begin apartment hunting at least two months prior to your desired move date. This can be tricky, especially if you’re already in a lease that expires on a certain day. However, apartments are often listed for rent before they are actually vacant, so look for those with available dates that work with your schedule. If the dates overlap, try to negotiate an earlier or later move-in date with the landlord.
Busy moving seasons are both a blessing and a curse. There will be more apartments available, however you’ll have more competition from other prospective renters. Summer months are the peak season for apartment leases to end/begin.
5 – Research and Explore the Area
My son holds the record for the shortest distance moved—one and a half blocks. My daughter moved the farthest—ten hours away, to a town we didn’t know much about. If you’re not familiar with the city you’re moving to, do some research. Your safety, ease of commute and overall happiness is worth the time you’ll invest!
If you have a new job waiting for you in the city or town you’re moving to, ask your future coworkers which areas they recommend.
Look at apartment listings for different neighborhoods to learn what the “going rate” tends to be for each area. An unusually low-priced listing could be a red flag—make sure to check it out thoroughly.
Once you’ve targeted a few neighborhoods, try to visit each area to get the general “vibe” of the community. Notice who is walking around—IS there anyone walking around? Try to get a feel for the local demographics. Are there playgrounds and schools nearby or mostly professional offices? Lots of bars and nightclubs? How well will you fit in with the local scene?
Stop by a local business or two, such as a deli or convenience store, and talk to the clerks. Tell them you’re thinking of renting nearby and ask what they think of the local community. They may also live nearby and be able to relate what it’s like to live in the area.
There are many good websites that allow you to search for apartments by location, number of bedrooms, price, etc. Some of the ones we’ve used include ForRent, Hotpads, Apartments.com, PadMapper, Zumper, Trulia, Zillow, Abodo, Apartmentguide, and Rent.com.
The newspaper classifieds—yes, actual paper—can also be a good source to find apartments for rent. This method is often utilized by less tech-savvy people. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be a good landlord, though, so it’s worth a look.
Watch for rental signs in yards or windows in the neighborhoods you like. Many landlords use those signs as their primary method of advertising.
And don’t overlook family and friends. Tell people that you’re apartment hunting and ask them to let you know if they hear of anything that will be available.
7 – Narrow Your List of Candidates
Look up reviews of apartments and/or landlords online at Review My Landlord, Rate My Landlord or WhoseYourLandlord. An occasional negative review shouldn’t deter you from considering a place, but chronic negative reviews may indicate some serious problems with management.
Try to figure total cost for each unit including utilities, transportation costs and other fees such as those to use building amenities (some properties charge separate fees for use of a pool, laundry facilities, gym, etc.). Revisit your budget to make sure you can still afford the places you’re considering.
8 – View Apartments the Right Way
Try to enlist the help of someone you trust to go with you on your apartment showings. There’s a lot to consider when looking at potential apartments—a second opinion can be immensely helpful.
Although you want to be comfortable when viewing apartments, dress nicely enough to make a good first impression. You don’t want the landlord to question your cleanliness or ability to make rent payments based on your appearance.
If you’re seeing more than one apartment in the same day, make sure to leave extra time between appointments for time to take notes, travel and (if you’re like me) getting un-lost.
Be on time for apartment showings. Punctuality shows the property manager that you respect their time and conveys responsibility. By the same token, you shouldn’t have to wait too long for the person showing the property to arrive. Extreme lateness or not showing at all may indicate their level of interest in their tenants. (Case in point—one of the property managers who was to show my son’s apartment before he moved out neglected to come to show the place—three separate times! This same landlord had become unconcerned with making needed repairs and maintenance issues, hence the move.)
Don’t feel rushed when you’re touring an apartment. Remember that you’ll be spending your hard-earned money to live there! A landlord who rushes you through the showing may not be very concerned about your satisfaction. Or he could be hoping you don’t notice something.
Take notes and pictures as you go to refer back to later—it’s easy to forget things or confuse features of more than one place.
9 – Check Details Inside the Apartment During a Showing
- Open all the doors and windows. Make sure they lock. Ask if entry door locks are changed between tenants.
- Turn lights on to make sure they work.
- Check your phone for cell reception in various rooms, especially those where you’d be using it most, such as the living room and/or bedroom. (At home I have a great signal in the dining room but ten feet away, in the kitchen, it’s not so good.)
- Turn on faucets and the shower, and flush toilets to check the water pressure. It might feel weird doing it but do you really want to shower in a trickle for a year?
- Measure rooms, especially if you’re not sure your furniture will fit. Also measure doors and staircases to make sure your furniture will fit through them. (We learned the hard way that staircases that turn are particularly difficult to maneuver with large objects.)
- Check outlets to ensure they work. A cell phone charger works nicely for this test. (We neglected to do this once and my son ended up with a living room with only one functional outlet.)
- Check if the apartment is wired for cable/internet.
- Watch for signs of neglect or health issues. Insects, rodents, water damage, mold, and dirty air filters can mean big problems. If the landlord tells you that any such issues will be taken care of, make sure to get it in writing in the lease.
To help keep track of all the details of each apartment you view, download my free Ultimate Apartment Hunting Checklist.
10 – Check Details Around the Apartment During a Showing
Notice the overall condition of the apartment building. Are there items in need of repair? Ask the landlord if there’s a maintenance policy, how quickly repairs are made and if there’s an off-hours number to call for emergencies. If the current tenant or neighbors are home, ask them as well.
Check out the neighbor’s yards. Are they decently kept? Is an old toilet sitting in the middle of the yard? (Yep, saw that.) The condition of the neighboring properties can give you a clue about how much the neighbors care about their properties and community. And how much they might care about YOUR property.
If the current tenant or neighbors are home, ask them what the utilities usually cost. Although property managers and landlords may give you average utility costs, realize that they may also estimate on the low side. Another way to get an idea of utility costs is to call the local utility companies and ask for cost range for the neighborhood. While you’re on the phone with them, you can ask how much the fees are for turning on the utility and if they require a deposit.
It can be very helpful to tour apartments when it’s raining, or shortly after it has rained. I know—it’s not as convenient—but the weather can help you to notice potential trouble spots. Look for signs of leaks on the ceilings, cumbersome puddles and downspout leaks. A small nuisance now could be a real pain if you have to deal with it for several weeks at a time in rainy season. You can ask for issues to be remedied as a condition of your lease.
If at all possible, stop by an apartment you’re really interested in after dark. Evenings are when more people in the community will be home from work. Notice what the parking is like and if there is space available within a reasonable distance from the apartment. Also notice outdoor lighting between the parking area and the building, keeping your future security in mind. While you’re at it, keep your ears open and note what the noise level is like. TVs blaring? Kids yelling? Traffic noise? These things may or may not bother you, but if they do it’s better to know about them BEFORE you decide to sign a lease.
11 – Follow the Rules for Pets
If you own a pet, your apartment search may be limited, even with “pet-friendly” properties. Allowable pets vary widely. Make sure you have permission for your pet, in writing, in the lease agreement.
And have copies of your pet’s health records to provide to the landlord. Not only does this prove that your pet is vaccinated and routinely vetted, it shows that you’re a responsible pet owner.
Some landlords require references for tenant’s pets. If your vet, groomer, pet-sitter or former landlord is willing to provide a reference by all means, get one! Even if it’s not required, providing the landlord with a list of your pet’s references or referrals could ease any doubt in his mind, and give your application a better chance of acceptance.
Besides saving time, being prepared when touring apartments could give you a bit of a jump on the competition if you find the perfect place in a popular area.
- Apartment Hunting Checklist (free download)
- Documentation of income (listed above). Have copies ready to give to the landlord or property manager.
- Enough money in your account to cover first and last month’s rent and security deposit, plus some extra for fees—application fees, credit check fees, etc. You may have to get a money order for payment, but at least have the funds readily available.
- References from previous landlords if you’ve rented before. If you don’t have letters of recommendation, at least have their contact information.
- Pet-related documents
- Common sense. There ARE people out there who scam others with fake apartment rentals. NEVER give anyone a cash deposit to hold an apartment—only transfer funds when you’re signing the lease. Don’t fall for a “bait and switch” either. Touring a similar unit is helpful, but you won’t know the condition of the actual rental until you see it.
13 – READ the Lease
Make sure you understand your lease agreement. Ask the property manager or landlord to explain anything that isn’t clear to you. If you’re really uncomfortable with the process it may even be in your best interest to have an attorney review the lease.
Pay particular attention to any extra fees that are listed and the circumstances which would require you to pay them. (At the showing for one of my daughter’s rentals the landlord said that yard care was “provided” but the lease agreement listed a price for grass cutting.)
Also pay close attention to the renewal terms. You don’t want a surprise automatic renewal for an additional year on an apartment you weren’t planning on keeping.
And if you’ve been granted permission for something like a pet or painting the walls, or promised any repairs or changes to the apartment, make sure the details are outlined in the lease agreement.
Once the lease is signed and you’re ready to move in—STOP. Before unloading those boxes and hanging curtains, go through the whole apartment again, and this time take note of any damage, carpet stains, broken cabinets, etc. Take pictures of anything you find with the date/time stamp of your camera or phone enabled. Notify the landlord of the issues you discover but keep the pictures as proof that the conditions existed prior to your arrival. You don’t want to be held responsible for the damage–the goal is to get your security deposit back in full.
NOW you can unpack those boxes.
Download my FREE Ultimate Apartment Hunting Checklist
Facing an emptying nest? Me too! Read about my experience here.