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First apartment tips

Renting an apartment for the first time can be intimidating. Signing a lease can tie you contractually to a residence for a significant period of time. You will be living near new people who may be respectful, irritating or somewhere in between. You could have property managers who are responsive or who take forever to get back to you about maintenance issues. What are your responsibilities in the apartment search and leasing process? What should you know ahead of time?

First apartment tips

Here are some tips to help you find the right first apartment:

Know your budget

Moving into your dream apartment will quickly become a nightmare if you exceed your housing-expense budget every month and have nothing for emergencies or fun. So, the first thing you should do is narrow your apartment search to places that fit your budget. The rent plus any utilities combined should not exceed 28% of your take-home pay.1 (Note that this percentage may be higher if you’re in a major metropolitan area.)

Know what money is needed up front, including first and last months’ rent, security deposit, and any rental, parking or other fees. Have that amount readily available. You’ll may also need money to buy things to fill your new apartment, such as kitchen items and furniture. Also, you should look into protecting your belongings with renters insurance. All of this should be factored into your budget when looking at apartments.

Choose your amenities

Decide what amenities are must-haves, those that would be nice and those you don't need. If you have a dog, a place for walking it is a must. If your employee benefits include a gym membership, you probably don't need a fitness room or pool. If you don't want a shared laundry area, you probably need a washer/dryer in the unit. Be clear about your priorities before you search. If you work from home, you need to consider having an extra bedroom for your office or setting aside a workspace in another room.

Cast a wide net

Search apartment listing sites, and apartment complex websites. Tap family, friends and coworkers for suggestions.

Beware of scams

Sometimes scammers copy legitimate ads, including the contact’s name, but change the phone or email, according to the Federal Trade Commission. If the landlord asks you to wire money, requires a security deposit on an apartment sight unseen or says he or she is out of the country and working through an agent, steer clear.

Vary your visits

Visit rental units at different times of the day and week. Whether you’re moving to a new area or already know the traffic patterns, understand where the apartment is with respect to work and other activities. The apartment could be a few miles from your workplace but it may take you a half hour to get there during rush hour. Know the neighborhood and get crime statistics from local police.

Do your due diligence

The excitement of moving can blind you to problems, so pay close attention when evaluating apartments. Which appliances are included? Do they work? How’s the air quality? Is there evidence of mold or other ongoing issues? Flush toilets, check faucets and drains as well as the heat and air conditioning units. If the unit is “the one,” take time-stamped photos of pre-existing problems before moving in. If on the walk-through you see obvious repair needs that are not included in the lease, ask about them and get repair promises in writing.

Learn about the maintenance process

Does the maintenance staff live on-site? Or does management use an outside service company? Who should you call for repairs? If an appliance malfunctions, who comes out to fix it and how long will it take to be serviced or replaced? These are common questions and management should be prepared to answer them to your satisfaction.

Get a copy of the floor plan

Is there room for your stuff? If you’ll be buying furniture, what sizes will work? Open drawers and cabinets to gauge functionality and space. Ensure that items needing electric power will be close enough to outlets.

Meet potential new neighbors

Introduce yourself to people who live nearby and other tenants before you sign. Ask them about the landlord – and how responsive they are to tenant concerns.

Read the lease

Understanding the lease could save headaches and money. Does the lease contract cover rent only? Which utilities, if any, are included? The lease should specify late fees and when they kick in; where to pay your rent and to whom. It should also tell you how much notice to give if you elect to move at the lease’s end and what your responsibilities will be at that time (for example, you may need to show a receipt for a professional cleaning). Also, you'll want to know what affects the security deposit, as well as when you can expect it to be returned. That information should be included in the lease documentation. Confirm that the lease language matches anything you’ve been told verbally. Be sure to find out the rules for breaking the lease. What will it cost?

If your long-term plans are uncertain, see if a shorter-term lease, such as six or nine months, is available. Be aware, the cost for a shorter-term lease may increase. Also, learn the provisions for subleasing.

Questions to ask before renting an apartment

It may not carry the same gravity as purchasing a home, but renting an apartment is still an important commitment. Make sure you ask the right questions before signing the dotted line.

  • If there is parking on-site, how does tenant and visitor parking work?
  • Are pets allowed? If so, are there any specifications on what kind of pets? Is there a pet fee?
  • What is building security like? Have there been any break-ins here or in this neighborhood?
  • What kind of payment will be required for rent? Can it be done digitally?
  • What’s the subletting policy?
  • What’s the late fee policy on rent?
  • Are there any deposits or non-refundable fees besides the security deposit?2

What do you need to rent an apartment?

Most landlords are going to be fairly exacting in their screening of potential tenants. Your ability to pay rent and maintain the space will determine the success of their investment over the course of your lease. Here are some of the documents you’ll likely need to provide:

  • Pay stubs – You’ll need to provide proof of your income to confirm your ability to pay rent. Pay stubs are often the requested form of proof.
  • Bank statements – Some applications may request bank statements instead of or in addition to pay stubs.
  • Proof of ID – This can usually be your driver’s license or passport.
  • Recommendation – You may be asked to provide a letter of recommendation from a previous landlord.
  • Vehicle registration/proof of insurance – You'll likely only need this if parking is provided on-site.
  • Social security number – This will allow your landlord to perform a credit check on you.3

Do your research

Know your rights as a tenant. Laws vary, but every state and many municipalities have specific laws that manage landlord-tenant relations. See the federal government’s Tenant Rights site for links to your state.

A landlord’s insurance policy won’t cover a renter’s personal property, so it’s a good idea to get renter’s insurance. Check out this renters insurance FAQ – and start your renters insurance quote today from Nationwide.

[1], Accessed April 2022.
[2], Accessed April 2022.
[3], Accessed April 2022.

Insurance terms, definitions and explanations are intended for informational purposes only and do not in any way replace or modify the definitions and information contained in individual insurance contracts, policies or declaration pages, which are controlling. Such terms and availability may vary by state and exclusions may apply.