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 year or more. 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 search and leasing process? What should you know ahead of time?

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% to 35% of your take-home pay. (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 on hand. You’ll also need money to buy things to fill your new apartment, such as kitchen items and furniture, and look into insuring 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 to bring your clothes to the building’s laundry area, you probably need a washer/dryer in the unit. Be clear about your priorities before you search.

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.

Come prepared

Depending on where you're looking to rent, applying and signing a lease can be a competitive sport. When visiting sites, have proof of income, references and photo ID. Know your credit score and be prepared to pay for a credit check. Depending on the complex or landlord, you may need someone to co-sign. Bring that person with you when scouting.

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 heat and AC. If the unit is “the one,” take time-stamped photos of pre-existing problems. 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? If an appliance malfunctions, who comes out to fix it and how long it will take to be serviced or replaced?

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.

Ask questions

Be sure to understand other aspects of the lease contract, including tenant and visitor parking; transportation provided, if applicable; provisions for visitors, including length and frequency of stays; quiet hours; pets, and security.

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 he or she is 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. Confirm that the lease language matches anything you’ve been told. Be sure to find out the rules for breaking the lease. What will it cost?

If you are unsure of your long-term situation, see if a shorter term - such as for six or nine months - is available. Also, learn the provisions for subleasing.

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.

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.