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How to rent an apartment or a home - Growella

How To Rent Your First Apartment Or Home

By Dan Green

What you need to know about renting your first apartment, including how to find a good apartment, what a proper rent agreement should look like, and all the ways to keep yourself in your landlord’s good favor.

Renting Your First Place

Renting your first apartment is an exciting step forward in life and, for many people, it’s the first real “adult” thing they do in their lives.

There’s a certain freedom in renting your first place. It can also be intimidating, though. When you rent a home or an apartment, there are contracts to sign and leases to review. This is something that’s likely new to you.

The good news is that you can work through it pretty easily. There’s plenty of publicly-available information on “how to rent” and all you have to do is follow along.

Renting an apartment breaks down into 5 basic steps:

  1. Finding a place to rent
  2. Signing your lease / rental agreement
  3. Moving in to your rental
  4. Being a good tenant
  5. Moving out of your rental

Each of these steps is clearly defined. You don’t need experience to rent an apartment or home. You can be first-time renter and do just as good of a job as an experience one.

All you have to do is follow the process.

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Step 1: How To Find A Place To Rent

Finding a place to rent starts with setting a budget. You can’t shop for rentals until you know what you’re able to spend.

Set your budget: How much do you want to spend on rent

Rent is paid monthly so, first, decide how much you want to spend on rent each month.

Everybody’s situation is unique here. As people, we make different amounts of money, have different responsibilities, and live different lifestyles. This is why you can’t rely on a “This Is How Much You Should Spend On Rent”-type calculator to help you set your rent budget.

Instead, find a number that’s sensible for your life.

For many people, the amount they choose to spend on rent is based on their income. They limit themselves to $300 in rent paid for every $1,000 they earn in a month, which leaves them seven hundred dollars each month for taxes, bills, savings, and living a life.

Search for apartments and homes for rent

Once your know your rent budget, search for rentals by neighborhood. Find a place you like, keeping in mind that rentals in some neighborhoods may be too expensive for your budget.

This is when having a roommate can be ideal.

Roommates share the cost of an apartment, which lowers the rent costs for everybody living there. Having a roommate (or roommates!) is especially helpful in higher-cost cities, and for people who want to save a little bit each month — roommates share the costs of household essentials.

As you shop for rentals online, your list will whittle down to three or four potential properties. This is when you make plans to make a site visit.

Take a tour of the homes you might want to rent

Touring potential rental properties is essential. Online photos and reviews can only tell you so much. You have to see things for yourself.

Using text, email, or phone, contact the real estate agent or sales office listed for each of the properties you’ve identified as potential homes or apartments. Schedule an on-site visit.

Take the tour and ask questions.

Consider visiting your favorite properties at different times of day to see what it’s like there in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Pay attention to the changes in traffic, noise, and your feelings of safety.

Visiting a home at different times of the day is a trick that home buyers use before buying a house. As a renter, you should be doing the same. It will help you make better decisions.

And, when you’ve decided which home you want to rent, it’s time to move to the next step — signing your rental contract.

Click to search for rentals by neighborhood.

Step 2: Signing A Lease / Rental Agreement

When you rent an apartment, it’s a legal agreement between you and the owner of the property.

What does a lease / rental agreement look like?

The basics of a rental agreement go like this:

  1. The property owner agrees to let you live in its home
  2. You agree to make payments to the property owner regularly

That’s it. It’s nothing more complicated than these two points.

However, like all legal agreements, a rental contract is written with provisions that protect both parties. The language of the contract gives certain rights to the property owner as a landlord ; and, gives certain rights to you as the tenant .

Common provisions include the right to make home improvements, such as painting walls and replacing fixtures; the right to have pets, such as dogs or cats; and, the right to end your lease early should you take a job in another state.

How long will your rental contract last?

Every rental contract, though, contains certain important sections. The first important section is the listing of your rental term.

When you rent an apartment or a home, your contract will be either a long-term lease or a short-term rental. A long-term lease generally lasts for nine months or more and, when it expires, both parties can agree whether to renew for another term.

By contrast, a short-term rental generally works month-to-month. It automatically renews each month until either the tenant or the landlord elect to cancel.

What is a security deposit, and why does my landlord want one?

The next section of the contract describes your security deposit .

A security deposit is money you give your landlord to pay for damages to the unit after you’ve moved out, beyond what’s considered “typical wear-and-tear.” Your landlord holds your security deposit in a special account, then gives it back to you when you move out.

Your rental contract lists the specific amount of money required for your security deposit. Typically, that amount is equal to twice your monthly rent. If your rent is $1,000 per month, therefore, you can expect your security deposit to be two thousand dollars, unless you have pets.

Renters with pets should expect a three-month security deposit.

What are the rules of a lease agreement?

Other sections you’ll find in your rental contract describe:

  1. Who pays for heat, electric, internet, and utilities? Some apartment buildings charge you for this. Some do not.
  2. What kind of grace period do you get for paying your rent each month?
  3. When somethings break, is the landlord expected to pay for its repair?

All of your lease terms are negotiable, too. If there’s something you see that makes you think twice, ask for clarification from your landlord. Or, if reading contracts is not your thing, get help from an experienced professional.

When you’re comfortable with your lease / rental agreement, sign it and get prepped for Move-In Day.

Get a free roommate agreement

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Step 3: Moving Into An Apartment Or Rental Home

The physical act of moving into your first apartment is simple. You pack up your stuff, throw it into a car or truck, make a few trips, and you’re done.

It’s not the physical act of moving that’s hard, though. When you’re renting an apartment for the first time, and have no real-world experience, you can inadvertently place financial and legal burdens on yourself.

You’ll want to work to avoid that.

Consider the following “best practices” for renting a home or apartment. They may not each apply to your situation, but they’re still good to know.

Renters insurance should never be skipped

First, you’re going to want renters insurance .

Renters insurance is an insurance policy that pays cash when your personal property gets stolen or lost; and, when somebody gets injured in your rental home.

Renters insurance costs as little as $9 per month, but can protect you for a million dollars’ worth of damage or more. You might not think you need a million dollars’ worth of coverage, but if a friend ever fell down stairs in your building and become paralyzed (which can happen!), you’ll be thankful you’re insured.

See what you’ll pay for rental insurance here.

Got roommates? Make a formal agreement between you.

Next, if you have a roommate (or roommates), you’re going to want a formal roommate agreement that covers Big Picture stuff.

A proper roommate contract lists how much rent everyone pays, how the utilities get divided up, and what happens when somebody wants to move out.

It can also cover the allocation of parking spaces; how disputes should be resolved; and, how a security deposit refund will be shared.

Roommate contracts are boilerplate and available for free online. You don’t need a lawyer to draft one up. Just make sure you have one.

Wait at least a week to decorate your new home

The third best practice for moving in is to give yourself a week before you start to decorate.

For the day you move in, you’ll want a bed and a chair and necessities, but the throw rugs and artwork can wait. Your budget needs to settle first.

It can be expensive to live on your own. You’ll want time to re-adjust your spending. Your new commute might be more costly than before, for example; or, you may be eating out more often than usual.

Wait a week to decorate your place so you can shop with confidence, knowing that you’re spending within your means. You rent your own place now — living within your means is paramount.

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Step 4: How To Be A Good Tenant For Your Landlord

Landlords love good tenants. Good tenants are good for business, good tenants reduce stress, and good tenants keep life easy.

It’s easy to be a good tenant, too. All you have to do is show some respect. Landlords appreciate it, and will treat you with respect, too.

When you’re a good tenant and something breaks in your unit, your landlord will fix it quickly. When you’re a good tenant and you need a favor, your landlord will happily step in. You can even get extra days to pay your rent when you’re a good tenant for your landlord.

Good tenants get preferential treatment. And, there’s not much you have to do.

Treat your apartment like it’s actually yours

When you rent a home or apartment, your don’t actually own it. You’re living there only temporarily. And, when you move out, somebody else will move in.

Your landlord worries about that.

Your landlord worries that you’ll break fixtures, ruin flooring, and cause damage that’s expensive to repair. And, sometimes those things just happen by accident.

The best thing you can do as a tenant is to be responsive to problems and treat your rental like you own it. You wouldn’t let a dishwasher leak for a week and ruin your kitchen floors — so don’t do it to your landlord.

When something spills, clean it up quickly. When something breaks, call to have it fixed. And, if your building has on-site maintenance, let the professionals make the fix.

Be respectful of your rented home. Someday, you’ll have to give it back.

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Automate your rent payments (and maybe get a bonus)

When you rent an apartment or home, the landlord-tenant relationship is straight-forward. Your landlord provides you with a place to live, and you provide your landlord with monthly checks for rent.

It’s a relationship both sides value and want to preserve. Landlords appreciate tenants that pay on-time. Paying rent on-time is an excellent way to gain favor.

There are several ways to pay your rent. Some are simpler than others.

The first way to pay your rent is to write a paper check each month. This requires a checking account that issues actual checks, though, so for renters who bank online exclusively, this is not an option.

The second way to pay your rent is via direct debit .

When you pay your rent using direct debit, you’re giving your landlord permission to withdraw rent payments from your bank or investment account on a specific day of each month — usually between the first and the fifth.

The third option is to pay your rent with a credit card .

Paying your rent by credit card is similar to paying it via direct debit. Your landlord keeps your account information on file and, once monthly, a charge is made for the full amount due.

If your landlord allows rent payments by credit card, consider signing up — then get yourself a rewards credit card that pays out with every purchase made. You could earn $50 cash-back or more with every $1,000 paid to your landlord.

Click here to see our cash-back credit card study.

Remember that your landlord is a member of your team

When you’re shopping for a rental home, there’s a negotiation that takes place. At times, it can feel like you’re fighting. But, then it’s over. he lease is signed and you’re moving in.

From that date forward, you and your landlord have a similar goal. You both want a drama-free, positive rental experience.

Your landlord is a human and a member of your team. You need each other. Treat your landlord well, and your landlord will treat you well, as well.

Show respect, and be open with your concerns. It’s what good tenants do and it’s a terrific way to gain your landlord’s favor.

Step 5: Moving Out Of An Apartment Or Rental Home

In life, everybody moves. We move to bigger homes, to smaller homes, to homes in other cities, and to wherever life might take us.

And, when you rent your home or apartment, moving can happen quickly. Within about a month, you can be out and on your way.

However, when you move from a rental, it’s important to abide by the terms of the lease you once signed; and, to remember that renting a home is a business transaction.

You’ll also want to put yourself in position to get back your original security deposit.

Here’s how to do it.

Give advance warning to your landlord

Every lease and rental agreement contains language about “notice”.

Notice is the advance warning you’re required to give a landlord before you move out. In many cases, notice must be given at least one month in advance.

Failure to give adequate notice can result in a withholding of your original security deposit.

Notice to Vacate should be done in writing. Letters should include:

You can download a free Notice to Vacate letter here.

When you pack up your apartment, pack up everything

On the day you move into a rental, you’re greeted with freshly-painted walls, cleanly-scrubbed floors, and wall-to-wall emptiness. It’s a “clean slate” for your place, and your landlord provides it.

On the day you move out, remember it.

When we rent homes or apartments, we sometimes forget that our “home” is actually someone else’s; that we’re only there temporarily. When we move out, our landlords have to prep for the next one.

This is why moving out is an all-or-nothing process. On the day you turn back your keys, your place should be 100% empty and, at the very least, surface-cleaned.

All furniture should be removed. All artwork should be taken down. Refrigerators and freezers should be emptied. There should be no trace left of you whatsoever.

Consider hiring a one-off housekeeping service. Let them deep-clean to remove remnants of your life trapped in carpets or on walls. Haul out the garbage one last time.

Do whatever you think is necessary to make your place clean because — remember — whatever you don’t clean, your landlord will. And, that will cost you money from your security deposit.

Keep a video of your empty, clean apartment on your phone

As your last step before moving out of your rental, grab your phone and take a video. You’ll want to document the condition of your home on the day you return your keys.

The video should show the walls, the floors, the fixtures, and the appliances. It should also include a walk-through of closets, bathrooms, and storage.

In short: if you rented it, document it.

Documenting your rental before moving out is a defensive move. You’re doing to protect against damage that happens between the day you move out and the day the next tenant moves in. You’re also doing it to protect against claims from the landlord.

It might take 10 minutes to make proper video documentation of your rental on move-out day. Those ten minutes, though, could save you hundreds or thousands off your security deposit.

Better to be safe.

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FAQ: Renting Your First Apartment Or Home

Renting an apartment for the first time can be intimidating. You’re about to move out on your own and your choices can feel overwhelming. Plus, you’re loaded up with questions.

The good news is: whatever question you have about renting, you definitely won’t be the first person to ask it. More than 100 million people rent homes in the United States. You’ve got excellent company.

Here are some common questions renters of homes like to ask.

How do I find a pet-friendly building?

For renters with pets, it’s getting easier to find pet-friendly properties.

Many online rental search services let you filter for “pet-friendly”; and, others display pet-friendly designations prominently within listings. Note that some buildings have weight restrictions on dogs. This, too, will be displayed within property listings.

Does my rent go up if I have a dog or a cat?

No, not typically. Rent is the same whether you have a pet in your apartment or not.

However, renters with dogs or cats should expect their landlord to withhold a larger security deposit because pets often damage flooring.

If your pet causes no damage, your security deposit will be returned 100%.

What is a studio apartment?

A studio apartment is an apartment that is one multi-purpose room, plus a bathroom. In a studio apartment, the bedroom, kitchen, and living room are connected; with the bathroom typically separated into its own room.

What is the difference between a studio apartment and a one-bedroom apartment?

The difference between a studio apartment and a one-bedroom apartment is that a studio apartment is a single, multi-purpose room in which the bedroom, living area, and kitchen are all co-located; and, a one-bedroom apartment sections off the bedroom into its own area with the living room and kitchen in shared space.

I live out-of-town. Can I rent an apartment online in another city, without ever seeing it in-person?

Yes, you can rent an apartment in another city sight-unseen.

Using Google Earth, you can tour most buildings virtually and rental listings often include 10 photos at minimum to help you with your choices.

Renting an apartment online can be risky, though. You can’t get a feel for the neighborhood, you can’t get a sense for the noise, and you can’t see the intangibles that often make a rental great.

Whenever possible, make a visit to see a rental live.

Do my parents need to co-sign on my lease?

No, your parents don’t necessarily need to co-sign your lease.

If you’re 18 or older, you’re a legal adult, capable of signing a lease on your own. However, if your credit scores are especially low or if your rent accounts for more than half of your income, you may be asked to get a co-sign from your parents or another willing adult.

When something major breaks in a rental, who pays for its repair?

When something major breaks in a rental, the landlord pays for its repair. Additionally, the landlord pays for most minor items, too.

Landlords are required to provide tenants with a fit and habitable home, which means that heat and electric must be working; hot and cold water is required; proper plumbing and ventilation are a must; and, smoke detectors must be in place. Landlords also handle appliance repair and replacements.

There is very little that a renter pays to maintain.

Can I make home improvements to a rental?

Yes, you can make improvements to your rental. However, get permission from your landlord first.

Leases and rental agreements are explicit about the improvement types allowed. Some leases and rental agreements allow painting, modifications, and the removal of walls. Others expressly forbid them.

Some agreements allow “fixtures”, including new track lighting, built-in bookshelves, and new windows. Some do not.

Home improvements are allowed in a rental property. Check with your landlord first.

Will a landlord let me rent an apartment if my credit score is bad?

Yes, you can rent an apartment with poor credit. Many landlords perform credit score checks as part of the tenant application process. However, credit is rarely the sole determinant of whether your lease is granted.

Having good income and a stable job history can neutralize a bad credit score. So can having a co-signer on your lease. Ask your landlord about your options. Most will be willing to work with you.

What’s the difference between a rental agreement and a lease?

The difference between a rental agreement and a lease is that a rental agreement is month-to-month and a lease is longer-term, usually 9 months or more.

When you rent an apartment or a home, for the same rental unit, a month-to-month rental agreements will typically cost more per month as compared to a lease.

What does “rent-to-own” mean?

Rent-to-own is a longer-term agreement between a landlord and a renter that, over a period of several years, aims to convert the renter of the home into its owner.

The typical structure of a rent-to-own agreement has the renter paying an upfront sum upon moving in; making a regular rent payment over the term of the agreement; and, having the choice to buy the home at a pre-determined purchase price when the agreement reaches its end.

Most rent-to-own contracts last 36 months.

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What is a “lease option”?

A lease option is the same a rent-to-own contract. It’s an agreement between a landlord and a renter that gives the renter the right to buy the home at some point in the future, at a pre-determined price.

Lease options require the renter to pay an upfront sum upon moving in; to make regular rent payments over the term of the lease; and, to buy the home at a pre-determined purchase price when the agreement ends, or to forfeit all rights to the home.

Most lease options last 36 months.

Can I break my lease if I get a job in another city?

In some cases, yes — you can break your lease if you take a job in another city. In other cases, no.

A lease is a contract between landlord and tenant. Within that contract, there are provisions for lease termination (i.e. “breaking the lease”); and, just about everything else. Your ability to break your lease will depend on its language.

If there’s a chance you might move while your lease is still active, reach out to your landlord and ask about your options. With enough advance notice, your landlord may be willing to help.

We Can Help You With Your Rental

The internet is full of good information, but sometimes you want to talk with a human. This could be one of those times.

Connect with a rental property specialist in your area; somebody who can answer your questions and help you get settled with a place. Renting your first apartment is exciting.  Let a professional help you do it right.

Ask rent questions via email

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Written by Dan Green

Dan Green is a mortgage lending expert and the founder of Growella. Prior to Growella, Dan was a six-time, top-producing loan officer; and, ranked repeatedly among the top 1% of loan officers nationwide. Dan's home buying expertise has been in print and on TV with The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Forbes, CNBC, and others.

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