How to Get Your First Apartment

9 Steps to Finding an Affordable Place to Live

A couple carrying a chair are moving into their first apartment
••• kupicoo / Getty Images

Renting your first apartment can allow you greater freedom and flexibility, but if you haven't done it before, it can seem like a daunting process. It doesn't have to be. These guidelines can help you find a place that meets both your needs and your apartment budget.

Determine How Much You Can Afford to Pay 

Before you even begin looking for your first apartment, determine how much rent you can comfortably pay. Experts differ on the exact percentage of your income that should go to rent, but a commonly cited figure is that rent costs should account for 30% of your monthly income. The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers families who spend more than 30% of their income on rent to be "cost-burdened."

As you calculate your affordable rent payment, you also need to consider your debt payments, daily living expenses (groceries, eating out, entertainment), and other bills. Take time to review your entire budget before you start looking for your apartment. Ensure you leave enough money to put toward getting out of debt and saving money, in addition to your rent and other expenses.

Find the Area Where You Want to Live

You need to determine the best place for you. This should include factors such as finding a neighborhood you like with attractions and businesses you enjoy. Another major factor in determining the best area for you should be its proximity to your work.

In general, the farther away you are from work, the higher your transportation costs will be. There can be a trade-off here—housing costs typically decrease as you move further away from major metropolitan areas. The savings on rent may outweigh the extra costs of transportation, and living close to a public transportation line can help further reduce transportation costs.

Many apartment-hunting websites and apps allow you to limit your apartment search to a particular area and see the range of rent prices within that area.

Decide Whether You Want a Roommate

After you've determined the general price you can afford, decide whether or not you want (or need) roommates. Sharing a place with one or more roommates comes with benefits and drawbacks. You may be able to afford a bigger apartment with more amenities if you share rent costs, but you're also sacrificing some of your privacy. If you're used to living with other people, then having roommates might be your preference. For others, roommates can add a lot of complications to their living experience.

You may find that it's cheaper to split the rent for an apartment with multiple bedrooms, rather than renting a one-bedroom or studio apartment for yourself. Do the math to understand what you'd potentially save, and consider whether those savings make up for the loss of privacy.

Gather Solid References

Many landlords consider credit score most heavily when deciding whether or not to rent the apartment to a potential tenant. As a first-time renter, you may not have a significant credit history to draw from—and that's where references come into play.

Good references can be key to getting into the apartment you want. You won't be able to list former landlords as references, but you could turn to the workplace. Your supervisors and managers will be able to speak to your responsibility and your performance on the job. Hearing from a boss at work will also help reassure your potential landlord that you'll have a steady paycheck for paying rent.

If possible, ask your references to write letters ahead of time. That way, you'll have them on hand and ready to add to any application.

Avoid getting references from friends and family, if possible, because those references will mean less to landlords.

Start by Looking at 5 Properties

Once you have decided on one or two areas that you want to live in, it's time to start your search. Look online and in the local newspaper. In hot housing markets, apartments may get rented before the listings go live online, so you might want to walk around the neighborhood to look for any "for rent" signs. Call a few property management companies to find out what they have available.

As property managers begin offering tours to you, stick to just five properties at a time. Otherwise, all the coordinating and tours could leave you feeling exhausted. Even worse, all of the properties start to blur together, and you'll forget which property had the amenities you liked best. Consider taking pictures of each of the exteriors and interiors so that you can remember the apartments.

Clarify the Cost of Utilities

The last thing you want to do is move into the apartment of your dreams, only to realize that you can't afford the heat, electricity, and gas bills that come with it. Apartment complexes will cover different utilities, and this can help you save money, but you will likely have at least some responsibility for utilities. It's important to clearly understand which utilities you will be responsible for covering.

For the utilities that aren't included in the costs of rent, get an estimate of how much you can expect to pay each month from the broker, landlord, or utility company.

Take Your Time to Make a Decision

Although you may feel pressured to make an immediate choice, you should ideally take at least 24 hours to think about whether or not you want to apply for an apartment. This gives you time to get over the excitement of finding an apartment, so you can soberly consider what it would be like to live there. Consider all factors when making a choice. It's unwise to go for the first or cheapest apartment you find if the building is rundown or unsafe.

A second-story apartment is safer than a unit on the first floor.

Submit the Application

Once you decide on an apartment you like, then you'll need to fill out an application, and that will likely come with an application fee. Many applications also ask for permission to run a credit check. If your credit isn't good enough, the property manager may require a co-signer on your application. Alternatively, you may have to make a larger security deposit. Ensure that all information on the application is truthful and accurate to avoid delays or rejections.

Read the Lease Carefully Before Signing

Carefully reviewing the lease will save you big headaches down the road. The lease is filled with important information, including your responsibilities for the property, and the rules you need to follow while you're living in the apartment. The lease should be written in terms you understand, but if something doesn't make sense to you, then don't hesitate to ask the landlord to clarify. Some renters may even go so far as to run a lease by a lawyer before signing.

Most apartments will require a security deposit payment when you sign a lease. You may also have to pay the first and last month's rent upfront.

Article Sources

  1. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Rental Burdens: Rethinking Affordability Measures." Accessed May 27, 2020.