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How to Find Your First Apartment

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Why am I writing a post about how to find an apartment? It seems so easy right? Look around in the areas you like, pick a place, sign a lease, and you’re done. Unfortunately, while it seems very easy, the process is fraught with ways you can get screwed.

So in the next few paragraphs I’ll explain the steps I used when I was trying to find my first apartment after moving from Pittsburgh to Baltimore. When I moved here, I chose a place that seemed like a lot of fun but was a good 25 minute commute from work. While that doesn’t seem like a long distance, it gets longer and longer after a full day of work.

I learned that leases can be complicated, filled with lots of gotchas, and that you really need to be on top of your stuff when it comes to contracts. It’ll be boring to read but you must do it, or suffer the consequences when you leave.

This post is part of Bargaineering’s 2010 New Graduate Guide series where I’ll share my insights and offer my financial guidance to the graduate class of 2010. This post is part of day 3, putting down roots at your first place.

How Much Can You Afford

The first step is taking the time to figure out how much you can afford. There are various rules of thumb about how much you should spend on where you live, most of which are percentages of your take home pay. Some people will say 25%, some will say 33%, but ultimately you need to decide how much you are willing to spend. What you spend on your rent, you won’t be able to save for the future or spend on anything else.

If the “gut feel” method makes you uneasy, budget. Calculate how much you want to spend on everything else, how much you want to save, and limit your rent payment to the balance. Remember to factor in all the costs of renting, not just rent itself. Add in all the associated costs like a parking spot, utilities, etc.

I don’t care where I live because I don’t intend to spend much time there, so try to save as much money as I can, within reason. If you can spend less than 20% of your take home pay, you’re probably doing OK.

Choosing a Location

The next step is choosing where to rent. There are usually two things that matter in terms of location, the commute to work and to social activities. In general you want to have a short commute to work, to reduce your general stress level and to reduce wear and tear on your car. You will want to take a look at traffic patterns to make sure you aren’t signing up for a one year stress-fest of rush hour traffic. If you don’t know the local traffic patterns, try Google Maps. It can try to predict traffic patterns based on historical data, click on Traffic and then “Change.” Here’s a look at the Washington D.C. beltway (495) during rush hour on Wednesday:
Washington DC Beltway Traffic

Tip if you’re in the area, avoid the beltway during rush hour. Google Maps says it looks not bad… but I assure you it’s horrible. 🙂

Finding an Apartment

The easiest way is to use online services like, especially if it offers a sign up bonus (they offer a $100 Visa debit card on some rentals). Second to an online service is Craigslist and then the local newspaper. Once you’ve collected a bunch of prospects, schedule walk throughs and visits. Get a feel for the apartment, the area around them, and how you like them.

When you are ready to pull the trigger, sit down and read the entire lease. It’ll be a long document, it’ll be a boring document, but it’ll save you some headache if you spend the time to read it. You will need to understand who is responsible for what. For example, your lease may state that you can’t have any candles in your apartment (fire risk) or that you need renter’s insurance. Understanding that from the start is very important.

Rental Insurance

Finally, when you finally do sign the lease, remember to get rental insurance. It’s like homeowner’s insurance but for people who are renting. It’s remarkably cheap, sometimes just a few dollars a month, and it’ll protect you. If someone breaks into your apartment and steals your stuff, renter’s insurance covers you for that. If there is a fire because you are a terrible cook, renter’s insurance covers you for that. It’s cheap because you probably won’t need it, but it’s so cheap you shouldn’t be without it. Protect yourself at the cost of a couple beers a month, it’s totally worth it.

Have any advice for folks looking to find their first apartment?

{ 18 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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18 Responses to “How to Find Your First Apartment”

  1. Anthony says:

    If you have the chance, ask some of the current renters what they think of the apartment complex.

    Additionally, I wanted to be a in safer area of town. So I checked out the crime rates and, heck, even the school districts. (Probably a bad assumption, but better schools = less crime = better area?)

    If you really like the apartment and have a few days to spare, I would test drive to work during morning hours and back during afternoon rush hours.

  2. On a tangent of previous rental experiences …

    I rented my first apartment in college. The main requirements were that it not be absurdly expensive and that it be close to campus.

    A co-worker had a place to sublease. It was about $300 per month. This was 1996, Iowa, and an efficiency – so it’s not as good of a deal as it sounds, but not bad.

    The place was very close to campus, which was nice. The co-worker also agreed to a sublease that had her paying a good chunk of money for the remaining few months on the current lease. This was pretty typical for this town – graduating seniors moved to a new job in May and had leases that ran through August. Subsidizing the summer rent was a market necessity, especially since most students left town in the summer.

    A few weeks later, I found out that the previous tenant was a bit of a deadbeat. She had been dodging the landlords for months, and so they came to me with the bill for May rent, despite the sublease agreement.

    Something to keep in mind – a sublease agreement is between you and the previous tenant. In my case, the previous tenant violated the terms, but the landlord didn’t need to go after her for the money – they could demand it from me (for the days I lived in the apartment) or evict me.

    I paid the money that was due. Many months later, I received a partial payment from the previous tenant. I chalked this up as a life lesson and moved on.

    The funniest incident occurred during the summer when the toilet began having problems. I called the landlord. The landlord beeped the maintenance guy. I called to follow up a few more times during the day, and they dutifully beeped the guy.

    Toward nightfall, someone came to the realization that the maintenance guy was on vacation. In Hungary. Rotorooter was called to the scene. It appears that the previous tenant (yeah, the one who violated the sublease agreement) had flushed a lot of tampons, resulting in a major clog.

  3. Fred says:

    Jim, one thing to add is that you can sometimes find independent town home & condo rentals (especially in this depressed R.E. market) that are as cheap or cheaper than traditional apartments. Usually rent in this situation is negotiable because you deal directly with the owner of the property. In this case, the owner is almost always concerned first with keeping the property in good condition – so you might be able to sell yourself as “really responsible, not a partier, etc.” and be able to get a better deal. In any case, always try to negotiate the monthly lease. Even if you can get $25 / mo. off, that’s a cool $300 / year in after-tax savings.

  4. zapeta says:

    Another apartment hunting tip: demand to see the actual apartment you are renting. A lot of places might have a model apartment or something similar. The model will be nice and up to date but the actual apartment you get might be different. Its always good to see exactly what you’re getting before you sign the lease.

    • Definitely.

      This really shouldn’t be a problem for the landlord. In general, they just have to give the current tenants a day or two notice before showing it to a prospective tenant.

    • cubiclegeoff says:

      I agree with this. If they make an excuse about not bothering the tenant, most likely there’s an issue that you’ll find out about later.

      • When I was a tenant at the end of my lease, I always expected this to occur. It only made sense that the landlords would want to minimize the occupancy gap, and that the new tenant would want to see the place.

        The landlords generally gave a 48 hour notice, and it was really never a major problem.

  5. Meghan and I recently drove around looking at places for rent. With the iPad 3G in the car, and the app Zillow, we were able to do all our searching on the road.

  6. I have one quick tip looking at it from the landlord’s point of view…

    If there is an apartment you really want, treat the application just like a job application, not just providing your contact info like if you were opening a frequent buyers card. The landlord wants to know that you are going to be responsible and pay your rent on time, so do everything you can to give that impression.

    If you meet in person, dress nicely (not a suit, but something near business casual would certainly be in your favor). Provide references, even if they are just neighbors of your parents.

    I had a couple who applied to rent, and without my prompting, they provided me with references, a recent credit report, a picture of their family, and a very well-written letter about why they wanted to rent my house. I couldn’t wait to sign them up!

    I know sometimes younger adults can be rejected by rental applications, and I would be willing to bet that if you did these things, you could almost guarantee acceptance.

    • CK says:

      Couldn’t agree with this comment more. The landlord is entrusting you with a large asset. Yes they have insurance, yes they have your security deposit but a bad tenant is a major headache with the way renters are protected under the law.

  7. billsnider says:

    Two comments.

    I rented a really cheap place for my first job. It was in a boarding house. There were seven rooms and “ONE” bathroom. Thank god we all got along. That is the only reason it worked.

    In my next apartment, the landlord would enter my apartment whem I was gone. One day I changed the locks. I heard from him that night. He was a bit embarrased to admit that he did it. He said he wanted to check on his property. He also said he would not do this again and also agreed to not enter without permission unless he had a valid reason. I gave him a key.

    Bill Snider

  8. Dee says:

    Thanks a lot for this post, Jim!

    I am right in the middle of looking for an apartment. I live in an expensive area and so I’m trying to stay under 30% of my take home pay, but it’s not working since my salary is low. I do have a side job, but I don’t factor that in my budgeting.

    A tip I’ve seen on other posts is to drive by the location at different times of day on different days of the week to see what it’s really like.

  9. tbork84 says:

    If you need a good starting point, is a great one. Especially if you can find a place and earn the $100 bonus for using them. Very useful for filling in the little things that you tend to not own when you first get out on your own.

  10. Rebecca says:

    Don’t forget- if you can tolerate living with other people, roommates are an awesome option, especially if you’re moving to a new city. There’s no reason your first place has to be a place you live in by yourself. And if you’re new to a city, local roommates can make the transition a lot easier.

    Also, if you live with roommates at your first place, you can usually minimize the amount of furniture you might need to acquire. Which can be a big plus.

  11. eric says:

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll have to check that out. I totally agree on the rental insurance. It’s really worth the peace of mind and I strongly recommend it to everyone who rents.

  12. Master Allan says:

    Because of the nature of my contract work I’ve lived in at least 12 different places over the last decade. I’ve thought about my qualifications to write a short book on apartment living and moving! Living within a few miles of the office is a blessing on poor weather days or when the car battery unexpectedly died overnight. Walk or bike to the office. One mistake I made once was living across the street from a job I didn’t like. 6 months of that place right outside my window; I never left work and felt it mentally. On the subject, you don’t want to sign a long lease. Insist on 6 months even if it’s a little extra. I pity the fools that sign a 3 year lease without 2nd thought just to get the teaser 3 month no rent special, fine until unexpected relocation. Also make a return trip to check the place later. Parking within the community might be impossible after 6 p.m. I usually pay extra for the security and piece of mind of a garage. Casually check out the neighbors to ensure it meets your criteria. One place that had an ideal unit also came with a next door neighbor weekday patio party in the evening which suggested me to look elsewhere. Cleanliness of the property is a chapter in it’s own and don’t forget the online review sites. The majority of posts are complaints from irate residents but more often than not are truthful to my experience as well.

    Get Renter’s insurance! $125/year for me and after the multi coverage discount (vehicle), the true price is about $36/year or $3/month. Unbeatable protection.

    I should hit Jim up for a guest post on this subject! My point being, do your research ahead of time. Rarely would you buy a car, marry, or start a job without some preplanning nor should you invest in a place to live without research. If moving into your first apartment it’s like Freshman year, be aware of change & excipment but know a few surprises will happen.

  13. Another great idea is to use your coworkers or friends as a resource. If you just ask, many of your friends that live in the area you are moving to will have a great deal of information. While online search sites are a great resource, nothing beats the information a friend can provide.

    Jim, this is a great series, I wish this was available when I had just graduated =P

  14. Andrea says:

    I would add look up the building on bed bug registries. My roommates did not do that, and we got stuck in an apartment that was known to have bed bugs for years. Fortunately, we bothered management enough so they made an actual honest attempt at getting rid of them and it worked, but only after 6 months. And it was not without hard work from us! It is a stress and a pain that would have been easy to live without.

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