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How to Find Your First Apartment

Posted By Jim On 05/19/2010 @ 7:09 am In Personal Finance | 18 Comments

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 [3] 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 [4]. 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:

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 Rent.com [5], 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?


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[3] 2010 New Graduate Guide: http://www.bargaineering.com/articles/bargaineering-2010-new-graduate-guide.html

[4] Google Maps: http://maps.google.com/

[5] Rent.com: http://rent.com

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