In this volatile economy, many people are opting to avoid debt by renting vs buying a house. But finding a great rental can be tricky. You have to agree to live for at least a year in a place that you’ve visited for half an hour. It sounds like a game show, but for some of us it’s become an unfortunate annual ritual. Of course, when it comes to having to deal with a smaller budget, you can always negotiate or try other ways to save on rent without actually moving, but in other cases, changing apartments is just inescapable.
Here are the 5 steps to rental success so that you won’t have to spend the other 8,759.5 hours in your home or apartment regretting your decision:
Step 1 – Know Your Budget
You know what’s guaranteed to make you unhappy with your new place? Having seen a much nicer, much more expensive place first, and only then figuring out that all you can afford is this dump. Knowing what you can afford (and then only looking at places within your price range) is the first step to apartment happiness.
How do you determine what you can afford? If you’ve never lived on your own before, you’ll want to include all of your bills in your calculation of how much you can afford to pay for an apartment. You’ll be a thousand times happier if you know the entire cost of living in the apartment ahead of time instead of ending up having to choose between heat and food. Here are the 5 main expenses on top of rent to consider:
1. Electricity and gas – Most places will have some electric and gas appliances, although many newer apartment complexes are all electric. Ask your friends who live in similarly-sized apartments what their utilities run. Keep in mind that gas will be higher in the winter because of heating, and electric will be higher in the summer because of air conditioning (if you are lucky enough to have it). Of course, you can always lower and save on your utility bills by taking some key steps to making your home more energy efficient.
2. Water, sewer, or trash charges – On some properties, the landlord will pay for these expenses out of your rent, and in some places you will receive a separate bill, probably from the city. Again, ask around or ask the landlord or property management company what those charges normally run. If you are going to have the wondrous opportunity to do laundry in your own home, or if you like long showers, that may be reflected in your water bill. Sewer and trash are usually fixed charges, but sometimes sewer is part of your water bill.
3. TV, Internet, and phone – If you plan to have any of these services at home, start looking for rates before you start apartment shopping. As far as phone, I’d suggest just going with one of the many cheap cell phone plans and not bothering with a land line for your apartment. For TV and Internet, many apartment buildings have contracts with specific companies and may only have certain services available, so it’s good to have some flexibility. If you have options, find out what the cable companies are in your area and write down any promotional rates. The second company you call will probably match the rate of the first company if you mention it. You can also lower your average monthly cable bill by avoiding hidden fees or if you’re really brave, cancel cable and stop watching TV altogether. Believe it or not, limiting TV and Internet is a great way to save time and money.
4. Renters insurance – Don’t rent without it! You can find cheap apartment renters insurance, usually for less than $20 a month (unless you collect rare diamonds), and you will be so glad you obtained this insurance if there is a break-in and someone makes off with your computer. You can often get a discount if you get it from the same company you have your car insurance with, but it’s still worth shopping around to make sure you are getting the best deal.
5. Pet expenses – If you have a pet, make sure you tell the landlord before moving in. There are far too many sweet animals who end up at the shelter because their doting owners decided they’d rather have a few extra bucks a month than pay the pet fee or find an apartment that actually allows pets. Depending on your lease (and I’ve had ones like this), having an unauthorized pet can be grounds for immediate eviction. Don’t be that person. Most landlords who do accept pets will want an additional up-front deposit, sometimes nonrefundable, plus a monthly fee for each pet, and will have veto power over certain types, breeds, and numbers of pets. If the landlord accepts pets, the fee will sometimes be in the listing, but if they don’t specify whether they accept pets, ask before you move in. Your precious pet will pay the price if you don’t.
Step 2 – Figure Out What You Want and Need
Would you consider saving money by finding a roommate or living with a friend? Getting a roommate saves you a lot more than just half the rent because they will also be splitting all of the aforementioned bills. But it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth the money. There are lots of websites dedicated to matching up roommates, but no matter what, you will need to be prepared to share. Don’t be somebody else’s bad roommate story.
Do you want to live in an apartment building or community, or in a mixed neighborhood? Apartment communities usually have a variety of apartment sizes and on-site maintenance, but they are likely to be more expensive than renting from a private landlord. It’s best to look at both options in the area you want to live and see which places deliver what you want in your price range.
How much space do you need? Quite often it turns out that the space you think you need is actually just the space your furniture needs. I’ve even had the thought, “Oh, I could never move back into my first apartment, because my couch wouldn’t fit.” But take some time to look at your current living arrangement and decide if you really need a specific piece of furniture. Or as far as rooms go, do you really need a dining room or guest bathroom? And be prepared to be creative with space arrangements – I once lived in a house that had very little closet space, but did have a finished attic which I was able to use as one big closet. Similarly, a single large bedroom can be divided with a screen to transform it into separate bedroom and office areas.
Step 3 – Shop Around
Once you’ve established your price range and living arrangement, the next step is to narrow down the neighborhoods you are interested in. This process might be dictated by whether you need bus line access, a good school district, proximity to work or school, or the personality of the areas. Try not to limit yourself to only one neighborhood, or at least keep in mind the trade-off’s you’re making. For example, you might have a shorter commute to work, but be living in a dull neighborhood as a result. It’s a good idea to drive around the neighborhoods you’re interested in, not just to hunt for “For Rent” signs, but because they may have very different characters.
In many areas, Craigslist is going to be your best bet for finding listings. Your local newspaper is also a good place to look. When searching, stick to your price range, and don’t go too much below it. For modestly-priced rentals, the difference of a few hundred dollars is going to be very large in terms of quality. Some landlords intentionally underprice the market because they either a) know that the place doesn’t look nearly as good in person as it does in pictures or b) don’t intend to do any repairs or maintenance. You do want to get a good deal, but you don’t want to end up losing your mind because the garbage disposal keeps turning itself on in the middle of the night and your landlord won’t fix it. There are many responsibilities when buying rental property and becoming a landlord, and unfortunately some people just aren’t cut out for it.
Apartment communities will also advertise on Craigslist as well as sites like forrent.com. One advantage of apartment communities is that if the management stinks, people will complain and write bad reviews for you to see. Every community will have its nutcases, but a preponderance of recent bad reviews doesn’t bode well.
If you have friends or coworkers who like their apartments and have a good relationship with their landlords, ask them to find out if the landlords have multiple properties or available units, or call them up yourself to see if they have anything available in the size and price you want. Most landlords are happy to rent to someone affiliated with a good tenant.
If you’re a super nerd like me, you can make an Excel spreadsheet to compare price, location, bedrooms, square footage, distance from work, neighborhood, type of dwelling, and so on. In many areas, you can also find out details about properties online through the county auditor’s website, so you’ll know ahead of time if that “third bedroom” mentioned but not pictured in the listing is in fact a basement or a rather spacious closet. If the information is not online, you can call the auditor’s office and ask if they have any records.
Step 4 – Schedule Viewings and Meet the Landlord
Once you have found some places that you like, make appointments to view them in person. Make at least three appointments before you go see a single one; even if the first one you see seems perfect, you still want to have some comparisons in the price range, including different neighborhoods so you can be sure you are getting the best place for your money. My first rental was in fact the first apartment I toured. But I went on to check out five more places that day. That’s how I knew it was a deal. Don’t sign a lease the same day – make a second appointment and bring a friend.
Take along a notepad or camera when you tour apartments. You’ll want to have a record so that you can keep the various apartments straight in your mind, making sure to note any flaws or benefits that weren’t in the listing. If possible, take a friend with you who won’t be living there – I have a friend with severe allergies who always came with me as my human mold detector. A tape measure is also handy if you want to ensure furniture will fit, especially if the building is older and the doorways or stairwells are narrow. Also, beware of landlords who won’t show you the actual unit you would be renting, even if they claim it is identical. Every apartment is different and will have a different view, different neighbors, different leaking dishwasher… You must see the unit before you sign the lease.
If a landlord doesn’t call you back after you’ve left a couple messages, that’s a sign of a bad experience waiting to happen; if they won’t return the call of someone who’s trying to give them money, how responsive are they going to be when the toilet breaks? It’s like how people are on their best behavior while dating. This is your dating period with the landlords. If they aren’t responsive and helpful now, it will only get worse when you’re locked into a lease.
Here are some important questions you might want to ask the landlords:
- Are there reserved parking spots or just street parking? Do you or guests need parking passes?
- What utilities, if any, are included?
- Are pets allowed? Are there pet fees?
- What are the other tenants in the building like?
- Who is responsible for lawn care or snow removal?
- How safe is the neighborhood? Have there been break-ins?
- How are maintenance requests handled? Is there a super?
- Will they offer referrals from previous tenants?
A responsible landlord will want to preserve the value of his investment by taking care of the building. Things like new windows, evidence of drywall repairs, clean siding, and well-maintained fences indicate that the landlord is interested in preserving the building and keeping it rent-worthy for the long haul. On the other hand, some landlords would rather let the building fall down around your ears than spend any money on upkeep. These are landlords to be avoided.
However, if you find a great landlord who returns your call promptly, answers your questions on the tour, and maintains the property well, but you’re not interested in that particular apartment, ask them if they have any other properties for rent. Don’t let a great landlord get away!
Step 5 – Sign the Lease
Now that you’ve seen the apartments (at least three, right?), you can decide which one will work best for you. No place is going to get A’s in every subject, so the one that will ultimately win out depends on what you’re prioritizing and what you’re willing to sacrifice. In my last move, I traded a big house in a great neighborhood for lower rent, my own backyard, and a better landlord. If the rental market isn’t doing so hot, you can always ask for a break on the rent or security deposit.
Read the lease…the whole lease! This will save you a lot of trouble in the future, since it’s going to be in effect whether you read it or not, and there are likely to be interesting clauses in there like the aforementioned eviction for unauthorized pets.
When you’re ready to sign, make sure you clarify the following issues with your landlord, and that they are written in the lease in clear language:
- What is the total of the check you will write each month and what bills are included in that amount?
- What is the lease duration?
- What is due upfront? How much is the security deposit and do you need to provide first and/or last month’s rent at the time of signing the lease?
- Is the correct property or unit specified on the lease? Make sure it is the one you viewed; otherwise, insist on seeing it before signing.
- What modifications are allowed? Can you paint, hang pictures, or plant flowers?
- What is the procedure for reporting maintenance needs? Is there an emergency number?
- Are there any community rules (or local ordinances, if you’re in a new area) that you should be aware of?
Don’t sign a lease with any blanks in it, such as for the property address, pet fees, security deposit, or the rent amount. You should receive a copy of the lease with both your signature and the landlord’s signature (and anyone else on the lease should sign and get copies as well). Keep your lease in a secure place that you can get to easily – and make extra copies. If you have any disputes with your landlord this will be the guiding document. Your landlord should also give you a signed and dated receipt for any money you give him – for example, for your security deposit. If he doesn’t give you one, ask for it. This will be important should he later claim you paid a smaller security deposit than you did, and attempts to not return the deposit in full.
If the apartment has any damage before you move in, add the details of the damage to the lease paperwork before you sign and date it. Also note if any of this was supposed to be fixed by the time you move in. This will prevent the landlord from charging you for the damage if it’s still there when you leave. If your landlord agrees to allow you to make any modifications to the place, make sure that permission in the lease as well.
Keep in mind that the lease is a document that protects both you and the landlord. It is intended to spell out each person’s responsibilities, and gives you a legal means to go after the other if these responsibilities are not met. Yours are pretty simple – paying the rent and not destroying the place. Your landlord’s aren’t as simple, so you need to make sure that your landlord’s responsibilities to you and the apartment are clearly spelled out. If it’s not in the lease, it’s not worth any more than the paper it’s not written on! Note: You’ll want to be especially careful if you’re signing a lease agreement with an option to buy the house as there will obviously be more at stake. Make sure you detail this agreement in full and even consider running it by a lawyer!
Enjoy your new home!
Once you’ve figured out your moving costs and have your Budget truck full of boxes loaded into your new place, spend some time exploring your new neighborhood. It always takes time – and many trips to Target – to settle in, so just relax and enjoy the process. Do you have any additional tips for finding the perfect rental place? Good luck!
(photo credit: longlostcousin, Shutterstock)