How to Rent an Apartment


Renting an apartment may not be as big a financial commitment as buying a house, but if it's your first time looking for a place to call home, the apartment rental process can feel just as daunting. Our guide covers the basics so you can move into your new home with as few bumps as possible.

  • Create a wish list. Before you start looking at spaces, it is a good idea to get clear about what you want. How much can you afford to spend? (Don’t forget you will likely be paying some utilities on top of rent.) How many bedrooms do you need? What's your ideal location? What amenities do you want? Must your pad be pet-friendly because you have a dog? Write it all down on a piece of paper. Then review your list and prioritize. What things on your list are non-negotiable and what can you live without?
  • Start searching. There are several ways to find available apartments. In many cities, Craigslist is a popular source of apartment listings. You may also be able to find them on your local newspaper’s website. Check out real estate agencies, which sometimes have apartment listings as well. If you're eyeing a specific neighborhood, you can drive around and look for "For Rent" signs. Looking for a place in a cool neighborhood? You might want to hire a broker. Just like you use a real estate agent to find a house, in some places, it's common to use a broker to find an apartment. They do a lot of the leg work for you and can show you unadvertised properties, but they usually charge a broker's fee, although some landlords will pay all or part of the fee. Don't forget to ask around, too. Word of mouth is a great way to learn about vacancies in a popular building or to get the scoop on what other renters think of their landlords.
  • Schedule visits. After you find a place that looks promising, you'll want to inspect it. If there is no open house, contact the landlord or property manager to set up a time to view the property. You don’t want to rush, so go at a time when you have at least an hour free. Observe the apartment and surrounding area carefully. Is street parking readily available? What's nearby? Does the building look well cared for? In the unit, are there any signs of condition problems (e.g., mold, leaks, cracks)? Can you hear neighbors or street traffic? Do the appliances look to be in good condition? Is the water pressure satisfactory? Don’t be afraid to ask the landlord questions about anything that is not readily observable. You may want to take pictures and notes to help you remember your visit.
  • Fill out an application. You've found the perfect place and you can actually afford it! Now you have to submit an application. (Many landlords charge an application fee, so don’t apply unless you're sure you want the place.) A landlord will typically want your basic biographical information, past addresses and contact information for previous landlords (if applicable), income (which you may have to verify by providing a pay stub), employer, and perhaps references. Many landlords will also insist on running a credit check. Having late payments, an eviction, or other negative information on your credit report or not having any credit history at all can make a difficult to rent an apartment. That does not mean your only option is to move back in with your parents. Explain the reasons for any past payment problems and why they will not happen again. If you have a positive payment history for non-credit bills, such as utilities, offer to show them to the landlord. If that's is not enough, you can ask the landlord if he or she is willing to accept a co-signer with a good credit history; the co-signer signs the lease with you and can be held responsible for paying the rent. Of course, you will need to find someone who is willing to co-sign for you. Another tactic is to offer more than asking price for rent, but only if your budget can afford it.
  • Play the waiting game. Usually within a few days or so of applying, the landlord will let you know if your application is approved. Generally, it's not illegal for a landlord to decline to rent to you because of poor credit or insufficient income to cover the rent, or if another qualified applicant submitted an application before you. However, federal law does prohibit landlords from discriminating against applicants based on their race, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability. If you believe a landlord illegally discriminated against you, you can file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development or call  800-669-9777.
  • Pay a security deposit. Before the landlord hands you the keys to the property, you usually will have to pay the first month’s rent and a security deposit. You may also have to pay the last month's rent. As the name implies, the security deposit provides security to the landlord – he or she can take money from the security to cover money you owe. State law dictates the maximum amount that landlords can charge for the security deposit as well as the specific circumstance in which they can take from the deposit. They may also be required to deposit your security deposit, along with your last month's rent, in a separate interest-bearing account. (It's helpful to be aware of what your state’s laws are so that you know if your landlord is trying to take advantage of you.) Generally, if you cause damage to the apartment beyond normal wear and tear, the landlord can deduct the money for the repairs from the security deposit.
  • Conduct a walk-through. It's always a good idea to walk through the apartment with the landlord before you move in to document any pre-existing damage to the apartment. You don't want to be charged for a cracked window or burn hole in a carpet, compliments of a previous tenant.
  • Sign the lease. The lease is a legal document that governs the terms of your tenancy. (It may be called a rental agreement instead of a lease.) It typically spells out the rent amount, date you must pay it, length of the lease, and rules that you must follow (e.g., how long a guest can stay, what types of pets you can have, if any, and whether you can paint the walls). Before you sign the lease, it's important to read it over carefully. If you disagree with anything -- perhaps you want pink walls in your bedroom and the lease says that no painting is allowed -- ask the landlord if he or she is willing to change it. Once you and the landlord sign the lease, it's binding for the length of the lease. This works both ways, meaning that not only do you have to follow the terms, but your landlord does, too. If the lease says that the rent is $700 a month, your landlord cannot change it to $800 a month. However, once the existing lease ends, your landlord can create a new lease with different terms. Most leases are for an extended, fixed time period (usually a year). If there is no specified time period, the lease is month-to-month. It automatically renews each month unless one party terminates it. Generally, only 30-days notice is needed to terminate or change the terms of the lease, unless state law says otherwise. Without a lease, you're considered a month-to-month tenant. It is generally not wise to rent without any sort of written rental agreement. Memories are not perfect, and it is easy for disagreements to arise over what was said. Also, if you wind up in court, it may be difficult to prove any verbal promises the landlord made.
  • Buy renters insurance. Renters insurance is just like homeowners insurance – only it's for renters. If your personal property is destroyed, you get money to replace it. You may feel that your ratty old futon and television are not worth much, but if you add up the value of everything you have, it is probably worth at least a few thousand dollars. However, even if the value of your personal property only totals a few hundred dollars, renters insurance could still be beneficial. It may only cost you $200 to replace your futon, but your personal liability is virtually limitless. A friend could trip on your rug and sue you for $100,000. Or your barbecue could get out of hand and destroy your neighbor’s apartment. If you have renters insurance, your insurance company will cover at least some of your costs. Don't just rely on your landlord's insurance - it most cases, it will not cover you. You can find out more about renter's insurance by calling the Hanscom Insurance Agency at 800-632-9887 or visit the web page and click on the CHAT NOW button.
  • Be a dream tenant. Once you move in, it is very important to pay your rent on time and follow the rules. Failure to do either could result in you being sent an eviction notice. If you do ever find yourself in a position where you cannot pay the rent, call your landlord right away and see if you can work something out. Also notify your landlord promptly of any maintenance issues, such as a leaky rook or clogged pipe. In virtually all states, the landlord is required maintain the apartment in habitable condition. If your landlord fails to complete repairs, you may have the right to “repair and deduct” – that is, pay for the repairs yourself and deduct the cost from the rent. Before you do this, you should be aware of the laws in your state and know under what circumstances you can repair and deduct.

Looking for an apartment right now?  Download our free Rental Search Checklist to help you keep your search organized and on track.  Just click the button below.

 Rental Search Checklist

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About Author

Bill Burpeau
Bill Burpeau

Bill Burpeau is a Financial Wellness Coach at Hanscom FCU. As a Credit Union Certified Financial Counselor, he is an enthusiastic advocate of everyone being engaged in their financial health, educated and empowered to make the best financial decisions for themselves every day. He constantly studies and is up to date with the latest financial management concepts and technology. Bill is a graduate of Texas A&M University with a BBA in Business Management and served in the U.S. Navy as a Supply Officer.

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