20 Things to Consider When Renting an Apartment
I just renewed the lease on my apartment, adding a new roommate. I’m thrilled that I don’t have to go apartment hunting this year. I’m always worried that I’ll forget to ask something and get trapped in a terrible apartment with bad landlords. So, here are my tips for making sure you get a great apartment.
Where do you start? What do you ask? How will you know if it’s the right apartment? First, I suggest that instead of hunting “Apartment Finder” magazines or hiring someone to help you look, you consider local classifieds and Craigslist. This will find you much better deals and more variety. The only apartments listed in those free magazines that you find at grocery stores will be large, expensive complexes. If you’re looking for the sort of place with a pool and exercise room and can afford to pay for it, those magazines are useful. Otherwise, classifieds, word of mouth, and simply driving/walking around the area where you might like to live will suffice. Here are some other things to consider when looking for an apartment.
1. Size – First, determine what size of apartment or house you require. Generally, you want one bedroom per person, though couples or children can share. College students may think they can save money by splitting a room, but usually there is not enough space , and landlords frown on this practice. Also consider the size of the other rooms. Is the bathroom tiny? Is there room for a dining room table or your piano/pool table? Another consideration is the type of building the apartment is in. Is it a house divided into several apartments? A two-story complex surrounding a pool? A skyscraper? A duplex or townhouse? A loft? These factors will affect the noise level, sense of community, and ease of access, among other issues.
2. Price is another concern. Look at local listings, including Craigslist, to discover what normal rent prices are for your area. In my area, $400 a month is average, but it may be significantly less or more where you live. Also, some parts of town may be more expensive than others. Decide on a price range that you can afford, and don’t forget to consider the cost of utilities and gas to get to work/school. The standard rule is that rent should not be more than 30% of your monthly income. Remember that you will probably have to pay the first (and sometimes last) month’s rent and security deposit, along with start-up fees for utilities, shortly before or shortly after moving in.
3. Location - you’re going to be living in this apartment for a while, so consider the location. Is it easy to get in and out? Is it close to school/work/the grocery store? Is the neighborhood safe? Will there be a problem with noise/light? (No one ever considers whether a street light will be shining in their window, but I suggest that you take a look around) Even if the immediate street looks safe, take a drive around. I once lived on a pretty nice-looking street, but only a few streets away was a pretty bad neighborhood, and my car eventually got broken into. Try visiting the place during the day, during the evening, and on the weekend. Your street may look quiet on Tuesday morning but turn into party central on Friday nights. Also consider your apartment’s location in the larger building. Is it on the second floor? Around back? Near the entryway, where other tenants will be tromping past, or over your head, at all times of day and night?
4. Utilities - Find out if you will be responsible for utilities, and which ones. Ask how much the utilities usually are per month. Also find out if you have gas heat. This can get very expensive in the winter, and many rental homes, especially those students frequent, are poorly insulated.
5. Pets – If you have a pet or intend to get one, find out your landlord’s rules on pets. Some landlords don’t allow pets, and others require hefty pet fees and deposits or limit the type, size, or number of pets you can have. Find out before you move in.
6. Smoking rules – Most landlords no longer allow smoking in their properties. If you’re a smoker, find out the rules. Even if you’re not a smoker, you should ask, because other people in your building may be smokers, and you may have to deal with their smoke and cigarette butts.
7. Parking – Find out where you can park. Is there free off-street parking? This is best. If you do have to park on the street, find out if you need a permit or if you will have to move your car for street cleaning. Ask how many cars you are allowed per apartment and if there is an extra fee for additional cars.
8. Amenities – Do you want/need a dishwasher? A washer and dryer? A furnished apartment? A pool? Find out if they are available in your apartment or complex.
9. Length of lease – Find out how long the lease runs. If you’re a student and want a 9 month lease, make sure that that’s what you get. Don’t plan on breaking the least after nine months, as this can be expensive or impossible, and don’t count on subletting, either, as most landlords do not allow this. Most leases are for a year, though some college towns have apartments with shorter leases. Find out if you can move in on the first day of the lease (some landlords, especially those with multiple properties, take several days to clean each apartment, so it make take up to a week after your lease starts before you can move in). Also find out when you will be expected to move out. I assumed at my first apartment that our lease was August 1st to August 1st, when we actually had to be out by 9am on the 31st.
10. Closets, cabinet space, power outlets, etc – In the rush to see the place, and in your initial excitement, you might not remember to take a look at the closets or to see if there is enough cabinet space for your dishes. You might also not consider how power outlets there are per room. These can be very important factors later. My first apartment had one tiny closet and four cabinets, and I felt like an idiot for not noticing this when I first looked at the place.
11. The lease – Read it carefully, and ask questions. If you can, bring someone along who will understand the lingo better than you do. If a part of the lease doesn’t apply, seems like a deal-breaker, or if it really seems ridiculous, talk to the landlord about it. You may be able to negotiate small changes, such as having a second pet or a grill with an additional deposit. Check to see what you are responsible for paying for and what the landlord will repair. Find out about guests. Ask if you are allowed to paint or hang things with nails. If the landlord tells you something that isn’t in the lease or is different from what the lease says, get it in writing.
12 . The landlord – You will be relying on this person to complete maintenance on time, return your security deposit, and not enter your apartment unauthorized. While you’re taking the tour of the apartment, get a feel for whether your landlord is trustworthy. Also, take a look at the lease. My first lease included a whole page that stated what the landlord would and would not do. My second lease had only two items that the landlord cited as his responsibility. The first lease made me feel much more comfortable. You can also ask current renters if they like the landlord. In the end, if the place is amazing and the rent is low, a jerk of a landlord may be worth it, but most of the time you should make sure you like your landlord.
13. Roommates – Most of you will probably be moving into an apartment with roommates. Find out how many roommates you will have and what their budgets are. Find out how you will divide utility bills, groceries, etc. Determine who has what furniture. Make sure your roommates are reliable, and that you’ll all get along. Sit down and discuss what you will do if something goes wrong.
14. Timing – In some towns, you may be able to find an apartment at any time of the year. In college towns, you are most likely to find one with a lease that starts in August or January. In that case, you may have to start looking for an apartment as much as 6 months early. At my current apartment, where the lease runs August to August, we had to tell the landlord if we were coming back by early January, as they begin showing apartments in late January for the next August. You can still find an apartment as late as May or June, but the best places will be snapped up very early, so start looking as soon as possible. At the time of this posting, students all over town are apartment hunting for the next school year.
15. Safety – Although location is a primary factor when it comes to safety, there are other things that you should consider. Do the doors have deadbolts? Is the apartment on the first floor, with easy access to burglars? Does each sleeping room have at least two exits in case of fire? (It should, according to most fire regulations) Is there street lighting nearby? Does the apartment have a working/non-working fireplace, which might result in fires or animals gaining access to the house? How does the electrical situation look? (This may be difficult to determine, but bad wiring is a main cause of fires) Jump up and down and see if the floor shakes. Take a look at the ceiling and make sure that there are no old leaks (Old leaks will leak again, and water in the ceiling can cause mold to grow). Is the apartment near a busy street or intersection, which may result in a vehicle crashing into your house or yard? Is the house near a stream that may flood? Below a hillside which might collapse? Is there a safe place where packages can be left, or will they just be dropped on the doorstep? Most of these things are out of your control, and it is unlikely that something bad will happen, but it’s important to be observant.
16. Renter’s Insurance – Your landlord probably has insurance on the building itself, but this does not cover your possessions, nor does it cover the damages when you accidentally break a window. Renter’s insurance is relatively inexpensive, so get it early. Some landlords even require that you have insurance, so ask.
17. Appliances and Bathroom Facilities - take a look at the stove, fridge, toilet, and shower. Make sure that they are clean and in working order. You might try the hot water to see how long it takes to get hot and how hot it gets. Also flush the toilet and ask if you can turn on the shower so that you get an idea of water pressure. See if there’s a bathroom fan if you want one.
18. Mice and other pests – Ask if you can open the cabinet under the sink, and see if there are any mouse droppings or bugs. This will not automatically tell you if there are any mice or bugs in the apartment, but the cabinet under the sink is not often disturbed, and you may be able to tell right away that there are mice. You can also see if the sink leaks while you’re at it.
19. Smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers – All apartments should have working smoke alarms. Some will also have carbon monoxide detectors or fire extinguishers. If so, make sure that you know where they are and how to use them. If they don’t, and you want the extra safety, see if the landlord would be willing to provide these devices.
20. Windows and lighting – open and close the windows if possible, to make sure that you can easily do so in case of fire or heat wave. Also check and see if there are screens, especially if you have pets. Take a look at the overhead lighting situation, as well as the number of windows in a room. You’re probably looking at the apartment in broad daylight and so lighting won’t be a primary concern, but you’ll want to know if there is no overhead lighting, as you’ll have to purchase lamps.
Make a list of these concerns, as well as your priorities, and carry it with you when you look at apartments. You can also use this sheet of paper to note prices, rules, and the layout of apartments. After a while they get confusing, so this can be a huge help. Also, never feel pressured into making a decision on the spot. You may need to decide quickly if there are other people looking at the property, but you should always go home, look at your notes, and think it over. Good luck, and feel free to add your own suggestions below!