First Time Renter’s Guide: How to Rent an Apartment
Updated June 1, 2021
Reading time: 9 minutes
You’re so excited to find your first apartment—but after just a few minutes of clicking around, you already have questions. Can I rent an apartment without good credit? What is a cosigner, and do I need one? How much does it cost to rent an apartment anyway? The process is admittedly daunting. Here’s a step-by-step guide to get you moving into your first apartment.
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Whether searching for their first apartment in New York or New Mexico, renters can easily get overwhelmed with the fast pace and tough competition in real estate markets. Follow these steps for apartment hunting, and you’ll stand out as a star renter who has everything you need to sign a lease agreement right away.
What monthly rent can you afford? A careful personal finance plan will set you up for success.
Take a look at your bank statements, build your personal budget , and note your monthly income. Then, divide it by three. Your rent payments at your first apartment shouldn’t be more than that number: one-third of your monthly income. Now you’ve got your target monthly rent.
If you need to know how much you need to make to afford your dream apartment, multiply the monthly rent by three —that’s how much monthly income you’ll want to be bringing in before you apply.
You’ll also want to look at your savings and make sure you have money for the following:
Application fees: Before landlords or management companies review your application, they’ll often charge you an application fee. These are usually $30 to $50 but can be $100 or even more in crowded markets like New York City. Set aside funds to cover a few of these application fees so you can still rent your dream apartment if it takes a couple of tries.
Security deposit: Landlords and management companies often ask for a security deposit as part of a signed lease agreement —usually a month’s rent or a significant portion of it. Not all lease agreements require a security deposit, but you should have it on hand before starting your rental applications.
First month’s rent: You’ll often be required to provide a month’s rent with your signed lease agreement, even if it’s well before you move in.
An extra few months’ rent: Especially if you have bad credit, no job, or no proof of income, it’s a great idea to have extra rent in hand to convince your landlord or property manager that you will pay rent on time.
If you don’t have these savings or are worried about a credit check, consider asking family members and close friends if they’re willing to be a cosigner or guarantor on your lease agreement (more on that below).
Get to know the websites that list apartments for rent. Every resource offers you a new angle on different apartment complexes and property managers to find the right one for you. Craigslist and online marketplaces on social media can be great informal options, which might help you if you have bad credit, a felony on your record, or a history of eviction.
Management companies that own several apartment buildings will often have rental agents available to talk through available places you might be interested in leasing. They can also help you identify if you’re a qualified renter for their property manager —and if you’re not, they can point you in a direction where you might have more success.
Online reviews of different management companies and apartment complexes will also give you a sense of what leasing from these places is like and what other renters have to say.
To file a timely rental application for your dream apartment, you’ll need several documents on hand. Get these together in advance so you can respond to requests from property managers quickly when it’s time to make a play for your perfect place.
Personal and professional references: As a first-time renter, you don ’t have a rental history or a previous landlord to vouch for you. This is why strong references who care about you can help speak to your character and give property managers a sense of who you are. This way, they feel confident they’re leasing to someone who will pay rent on time and be responsible. References can also help you overcome an eviction history, felony record, or bad credit.
A credit report: Most landlords will do a credit check before leasing, so to save time during the application process, it’s best to have one in hand before you start applying. Don’t worry if you have a bad credit score or no credit at all: there are other ways to present your personal finances favorably. To obtain a credit report, visit AnnualCreditReport.com —the government guarantees you a free report every 12 months.
Proof of income and employment: Management companies and landlords will want hard evidence that you will be able to pay rent, so scan and copy pay stubs (a month’s worth), bank statements (a few months), tax documents (last year’s 1099s or W-2s), and other official paperwork that shows your ability to pay. Keep your boss informed that you’re starting the application process because landlords may ask for a letter proving your employment. That’s also a great chance to ask your boss to be a reference.
Identification: Have a copy of your driver’s license or other government ID photocopied and ready to send in with your rental application, and be sure you know your Social Security number. A reliable phone number and email address will also be important so they can reach you.
Know your story: If you’re worried that a background check or credit check will yield prior convictions, evictions, bad credit history, or anything else that will raise alarm bells for potential landlords, talk to someone you trust about how to present yourself and tell your story. If you explain those problems in a way that inspires confidence, you’ll have a better chance of getting the apartment you want.
First, let’s get the definitions straight:
A cosigner shares responsibility for paying your rent with you.
A guarantor has pledged to step in and cover your expenses if something happens.
Sometimes these words are used interchangeably; it only really matters how it’s used on your lease agreement, which you need to read very carefully.
Cosigners and guarantors should have strong credit and an annual income of at least 40 times the monthly rent on your rental application. It can be hard to find someone with that much reliable income, but think outside the box, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and ask someone who trusts you to back you up.
Having a cosigner or guarantor on your rental application can provide a lot of assurance to potential landlords, especially in expensive markets like New York City.
Make a wishlist of the qualities you want in your apartment: Wood floors? Walking distance to your favorite grocery store? Patio on the apartment building rooftop? Spacious kitchen? Near a bus or train stop?
Rank the qualities on your wishlist carefully, and try to remind yourself that you probably won’t find a place that checks all the boxes. And don’t forget you have a strict budget; don’t go over it, or you’ll waste precious time chasing apartments you can’t afford.
When you start finding places that match your criteria, ask to see them (this may be virtual during the pandemic). Try to talk to renters who are in the building and ask them questions. When you contact the management company, be as specific as possible about what you’re looking for and when you’re available. Property managers don’t want to waste time going back and forth, so give them all the information you can upfront, clearly, and politely.
When applying, be professional and punctual. Having all your documents ready will really pay off here.
Before you sign, take the time to understand your lease agreement ’s conditions and clarify with property management if you have questions.
Renters insurance isn’t legally required, but it can offer real peace of mind when you’re moving into your first apartment. It’s affordable—expect something like $15 per month—and could protect you against unexpected costs like stolen or damaged possessions. Accidents tend to happen while moving and getting acclimated to a new place, so even if you don’t stick with it, it’s great security to have in the first few months at your first apartment.
Rental fees vary significantly by city and neighborhood. In the U.S., San Francisco, New York, and Boston were the three most expensive cities to rent in as of December 2020. But San Francisco was by far the most costly, so as long as you’re not moving there, you have a better chance of renting under $2,000.
If you’re moving to a major city that’s not one of those big three, like Los Angeles, Chicago, or Miami, the median rent for a one-bedroom is between $1,400 and $2,000. In plenty of neighborhoods in these cities, you can find one-bedrooms for around $1,000.
Don’t forget that the rental fees are just one part of the cost of living in an apartment. Depending on what your lease agreement stipulates, you will be paying some combination of heat, gas, water, internet, electricity, and other bills.
You must be 18 to enter a lease agreement. Still, there are workarounds if you’re 17 and married, active duty military, have a parent willing to be a cosigner for you, or are legally emancipated. Since you can’t get a credit card until you’re 18, age is an obstacle for younger renters with no time to build a strong credit history. If you’re old enough to rent an apartment, you’re old enough to get a renters insurance policy too.
Bad credit can change the search process when you’re looking for your first apartment, but you can still find a great place to rent.
If a credit check turns up a checkered history or you have a bad credit score, don’t let those numbers tell the story. Write a short cover letter that details the challenges you’ve faced, what you’ve learned, and how you’ve changed. Taking control of your story will help you earn trust.
Some property managers might not qualify you to submit a rental application; in this case, it may save time to move on from looking at the big apartment complexes and scope out landlords who run smaller rental businesses and with whom you can meet personally. This helps build a relationship of trust and convince a landlord to take a chance on you.
There are also apartments for rent that specifically advertise “no credit check ” to apply. You may tailor your search to these places, and definitely contact your state and/or local government to explore the services available.
Another approach is to look for a room to sublet. This would bypass the standard application process, and while it may be shorter term, it could give you some time to get your credit back on track and qualify to rent elsewhere.
Low income—or no income—doesn’t have to be a barrier to renting your first apartment. Get in touch with your state and/or local government and nonprofits to ask about public assistance and subsidized housing.
If you have no job to list on your rental application, emphasize your past employment history and professional references, making it clear that you’re working to secure a job. Lean on your references and submit an earnest cover letter.
You can also be creative in submitting other documents that provide a broader financial picture, such as bank statements demonstrating your savings or a letter from someone you’ve worked for or who has promised to hire you shortly.
A cosigner or guarantor backing you up could also be a big difference-maker for a landlord’s decision. If you have extra money that would cover a few months’ rent, offer to put it down early to give the landlord peace of mind.
Scared that the background check will deter future landlords? Aim for property managers on the smaller side, and give them a chance to get to know you. Be up-front about your past, and talk about who you’ve become. Let them know what your life is like today and what they can expect from renting to you.
If you’re coming from out of state, try not to rent without touring the apartment, at least on video. Don’t count on pictures alone. Ask the property manager to put you in touch with a current renter in the building who can tell you more about the property, neighborhood, and the management company or landlord.
Be proactive in providing other financial documentation, tell your financial story clearly in a cover letter, and consider asking a friend or family member with good credit to cosign or be a guarantor. Offering to pay rent in advance also helps.
You must be 18, and if you’re young, bring some extra references.
Be patient, provide all other documentation you can, and beef up your references.
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