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Becoming a First-Time Renter? Avoid These Rookie Mistakes

8 easy-to-follow tips that can help keep your expenses under control and minimize hassles.

FirstTimeRookieMistakes_0326Are you renting a home or apartment for the first time?

If so, congratulations on entering the “real world.” Now that you’re out of the dorms (or out of your parents’ basement), you’ll be facing a new set of adult challenges, ranging from career trajectories to complicated relationships.

You’ll want time to focus on the rest of your life. Navigating the strange world of renting shouldn’t weigh on your mind.

So if you’re a first-time renter, avoid these rookie mistakes.

Mistake #1: Renting a more expensive dwelling than you can afford

Those stainless steel appliances and that granite countertop certainly give you the polished appearance of a “real adult.” Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving.

If you’re a first-time renter, stick with a unit that’s well within your price range or find a roommate to share the costs. There’s a strong chance that you’ll find yourself on the hook for expenses you haven’t anticipated, such as huge utility bills in the winter. Keep wiggle room in your budget for these bills.

If your parents are co-signing on your lease, you have an even stronger reason to rent below your means. After all, if you can’t make your payments, you’ll be harming not just your own credit and reputation, but theirs as well.

Mistake #2: Bunking up with the wrong roommates

Before you agree to live with another person, make sure you’re on the same page about lifestyles. If you’re an early riser but they like to stay up late, or if you’re a clean freak but they leave dishes piled in the sink, you might be setting yourself up for trouble from the start.

Once you choose a set of roommates, establish clear rules from the beginning. You might decide, for example, that nobody can watch TV or play music in the common areas after 11 p.m. on weekdays (because the noise keeps the rest of the household awake). Or you may create a chore chart that outlines whose turn it is to mop, vacuum, dust, and do other types of deep cleaning. Here are some Trulia tips on working with a roommate.

Mistake #3: Forgetting the living essentials

You might end up shocked at how much stuff — just sheer amounts of stuff — you need to live. Have you thought about the fact that you’ll need a cutting board? And a can opener? How about a toilet brush? Plunger? Bath mats?  Here’s a good list.

It’s easy to take these items for granted when you’re living at home. Nobody thinks about purchasing a toilet brush; that seems to be the type of item that every household automatically owns. But now that you’re renting for the first time, you’ll find yourself doing a lot of domestic shopping.

Mistake #4: Falling victim to rental scams

Some scammers prey on people who are renting from out of state or renting for the first time. They’ll email photos of the space, collect an online payment for the first month’s rent, and then disappear.

How can you minimize your risk? Trulia has provided tips here.

Never send an online payment. View a space in person before you rent it (even if this means you need to bunk in an extended-stay hotel or an Airbnb rental for a few weeks when you move to a new city).

Don’t write a deposit check without first signing a lease. (Otherwise, you have no recourse.)

And if possible, try to rent from professional property management companies (with established offices) or real estate brokers.

Mistake #5: Forgetting to put the utilities in your name

Pop quiz: What’s the fastest way to a) infuriate your landlord and b) risk having your electricity shut off?

Answer: Forgetting to put the utilities in your name.

If you don’t switch the utilities into your name (and your roommates’  too, if you share an apartment) at the start of your lease, you might find yourself in for a shock when you return to the apartment and discover that all the lights are off, the heat is off, and all the food in your refrigerator has spoiled.

Your landlord won’t pay your bill (unless utilities are included in your rent) and will most likely charge you for any unpaid share of the utilities through your security deposit.

Mistake #6: Passing on renters’ insurance

How would you cope if all of your belongings — your mattress, your laptop, your Vitamix blender — got destroyed in a tornado, fire, or flood?

Unfortunately, this might happen. And unless you have renters’ insurance, you have no way to recover the cost of these damages.

Fortunately, renters’ insurance is cheap — you’ll generally pay around $20 per month to cover several thousand dollars in potential damage.

Mistake #7: Skimming the lease

Raise your hand if you’re familiar with the following phrase: “jointly and severally.”

Nope? Not acquainted with this? This is a piece of legal jargon that indicates that you and your roommates are jointly as well as individually responsible for paying the entire rent. In other words: If your roommate skips town, you’re stuck with his share of the rent. Your landlord won’t accept “Bob moved out!” as an excuse.

Many renters skim through the lease, not really understanding its terms and conditions. Don’t make this mistake. Read over the lease carefully with your landlord before signing it.

Make sure you’re clear about requirements and limitations. Are you allowed to paint? (And will you be required to paint it back when you move?) If your house has a yard, are you responsible for watering the lawn? (And will you be punished if the grass turns brown?)

If you don’t understand a clause or phrase within your lease, ask your landlord for clarification. You’re better off knowing your requirements upfront.

Mistake #8: Keeping your college furniture

OK, so your budget is tight. But that doesn’t mean that you should move across town with your brother’s worn-out, hand-me-down sofa from 1992.

Unless your dorm-room furniture consists of family heirloom pieces, you’re probably better off shedding your collegiate furniture. After all, at a certain point, you outgrow the stained and battered beanbag chair.

You don’t need to dig yourself into debt to decorate; you can find plenty of gently used furniture on Craigslist or at higher-end thrift stores. Target and IKEA are also good sources for affordable furnishings. These pieces won’t necessarily stand the test of time, but if you might be moving again in a few years anyway, these “starter” pieces might be good enough.