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Renter Guides

Your guide to renting an apartment

Renting an apartment that's right for you requires a little strategy

Renting an apartment is such an adventure. Renting an apartment of your own means you get to live where you want and have a new level of independence. But your apartment search is just the beginning. The process of renting an apartment—from being financially ready to submit your rental application—will all go more smoothly if you know what to expect.

8 steps to renting an apartment

  1. 1. Get your credit score in good shape.

    Landlords want to rent to tenants who are most likely to pay their rent on time and take good care of their property. Your credit score is one way they decide if that applies to you. You can get your score from the credit bureaus (for a slight fee), for free from some websites, or from your bank. Your score will be between 300 and 850, and the higher, the better.

    A good credit score is 680 or higher, but many landlords will consider 620 or higher acceptable for renting an apartment. If your credit score is low, here are some ways to improve it:

    • Request a copy of your credit reports from the three credit bureaus (you get one free every year). Pay off any outstanding balances or late fees you have with any creditors.
    • If you find mistakes on your credit reports, contact the creditor and the credit bureaus to request a correction.
    • Pay down your credit card debt.
    • Pay all of your bills on time each month.
  2. 2. Save up for the move-in costs.

    You may have already determined how much rent you can afford, but you’ll need more than your first month’s rent saved up before starting the process of renting an apartment. Before you put in a rental application, find out how much you’ll need to save for move-in costs. These often include:

    • A security deposit: State law states how high these can be, but they’re typically around one month’s rent
    • First and last month’s rent: This should be your exact rent, doubled. The first half will cover your first month’s rent, and the landlord will hang on to the second half for the end of your lease.
    • Application and credit check fees: Sometimes these are grouped together, and sometimes they’re separate fees. Depending on your market, these can run anywhere from $30 for just an application fee to $150 for the application and credit check.
    • Pet deposits, if you have pets: These vary widely by pet and rental agreement, but most people pay no more than $200.
  3. 3. Gather the right documents.

    During the application process, your future landlord will want to verify your identity and your finances. To do this, they’ll need some documents that sometimes take a while to gather up. Get them ready now, so you’ll have them on hand when you need them. They will likely include:

    • Your driver’s license or other government-issued ID, like a passport
    • Your social security card
    • Your employment history and contact info for employers
    • Your rental history and contact info for landlords
    • Recent paystubs
  4. 4. Decide if you need a co-signer.

    If your rental and employment histories are short or non-existent, or if your credit score is low, you may want to have a co-signer to help you qualify. This should be someone with a better credit, rental, and employment history, as well as someone you trust—and who trusts you. Legally, the co-signer will be responsible for paying your rent if you get behind for any reason.

    If you think a co-signer will help your application, sit down with this person and have a heart-to-heart about why you need the help, and how you plan to live up to your rental agreement. A parent or other family member is often a good choice.

  5. 5. Ask people to be your references.

    Rental applications will also ask for at least three references. These are people who can speak to how reliable you are. Always ask people for permission before putting them down as references. You want them to be ready with a glowing endorsement of you when your landlord calls. It’s a good idea to pick someone with some sort of credentials that will impress the landlord, too, like a former employer, a teacher, or an older family friend with a good job.

  6. 6. Fill out a rental application.

    You’re finally ready for the application! These are typically pretty straightforward. Bring all the documents and contact info you’ve gathered together when you sit down to fill it out. Make sure you don’t leave any fields blank, and if you feel unsure about what a particular field is asking for, be sure to ask the landlord.

    When you turn in your application, make sure to include the application fee, as well as any other fees that are required at that time.

  7. 7. Read the lease carefully.

    If your rental application is accepted, celebrate! And then make time to do a little reading. Your landlord may invite you to sit down and sign your lease right away, but you should always read it carefully first. If reading the whole thing while you’re in the landlord’s office feels too high-pressure (which is a completely normal way to feel), ask to see a copy in advance.

    Read each section carefully. If you don’t know what certain language means, ask the landlord for clarification. It’s normal to have lots of questions to ask when signing a lease. Particular things to look for include:

    • What is your move-in day? Will you have pro-rated rent if it’s not on the first of the month?
    • How your lease is renewed: it may renew automatically, or you might need to re-sign a certain number of days before it expires
    • What day rent is due and if there is a grace period.
    • What the late fee is.
    • How the landlord will notify you before showing up at your door.
    • What your responsibilities are: will you need to mow the lawn, clear the snow, and change the lightbulbs?
    • How the apartment is evaluated for damage before the security deposit is returned.
    • What are the policies are for visitors, subletting, and roommates?
    • What happens if you want to break your lease early?

    If any fees or policies aren’t what you expect, talk to the landlord about it. It may be possible to negotiate your rent so the total amount you’re paying is more in line with your budget.

  8. 8. Sign the lease. Rent an apartment!

    Here’s the easiest part: grab a pen and sign. Be sure to have all remaining up-front fees ready to hand over the moment you’ve signed, and get ready to start moving.

  9. 9. Protect your belongings.

    After signing on the dotted line, consider renters insurance. In most cases, you alone are responsible for your belongings when they’re in the apartment. Most renters insurance is actually pretty affordable and protects against things like fire or theft. Some policies also cover medical bills if someone is injured in the apartment, as well as living expenses if you have to relocate temporarily.

    Make sure to know the limitations of the policy, though. Most renters insurance doesn’t cover expensive items or damage resulting from natural disasters. And if you have a roommate, they’ll need to get their own policy.

    Renting an apartment can be a thrill. But if you feeling stuck at the first step, don’t worry. There are ways to rent an apartment with bad credit.