The Ultimate Guide to Scoring the Best Deal on Your First Apartment

The Ultimate Guide to Scoring the Best Deal on Your First Apartment
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You did it.

You’ve scrimped and scrounged, and finally saved up enough money to cover first, last and security.

You’re totally done with dorm life and ready to get the keys to your own apartment or house for the very first time.

But are you really ready?

Renting Your First Apartment Isn’t Always That Simple

Sorry college students, but it’s true: It seems like the hardest part of becoming a renter is accumulating four figures in your bank account, but renting your first place is a lot more complicated than you might have thought.

Done well, it takes the same kind of careful attention as studying for a midterm.

First of all, how are you going to find an apartment? Do you know if the asking rental price is fair? Will you live alone, or will you have roommates? And — trust me, this is important — who will those roommates be?

But luckily, we’ve got your back. Study up on our ultimate guide to renting your first apartment or house before you sign that lease.

Finding an Apartment

First things first: How do you actually find a place? Yes, Craigslist is ubiquitous, but it’s not the only — or even necessarily the best — option.

You can also peruse Zillow, Padmapper, Rent Jungle, Trulia and others, or download their apps to your phone. Each allows you to filter for different must-have features, as well as specify your price range.

But Samson Properties’ Cristina Maccora cautions that these websites may not be accurate.

“Results are generated by algorithms and lack a real knowledge of the market,” Maccora writes. “Does Zillow know if a new bus or stop is going to be added in the neighborhood, which would make the place more valuable for a student?”

But if you have the extra wiggle room in your budget, you could also consider hiring a real estate agent. While it could be an additional expense depending on what market you’re seeking to live in, it might save you money in the long run.

An agent can also help you add protective clauses to the lease before signing and point out structural damage in the property you might not be able to recognize yourself during the walk-through.

And if you’re enrolled in college, you’ll definitely want to seek out the counsel of your off-campus housing resource center.

Matthew J. Underwood, an attorney who works in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, has worked with many college-age renters in his career. His best advice to young renters is to take advantage of your school’s tenant services — even after you’ve narrowed down your search.

“These resources can read your lease for you and point out any issues or pitfalls,” he says — so go ahead and bring that document in.

Which brings us to our next big topic…

Rule No. 1: Read the Lease!

So, how long are you gonna live in this place, anyway? When is rent due, and what’s the fee if you’re late? Can you bring Fido or paint your bathroom walls red?

The answers to all these questions are in the lease, which means, yes, you need to read it. All of it.

A lease is a legally binding contract, and it can be pretty tricky get out of it if your circumstances change — or if the house itself ends up being a nightmare.

Be sure to check out the clause labeled “term” — that means the length of the lease. Are you signing on for a full year when you really only need nine months? Does the lease allow you to sublet the space while you pack up and head home for the summer?

If not, you might be stuck paying for an empty, faraway room.

Termination is important, too. How much notice do you have to give before you move out? If you forget to do so, will the lease roll over into an automatic renewal? What will you be responsible for if you have to break the lease?

All that stuff is fairly obvious and will probably also be discussed aloud. But keep on trudging through that fine print. You might be surprised at how in-the-weeds some lease clauses can get.

For instance, your lease can specify unfair repair policies that make you responsible for maintenance on your own or paying a hefty fine before the landlord will take care of it. And that policy might even apply to issues that existed before you signed the lease, says Tony Cellante, co-founder of ReviewMyLandlord.com.

You’ll also want to review your lease’s terms on heat and air conditioning, especially if the unit doesn’t have central temperature control.

“The lease may limit the number of units you can install, may have limits on size, or may require that you use building maintenance personnel to do the installation, with a fee if you install yourself,” Cellante says. “Always, always, always ask first.”

And if you still find time for a social life between all your classes, you’d better make sure your lease won’t get in your way — or that your rager won’t leave you homeless as well as hungover.

Some rental contracts feature clauses that can get you evicted or fined if too many people gather in your space, or if they stick around for too long.

“College students should double-check guest clauses in the lease before signing,” says Spark Rental’s lead real estate blogger, Brian Davis. “No one wants to cause a furor over their boyfriend or girlfriend spending time in the rental unit.”

Davis also points out that some leases include restrictive party policies and required quiet hours, especially in college towns where landlords know what to expect.

“I was once contacted by a tenant whose landlord fined her $1,000 for having too many guests in a private area,” writes real estate attorney Brian Pendergraft.

Yes, that might sound ridiculous.

But when you sign a lease, you’re stating that you agree to all its terms — not just the ones that land the keys in your hands the fastest.

So be sure to read each and every word of your lease — and take the time you need to do so.

“Don’t feel rushed,” Cellante says. “Real estate agents and landlords sometimes make you feel like it’s ‘now or never,’ but that’s rarely the case.”

“If you see an apartment you like, take a copy of the lease home with you to read in peace, and have someone else look over it as well. Take your time. There are plenty of units out there.”

And Don’t Be Afraid to Negotiate

Here’s the thing: The lease isn’t written in granite.

For it to become binding, your signature’s gotta go on it — and that means you can propose changes to the agreement.

If you find a clause you can’t stomach, but still love the place, ask the landlord if they’ll amend it. The worst thing they can say is “no,” in which case you’ll end up exactly where you started. No big deal.

Even the biggest parts of the agreement are open for negotiation. In fact, some renters have even been able to negotiate down the monthly rental payment by leveraging their good credit, paying a few months’ rent upfront in cash, or just being a genuinely nice person.

After all, landlords are taking a risk, too. Finding good tenants can be just as difficult as finding a great apartment!

One thing you’ll want to be clear about from the beginning: When you can expect your security deposit to be returned after you move out?

“Most laws simply require the deposit be returned ‘in a timely fashion,’” Cellante warns. “If this is too open to interpretation for you, try to insert a provision into the lease that specifies how much time the landlord has to return your deposit once they’ve completed a final inspection.”

Because trust me — in the bustle of a move, the last thing you’re going to want to think about is where your security deposit is. Chances are, you’ll need it… to move into your next place.

What to Look for on Your Walk-Through

Did you think you were finally ready to sign that darn lease? Not yet! (Almost, though, I swear!)

One thing that’s absolutely not negotiable: doing a walk-through of the premises before you agree to sign.

And don’t be fooled by apartment complexes that walk you through a spiffed-up model kept vacant specifically for that purpose. Insist on seeing your actual digs before you sign up to spend thousands of dollars on living there.

And while you’re in there, keep your eyes open.

Of course, you’ll want to look for desirable features, like plenty of natural light, ample storage space and power outlets. But you should also be playing detective, quickly and covertly judging the quality of the space.

Is the paint cracked and peeling, especially in the bathroom, kitchen or basement?

“This could be a sign that there’s excess water buildup behind the walls,” warns Teri Easter of The Betty Brigade, a group of relocation specialists based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Water buildup and household leaks can lead to mold — which could spell serious health problems for you.

To say nothing of the more immediate problem of, say, a ceiling caving in.

“Look at a house after it has rained heavily,” Easter goes on. “This will allow any leaks to be blatantly noticeable,” so you can make a better-informed decision about whether you should put pen to paper.

Another good idea: Ask your would-be landlord some questions while you’re traipsing through the flat. Some good starters:

  • How old is the house? Although newer isn’t always necessarily better, the longer something exists, the more likely it is to be in disrepair — and to have clog-happy pipes or out-of-date wiring schemes. Similarly:
  • How old are the appliances? Again, a recently renovated kitchen doesn’t guarantee you’ll always have a working stove… but it’s a better gamble than signing up to cook on a 1940 model for a year. Paul Burke, the founder of RentHoop, suggests specifically asking if previous tenants have had any trouble with appliances breaking — essential items like the water heater, air conditioner and toilet top the list.
  • What are the average utility bills like? If you can manage it, this one’s probably best asked of the previous tenants, who, after all, are the ones who actually paid the bill. But it’s still worthwhile to ask your landlord if you can’t get hold of the people moving out, so you can at least start with a ballpark figure for your budget.
  • Who’s the internet service provider? You might not have much room for choice when it comes to your cable company, but a solid internet connection is a must for pretty much every college student — and person — I’ve ever met. Do as much detective work as you can to make sure you won’t be facing a frustratingly slow connection the night before your big paper is due.

Finally, point out — and document, with photos — any existing issues before you sign the lease.

Get your landlord’s written agreement that these problems predated your arrival in the rental space and thus have no bearing on the prompt return of your security deposit.

In fact, you’ll want to keep on documenting, even after you do sign, says Cellante. During your first few days in the place, “update the list with anything you may have missed or not noticed at first. Take special care to note any damage, leaks or rattles.”

“This may be your single biggest asset in the event of a dispute with your landlord over who is liable for repairs and just may be responsible for getting your security deposit back.”

You Signed the Lease? Congratulations! Now Do This

Alright, are you ready for me to stop rambling so you can sign the freaking lease already?

Fine, have at it. And congrats! Welcome to the sometimes-wacky world of having a home of your own… sort of.

Just one last thing before I let you go raid the clearance section of Pier 1:

Get renter’s insurance!

Although the landlord may have property insurance, it almost certainly doesn’t cover your stuff in the event of a break-in, fire, flood or other disaster.

And while it will vary based on your creditworthiness and locale, renters insurance generally costs $20 or less a month — basically, the cost of one night of pizza and beer.

You have your own home now, and you’ll probably start filling it with stuff you care about. Keep those things safe so they’ll survive through many more lease signings to come.

Your Turn: What’s the first thing you’re going to do in your new apartment?

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured in the Ms. Magazine blog, The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.