Student Renter’s Guide: Things to Know Before You Rent

One of the most exciting parts of going to college is moving out of your parents home and into your first apartment. Knowing what to look for in an apartment, what to check, what to have, and what you need, will make the hunt for your first apartment less confusing and more exciting. We’ve put together all the things you’ll need to know and things you’ll need to look out for in our Student Renter’s Guide below.
 

Before You Look

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Figure out your budget. This is the first and most important step in finding an apartment. It is essential to look at your monthly income and determine what you can afford. First, take a look at what you are paid each month, then, subtract taxes. This will give you a better idea of how much you really have to spend each month. It is recommended that you don’t spend more than 30% of your after-tax income on rent each month.

The cost of rent isn’t the only price to consider. You will also want to take into account the cost of utilities, and other miscellaneous charges including; parking fees, internet, pet fees, cable, etc. You will need to figure the cost of these items into your monthly rental price.

You will also want to consider any upfront costs that may incur with renting. Upfront costs often include a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, background check fee, a holding fee, etc. Don’t forget to take these into account as you figure what you can afford.

Keep in mind that some apartments will require you to have a certain percentage of income vs rent cost. You will want to double check that this percentage won’t take you out of the running all together.  And you may want to consider getting a roommate to help alleviate the cost of an apartment.

Determine your needs/wants. Making a list of your needs vs your wants in an apartment. Consider the things you absolutely need, and compare them to things that you would like to have. Ask yourself a few questions like: Do you want to live in a private bedroom or shared? Do you need to have new appliances? Do you need to be in walking distance of work, school, stores, or recreation?

For instance, having a washer and dryer in the apartment would be nice but is not exactly a necessity. Or, you may want to have a nice kitchen, but if the apartments with nice kitchens are far from campus and you need to live close so you can walk there, that may not be the apartment for you.

When determining your needs and wants, you may have to give and take from both groups, but knowing the exact details of your needs will help narrow down the prospects, and prepare you for making the best apartment choice. Remember to take this list with you as you check out potential apartments.

 

Start the Search

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Pick out potential apartments. Where to start? It may feel like a daunting task if you have never search for an apartment before. But don’t worry, there are several resources you can use to begin your apartment search. Try Googling apartments for rent in whatever area you are planning to move. You can also try searching on Craigslist, Zillow.com, or Rent.com. If you know anyone already living in the area, try contacting them and see if they know of any available apartments. Keep in mind that your school also may have resources available for you. Many schools have housing departments that specialize in helping students find new apartments.

Once you have found available apartments for rent in a particular area, remember your needs/wants checklist. Check each apartment to find if they fit your requirements. Many complexes have websites that will outline important information about the available apartments like floor plans, amenities, and rental costs. If a complex doesn’t offer online resources, call an available phone number and ask about apartment details and costs. Collect all the information you can before narrowing down your choices.

Visit potential apartments. It is essential to visit any apartment you are considering renting. You should never sign a lease or commit to an apartment before seeing it in person. Apartments can be falsely represented online and there are many things you need to check before signing a lease.

First, set up a time with the landlord to tour an available apartment. Many will set aside time to let you come take a tour of the apartment and facilities, if applicable. If they don’t set aside time for formal tours, many current tenants are willing to show you around. Try stopping by at a generally convenient time and ask a tenant to show you around their apartment and the apartment complex.

When meeting with the landlord or manager, make a good impression. Remember they are evaluating your character as you evaluate theirs. Be courteous, and make sure you look presentable. You want to give them confidence in your personality and ability to pay rent on time. Just as you want a nice apartment, they want a nice tenant. Be on time to your appointment, and be positive. If you have any concerns, wait to discuss them when the time is appropriate.

When touring the apartment, there are several things you will want to look for and questions you’ll want to ask. Look for signs of mold, mildew, and insect infestation. Look for any obvious damages to the floors, walls, or broken fixtures. Check that all doors and windows open and close properly. Check that light switches and appliances work properly. Check water pressure and see that the temperature in sinks and showers work. Remember you may have concerns or criticism, but try to hold them in until the appropriate time.

Don’t hesitate to ask the landlord or manager questions about the apartment. Remember to be polite and courteous when asking any questions and try not to be combative. Some questions to ask include:

  • What is the monthly rent cost?
  • What is the square footage of the apartment?
  • How much is the security deposit?
  • Is the security deposit refundable?
  • Are utilities included with rent?
  • If not included, what do utilities generally cost?
  • When is rent due each month?
  • Do you have auto-pay or an online system to pay rent?
  • What is the parking situation like?
  • Do you have to pay for a parking spot?
  • Have there been any break-ins in the past year?
  • Have there been any car break-ins in the past year?
  • Am I responsible for small maintenance issues or do you take care of those?
  • Am I able to paint the walls or make other modifications?

 

Knowing the answers to these questions will help you understand how the apartment is taken care of, and what your responsibilities as a tenant may be. You will also get a better idea of what it is like to live in the apartment complex.

Consider asking current tenants how they feel about living in the apartment; They usually give a more honest and realistic picture of what living in the area or complex is like. Reading online reviews are often biased and written by people that are disgruntled. Try to find a current tenant and ask what it is like to live in the apartment, how it is to work with management, what the neighbors are like, and what the area is like. This will often give you a better idea of what your living arrangement would be like.

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Beware of scams. Unfortunately, it is very common to come across rental scams when looking for an apartment. Scammers prey on students who may be inexperienced in renting an apartment, and are looking to steal your personal information and money. So how do you know what is a scam and what is not?

Look for the signs of a rental scam:

  • the price seeming too good to be true
  • the price doesn’t fit with other surrounding properties
  • high upfront costs
  • excuses for why you can not come see the apartment in person
  • requests for payment before you see the apartment
  • no online presence
  • no leasing office location
  • multiple and obvious grammar errors or very broken English in the listing

 

You can also learn a few tips and tricks to help protect yourself against any rental scams. First, never submit a payment or sign a contract without seeing the property for yourself. Try to schedule a time to go tour the apartment with the landlord or manager. If they tell you the address and make an excuse for why they can’t go with you, and are unwilling to reschedule for another time, be wary. Also, do not pay with wire transfer or cash only. Leave a paper trail by paying with checks.

Second, do your research. Research the leasing office, property manager, and landlord. Double check to see that the property is actually owned by the person claiming to be the property manager or landlord’s organization. Don’t hesitate to ask the landlord or property manager questions about the property to see how well they can answer basic questions about the area and apartment. Also research tenant reviews and historical information about the property to make sure the available apartment is legitimate.

 

Roommates

Choosing your roommates. Your roommates will often make or break your experience in an apartment. You want to make sure your roommates are people you will feel comfortable living with, and get along with you. If you don’t want to live with anyone you currently know, there are organizations that are willing to help you find a roommate that is compatible with you. Whether you choose to live with friends or random roommates, you’ll want to set some ground rules and boundaries to make sure everyone is happy at home.

Things to consider.  When thinking of who to live with, consider sleeping patterns, interests, study habits, visitors, etc. Try to see if your sleeping patterns coincide. If one of you likes to stay up late and the other likes to wake up early, there could be some contention in finding  a common ground. Plus, you don’t want to be tip toeing around every morning or night while your roommate is asleep.

Also see if your study habits coincide. If you like to listen to music as you study but your roommate likes it silent, or vice versa, you’ll want to consider if it is a good match to share a room. Some other things to consider when choosing a roommate include:

  • Can you trust them to be around your personal belongings?
  • Do they have a reliable source of income, and will they be responsible for paying their share?
  • Are your lifestyle choices similar?
  • Are they willing to share home responsibilities?
  • How do they care for things?
  • Are they messy or organized?
  • Do they have any pets?
  • Who will they invite over as guests?
  • How do they treat your guests or friends?

 

Asking these questions should give you a good idea if you and your potential roommate will be a good fit to live together. You want to make sure that you will be able to live with this person with as little contention as possible. You should be comfortable in your home, and with your roommates. If you feel like someone will really clash with your personality and expectations, don’t hesitate considering a more compatible roommate.

 

Before Moving In

Fill out a rental application. Many apartments will require filing a rental application before offering an apartment to potential tenants. A rental application will require you to give information about your current employment, monthly income, and any rental history. You may also need your driver’s license, social security number, pay stubs, bank statements, or check book. The rental application gives the landlord the necessary information and permission to run a background check and/or a credit check. Landlords and property managers use rental application to screen potential tenants and decide whether or not it is smart for them to rent to you.

The rental application will also often require you to pay a fee to cover the cost of the credit or background check. These fees are often somewhere between $20 and $30. You’ll want to make sure to factor that fee into your budget at the beginning of your apartment research.

You may also be asked to provide a few references, both personal and professional. Prepare these reference before filling out the rental application; ask a potential reference if they mind being a reference for you. Once you fill out the application, be sure to contact your references and let them know they should be expecting a call from a landlord or a manager in the near future.

Make sure you are completely honest when filling out a rental application, and remember that submitting a rental application in no way obligates you to the apartment. Often you will be approved and then asked to come back in to sign an official lease.

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Review the lease or rental agreement. What is the difference between a lease and a rental agreement? A lease typically lasts a year, while a rental agreement is typically only month-to-month. With a rental agreement, landlords are free to raise the rent at the end of each month when the agreement expires, while a lease locks the rental price for an entire year.

It is important to review the lease or rental agreement before signing it. Read the entire agreement or lease and understand what the agreements are. A few things to double check when you are reviewing your lease or rental agreement:

 

  • How much rent costs. This should be obvious. You need to double check that the price of rent is the same as what was advertised, and what you were told at the time of touring.
  • How much is the security deposit. This deposit is often used to make sure you are covered in case any damages that happen while you are living in the apartment. It can also be used to cover professional cleaning costs after you move out.
  • How can you get your security deposit back. Learn what, if anything, will be deducted from your security deposit. Also learn what condition you need to leave the apartment in if you want to get the maximum amount back.
  • Length of lease or agreement. Make sure to check the length of the lease or agreement. Know if it will be month-to-month, six months, nine months, one year, etc.
  • What happens at the end of the lease/agreement. Learn what needs to be done when the end of the lease or agreement comes and you want to stay or what day you will need to move out.
  • Early termination fees and requirements. Sometimes everything doesn’t go as planned. You may have planned on staying in the apartment, but life changes, and you  may need to terminate your lease early. See what fees are applicable to early termination and what is required of you. Some apartments require a 30 day notice to help fill your vacant spot.
  • Paying rent requirements. Some apartments will require rent paid on one specific day, while others will give you a window of when to pay. Some will require rent paid by check, some require credit card, while others may require rent paid online. Learn the requirements so you don’t incur any late fees or penalties.
  • Penalties for late rent payment. Also make sure to check if there are any fees for paying late rent, and how much it is. Money spent on late fees is money you could use for something much more fun or useful.
  • Roommates agreements – Jointly and severally liable? So what is jointly and severally liable mean? This means that if your roommate doesn’t pay their share of the rent or moves out before the end of the lease, you are still liable for covering the full amount of the cost of rent. Just another reason to find a roommate or roommates that you trust.
  • Utilities costs. Some utilities may be covered in your rent, while others are not. Some apartments will cover all of them, while others cover none. Learn what utilities you are responsible for and if any are covered in your rent.
  • Subletting or Airbnb. If you know you are going to be gone for a few months in the summer, you may want to consider subletting your apartment or putting it on Airbnb. You’ll need to double check the lease though because some apartments don’t allow it.
  • Allowment for alternations. Can you paint the walls? Can you hang things with nails? Some apartments will allow you to paint the walls as long as you paint them back to the original color before you leave. Some apartments don’t allow any alterations to be made. Make sure you know the apartment’s policies before you make any alterations so you don’t get charged extra fees.
  • Minor repairs and damages. Find out if you are responsible for minor damages and repairs in your apartment. Many big apartment complexes will fix everything in the apartment for you, but some smaller or individual leased apartments will require you to fix minor damages on your own.

If there is anything within the agreement or lease you feel uncomfortable with, don’t hesitate to discuss the terms with the landlord. You can try to negotiate terms or even ask for certain terms to be removed from the agreement.

 

Moving In

Fill out evaluation forms. Once you have signed the lease and have been given the keys, the first thing you should do is fill out an evaluation form. Make note of everything that is already damaged within the apartment. Be picky and detailed here. You want to list everything that is even slightly damaged so you don’t end up getting charged for it when you move out. You can even take pictures for more evidence. Once you have completed the list, sign it, date it, and make a copy. Give one copy to your landlord and keep a copy for yourself.

Renter’s insurance. Renter’s insurance isn’t required in all states, but it is a good idea to consider renter’s insurance once you move into your apartment. Renter’s insurance will cover any loss to your personal property due to robbery or accidents. The insurance will also pay for any damage you might cause to another tenant’s property. Renter’s insurance usually costs between $15 to $25 a month unless you bundle with another insurance policy, like car insurance. When bundled with car insurance, renter’s insurance is less expensive than having it independently. Although accidents and theft can be a rare occurrence, it is better to be safe than sorry and get renter’s insurance to protect yourself.

Know your rights. While renting an apartment, you have the right to rent a place that is habitable. Your apartment should be structurally safe, have functioning electrical, plumbing, heating, and air conditioning; working hot and cold water, no rodent or insect infestations, and access to trash receptacles.

You also have the right to privacy in your apartment, and your landlord cannot barge in anytime they want. There are several instances when a landlord can enter your apartment without you being there; in case of an emergency that threatens injury or property damage, the landlord can come into your apartment without permission or notice. If the landlord needs to enter your apartment for any other reason, they will need to have your permission and give you prior notice before entering.

Finally, you have the right to a safe premise. While all crimes and accidents can’t be prevented by landlords, if injury or crime occurred because of the landlord’s negligence, you can sue for any damages or costs.

 

Moving Out

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Getting your safety deposit back. The best way to ensure you get the maximum amount back from your deposit is to deep clean the apartment. Take special care to see that everything from the kitchen, to the bathroom, to the bedroom is clean and looks like you took great care in keeping the apartment nice. You can’t be charged for expected, typical wear and tear that comes from living in an apartment, but you can be charged for damages and filth.

If you are charged for cleaning and replacing things in the apartment, and the cost is deducted from your security deposit, you are entitled to an itemized statement explaining the purpose of each deduction. Double check the evaluation form you filled out when you moved in to see if any charges are unwarranted. If you feel like you are over charged for cleaning or damages, or you are being wrongfully charged, talk to the landlord and see if you can come to an agreement or compromise. If your landlord won’t drop any of the deductions, you have the right to take the case to small claims court.