How to rent an apartment

Brian Acton


Brian Acton

Brian Acton

Contributing Reporter

Brian Acton is a contributing reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance news. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, TIME, USA Today, MarketWatch, Inc. Magazine, and HuffPost. 

Published|8 min read

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Packing up and moving isn’t the only tough part of renting an apartment. First you need to get your finances in order and pick the right place based on your requirements. Then you must navigate rental applications and lease agreements.

Renting can be a complicated process, especially for a first-time tenant and you don’t want to choose the wrong apartment or sign a bad lease. With enough preparation, you can find your new home without a hitch. Here’s how to rent an apartment.

Prepare your finances

Before your find yourself an apartment, you need to figure out the financials.

1. Define your budget

The right apartment works for your budget. Take a look at your income and estimate your monthly bills and expenses to find how much is left over for rent. Leave plenty of wiggle room for savings, emergencies and other expenses. This simple spreadsheet can help you draft a budget.

“Generally speaking, you should aim to pay between 25% and 30% of your income on rent,” Adam Busch, head of outreach for RentLingo, said. “Aiming for this percentage helps you find a place within your means that provides plenty of room to finance the other areas of your life.”

Defining a realistic rent is important for another reason. You’ll likely have to disclose your income to the landlord on your rental application, and if your income is too low the application could be rejected.

2. Consider roommates

Living with roommates makes renting much more cost effective, and can help you afford a better place. Of course, you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of living alone against living with roommates.

“Living alone allows you to dictate the atmosphere of your home. You set the quiet hours, the social gatherings and you never need to worry about being interrupted or annoyed with the daily habits of another person,” said Busch.

However, there are upsides to roommates, he added: “If you are new to an area or city, or have a hard time meeting new people, having roommates can be great.”

If you do choose roommates, you’ll have to find friends or strangers to move with you into your new apartment. Alternatively, you can look for an established group of roommates that have an open room for rent. Be sure to vet potential candidates by doing multiple interviews, getting references or even doing your own background check.

3. Check your credit

Landlords and property management companies frequently require credit checks for potential tenants. They’ll need to provide written consent. You can choose to decline, but that may block you from moving forward. The credit check will pull a version of your credit score and hunt for red flags such as bankruptcies, accounts in collections or excessive amounts of debt on your credit report. Some reports may flag past missed rental payments.

Before you start hunting for a rental, check your credit report and credit score. (You can get your annual credit reports for free at and many websites offer free monthly credit scores.) Review your credit report for any potential issues such as late payments and delinquent accounts. If you find any negative information that is inaccurate, you can get it removed by disputing it with the credit bureaus.

If your credit score is in bad shape, you may want to put in some work to clean up your credit before you start submitting rental applications. While credit scores vary based on the scoring model used, a good credit score is around 700 and up.

If you don’t have any credit at all, you may need to get a co-signer on your lease or work on building credit for a while. Here’s are some ways to fix your credit.

4. Start Saving

A new apartment comes with some upfront costs. If you’re planning to move soon, you should start saving now.

Of course, you may need to pay for moving costs and furniture. But you’ll also need a security deposit, typically equal to one month’s rent, which is held by the landlord to cover any cleaning and repairs they need to make when you move out (any funds left over will be refunded to you). You’ll also need your first month’s rent.

Beyond that, it’s a good idea to keep an emergency savings fund to cover at least three to six month’s worth of expenses in case of emergency.

Define your criteria

Once you’ve set your budget, you’ll already have narrowed down your apartment search. But there is still other criteria you can use to find the right place. Make these decisions before you start your search, but understand that you may need compromise if you can’t find a place that has everything you want.

1. Location

Your budget might narrow down your neighborhoods of choice, as popular locations, like Hayes Valley in San Francisco, are usually more expensive. But there are many other considerations. Are you looking for a safe, quiet neighborhood or a bustling area with dining and nightlife? Do you need to live close to work or public transportation? Are you looking for an area with good public schools? Answering these questions can help you identify the right neighborhoods.

2. Property type

There are many different types of apartments to rent. You can live in a sprawling apartment complex, a high rise or the basement apartment of someone’s home. You can look for apartments with luxury amenities and perks or opt for a simple living space on a lower budget.

3. Features

Do you need an apartment building with a fitness center and a pool, or is a washer and dryer your main priority? How many rooms do you need? Is secure parking important? Think about the features that are important to you — and how much they might cost. Amenities are nice, but there’s usually a fee for them. Consider those expenses before using base rent as budgeting benchmark.Genius tip: Luxury apartments have dominated popular rental markets in recent years, but these buildings don't always fill up quick. Try negotiating to get a month rent-free or a fee waived on a certain amenity, especially if a building is new and empty. Here are tips for haggling with landlords.

Now you can start hunting for apartments. Local papers and flyers still advertise rentals, but online rental websites like let you set your budget and criteria to pull up a list of matching rentals. If you’re looking to sublet or rent a basement apartment, you may also want to check out Craigslist and other alternative websites.

Once you’ve found a few rentals, set aside a day to take some tours. Weekends are typically the busiest days, while weekdays will have more flexibility. You should call ahead to landlords to schedule appointments. Make sure to inquire about availability and rent. You don’t want to waste your time on something that is unavailable on your projected move-in date or outside your budget. Plus, keep an eye out for scams.

Touring apartments

When taking tours, follow these guidelines to find the right place.

1. Make a good impression

Remember, landlords are evaluating you as a prospective tenant. Dress for a good first impression and behave like a professional. If you come across as rude or unreliable, landlords with plenty of prospects may choose not to do business with you.

2. Check for red flags

As you tour the apartment and the property, you should evaluate them based on your previously defined requirements. But you should also pay attention to the features and quality of the living space. Does the apartment have all the natural light you want? Does it feel clean, safe and secure? Are there signs of mold or mildew? Do the locks, faucets and toilets work? Is the water pressure sufficient?

3. Ask questions

As you meet with the landlord, ask detailed questions about the apartment and the lease:

  • How long is the lease and what happens when it’s up?

  • When is rent due, and is there a grace period?

  • Does the landlord typically raise the rent year after year?

  • What happens if you need repairs or maintenance?

  • Are you allowed to make modifications such as painting the walls or changing light fixtures?

  • Have there been any recent security problems?

If you have the opportunity, now is the time to ask other tenants you encounter about their experience. Whether they love the apartment or have major grievances, they are a good source of insider information.

Submit a rental application

When you find the right apartment, it’s time to submit a rental application. Both you and your roommates should be prepared to fill out an application as soon as possible, especially if you're apartment-hunting in a heated rental market like Seattle. Generally, to submit a rental application you will need the following:

  • Driver’s license or other form of ID

  • Pay stubs

  • A list of references

  • A form of payment for the rental application fee

If the rental company runs background checks and credit checks, you will need to sign a form providing your consent. Your application may also require you to list rental and employment history, so be prepared with that information.

Some landlords require renters insurance, too, which covers the cost of replacing your personal belongings if they are damaged, lost or stolen. It also covers your liability for any injury that occurs in your apartment. You may have to provide verification of your policy before your lease is fully approved, but, even if the landlord doesn’t mandate coverage, you should look into a policy anyway. They provide important protection and are actually pretty cheap. We can help you compare and buy renters insurance here.

Signing the lease

After you submit your application, you wait! Getting approved can take a few business days or more, but your landlord will notify you when your application is approved.

Don’t jump to sign the lease without reviewing it first. Carefully read the agreement, making sure you understand the terms and verifying anything the landlord may have told you verbally. Some of the most important terms include:

  • Length of the lease: when your lease begins and ends

  • Occupant limits: the maximum number of people that can live in your apartment

  • Rent payments: how you pay rent, when it is due and if there is a grace period

  • Deposits and fees: the money required for your security deposit and other fees you may incur. For instance, some landlords may require a pet deposit if you have a dog or cat.

  • Breaking the lease: the notice you must give and penalties you must pay to break your lease and move out early

  • Renewal: how leases are renewed

  • Modifications: the modifications you are allowed to make to your apartment

  • Maintenance: the types of maintenance the landlord must cover and how you request repairs.

  • Utilities: the utilities that are included in your lease.

  • Pets: if pets are allowed and if there are fees for pets (sometimes, there’s an additional monthly charge per animal.)

Remember, once you sign the lease you’re committed to moving in and paying rent. Make sure you’re ready.

Beyond moving

Once you move in, you get to start living in your new apartment. Your priorities might involve setting up your rental space, getting along with your neighbors and enjoying apartment living. But you should be keenly aware of your rights as a tenant. Save your lease for reference in the case of a dispute with the landlord, and know your tenant rights. For instance, did you know:

  • Your landlord cannot enter your apartment without giving prior notice.

  • Landlords must make reasonable accommodations for people with protected disabilities.

  • Some localities restrict how much landlords can raise your rent year after year.

  • If you haven’t violated your lease, landlords generally must give 30 or 60 days notice if they want you to vacate.

  • If your landlord keeps some of your security deposit when you move out, they must provide written documentation of the costs.

Landlords have legal protections, too. Make sure you understand the basics of the tenant-landlord relationship based on your lease and local laws.

  • For a basic explanation of tenant rights and links to your state’s tenant laws, visit FindLaw. You can also visit your state attorney general’s website.

  • RentLingo has a calculator designed to help you pin down how much you can afford to pay in rent each month.

  • Zumper’s National Rent Reports can help you estimate what to expect to pay in rent across the nation.

  • To learn how to find affordable rent in a major metro, like Los Angeles, New York or Boston, check out Policygenius’ Expensive Cities series.

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