College is over and it's time to get your first real, grown-up apartment. Even if you're still throwing parties and living with six other people, this may be your first apartment where your name is on the lease and you pay all the rent, and that's a total game changer.
You'll also be in a new legal situation as a bonafide lease holder. Before you wade into these wild waters of adulthood, here's a beginner's guide to renting your first real-deal apartment.
Where to Look for Rental Apartments
The first step in getting an apartment is finding one for rent. Some tried-and-true apartment-hunting sites include Craigslist (or try PadMapper, which packages Craigslist listings into a more usable format), Trulia, HotPads.com, Apartments.com, and RentJungle, among many others.
When you go visit an apartment, pay attention to what you see, and be ready with questions—take nothing for granted. Does the hot water work? Try the faucet. Do the windows open? Is there a second exit in case of a fire?
Sometimes, you may not even meet the landlord—many apartment owners simply list their apartments through a local real estate agent, who handles all the showings and other legwork. Depending on how competitive the rental market is, you or the landlord will have to pay the agent's fee (usually one month's rent), though this can be negotiated.
Splitting your housing costs with a roommate or three can save you buckets of money each month. But if you don't have anyone lined up, many of the rental websites above (including Craigslist, but also CrashPad, Roommates.com, and others) are geared toward matching up potential roommates.
The ideal roommate will be different for everyone, but typically you're looking for someone respectful, responsible, and clean (at least when it comes to common areas), who maybe shares some interests with you, too.
Of course, your social network is helpful, too. If a friend of a friend is looking for a roommate or moving out of a sweet apartment, you've just found an in. And if you don't have the credit or references to land an apartment by yourself, joining forces with other renters or subletting the room of a departing tenant can be an alternative way in.
Have Your Application Information on Hand
When it comes to renting an apartment, most states have a simple rule: The first qualified applicant gets the apartment. This means you need to have your application information on hand so you can fill out everything on the spot.
For a new renter entering the market for the first time, that means having your basic information on hand as well as any written references you might want to include. Bank statements and pay stubs are two more weapons to have in your arsenal, to prove you can pay for the place. And a savings account with enough money in it to pay rent if you lose your job also helps.
If you find your dream apartment, be ready to fill out the application and cut a check right then and there.
References Can Go a Long Way
Oh yeah, references—since this is your first apartment, you might not have any yet. That can be a problem, especially when looking at big corporate apartments. At bigger buildings, renting decisions are going to be made in an office somewhere by people you'll never meet. Your chances will be better with private landlords, to whom you can explain your situation in person.
Still, references will help either way. Even if you lived in the dorms for four years, you can still get a reference letter from your former Resident Assistant attesting to your reputation as a good neighbor. If you have rented in the past, get written references from your landlord. Your potential new landlord will still call to follow up, but having that letter will get your foot in the door.
Know the Neighborhood
Increasingly, young people just out of college are living in cities. That can be a lot of fun, but make sure that you're picking the right neighborhood.
Safety can be an issue, so check out the neighborhood during the day—and again after 10 o'clock at night. Walk around to see what it's like and whether it will fit your lifestyle. Are there bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and other nightlife? Is that a plus for you, or would you prefer peace and quiet at night to drunken sidewalk singalongs? Walking around will give you the best sense of what you're getting into.
And even if you visit the apartment on a weekend, don't forget to factor in your weekday commute. Is it near a train or subway station? If you'll be driving to work, what's the traffic like at rush hour? The desktop version of Google Maps allows you to plot a route and see how much longer it would take at different times of the day or week; try estimating your commute during Monday morning traffic and make sure it's something you could live with.
Above we mentioned that being able to cut a check on the spot can go a long way toward getting you the apartment of your dreams. Having some extra cash can as well.
Landlords are able to check your credit score, and can deny you an apartment if it's not particularly good. If you have no credit or even poor credit, being able to offer two months' rent up front or a double deposit can make your potential new landlord more comfortable with renting to you.
That's a card you should play before you mention a co-signer. It shows that you're trying to take responsibility for yourself, rather than leaning on someone else to lend gravitas to your situation.
Good credit or not, you'll a need a good chunk of money on hand. Landlords often require your first month's rent, last month's rent, and a security deposit (up to a full month's rent), all up front. Provided you don't break the lease (or the apartment), you'll get that money back. But on a $1,000/month apartment, that's $3,000 all at once, so start saving.
Read the Lease Carefully
Once you get the apartment, you need to carefully read your lease. Laws vary from one state to another, but some clauses may be illegal, invalidating the entire lease. That's good to know in case you ever run into problems with your landlord.
Other clauses might be totally legal, but easily or unknowingly violated, such as no-smoking clauses—you don't want to get fined or evicted because your buddy lit a cigarette on the porch on his way home. Either way, know what the ground rules are so that you can stay in your apartment.
Turn On Your Utilities
Find out which utilities are your responsibility—heat, electricity, phone, internet, hot water—then call the relevant agencies to get them turned on. Even if the heat and electric are working when you move in, you need to get them put in your name. If you don't, you won't get out of paying the bill—you'll just be off to a very bad start with your new landlord, or out of electricity once the former tenants catch on.
Having your first grown-up apartment is really exciting, but to get it and keep it you need to act like a grown-up. The good news is, that's a lot easier than you might think. And either way, you can still eat cereal for dinner if you want.