How to rent your first apartment: Step by step guide

Renting your first apartment can feel overwhelming, but breaking down the process into tasks you can tackle one by one makes it easier to apartment-hunt with confidence and not miss any important details along the way. If you put in the work ahead of time, you’ll have a much smoother moving day complete with a celebratory pizza delivery dinner (the most classic of moving day meals)—and yes, a blanket on the floor counts as a dining table.

girl sitting in front of brown couch surrounded by boxes

Table of contents

Step 1: Figure out how much rent you can affordStep 2: Find out your credit scoreStep 3: Do your researchStep 4: Understand your lease terms Get your funds together for your move in costs

Step 1: Figure out how much rent you can afford

It’s easy to be dazzled by an out-of-budget apartment, but in the long run, knowing what you can afford—and sticking to it—will prevent financial stress. With your first place, you’re likely going to have to make compromises in lifestyle to meet your budget, so figuring out what you can afford to give up and what is essential for your lifestyle is another important step beyond your financial calculations.

Figure out the range of rent you can afford by looking at your monthly income, savings, and any debt you have (like student loan, credit card, or car payments). Conventional wisdom recommends spending no more than 30% of your income on housing; but the contemporary reality of living in a big city can necessitate spending closer to 50%. Make sure that the maximum rent you’re willing to pay leaves money in your budget for other living expenses like food and transportation.

Then, list your top lifestyle priorities. Do you need to be close to public transport so that you can get to work? Do you need space for a home office? Does living alone or coliving make more sense for you? Chances are you will save money living with roommates because you are splitting the cost of common areas, like the living room and kitchen, rather than carrying those costs all on your own. 

Other things to consider are the location of your apartment and amenities offered. In general, you’re going to pay more to live in big cities, especially as you near the city center. If you like the city lifestyle, you’ll spend more time out and about, so having less living space tends to be doable. If you’re more of a homebody or spend a lot of time out of town, you might want to consider living further from a city center (typically lower rents) as long as you’re still able to commute in a reasonable amount of time.

Step 2: Find out your credit score

If you’re a first time renter, the term credit score might be brand new to you. A credit score is a three-digit number based on your credit history that banks, credit card issuers, auto loan issuers, insurance companies, and landlords use when making lending or leasing decisions. 

Your credit score is a key element of your credit report that gives your landlord or property management company an overview of how you have managed your bills, debt, and general finances over the years. Some landlords will run a credit check to find out your credit score; while others will ask you to supply a copy of your credit report. The credit score you need to rent an apartment will vary based on location and other factors, but in general, a higher credit score makes you a more competitive applicant.

There are certainly ways to find a great place to live if you have a low credit score, or if you simply haven’t built your credit history yet. One common solution that many college students and young professionals use to secure a lease is having a guarantor or cosigner. Even if you’re going to pay your rent on your own, you may need a cosigner to secure your lease. A guarantor is a person who will co-sign an apartment lease alongside a tenant, guaranteeing to pay the rent if the tenant fails to do so. The guarantor is usually a parent, family member, or close friend who is willing to be legally responsible for the rental apartment.

Step 3: Do your research

Your apartment is where you’ll rest and recharge after a busy day out in the world, so take the time to find the right place for you. During a showing, check every space in the home including all shared spaces, outdoor spaces, and any amenities offered like parking, gyms, and laundry rooms. It is perfectly normal to test faucets, appliances, doors, and locks, and common to take measurements for any furniture that has to fit. 

Make sure you are comfortable with the level of security in the building, the amount of noise in the building, and the type of light the apartment receives. Also note what it will take to move in such as are there stairs or elevator, how many floors you are climbing, and how close you can park to the front door for moving day.

If you are doing a virtual showing, ask the landlord or showing agent to double check anything you would check in person. Don’t be shy about asking for room measurements, for the agent to try out appliances or fixtures, and asking to see spaces outside of the apartment. Virtual showings are becoming more and more common and both you and your landlord are looking for a win-win situation—ask questions, and they should be happy to answer them! If they aren’t, that’s likely not the apartment for you.

If you’re going to be living with roommates, do your due diligence on the people you will be living with. Make sure your potential roommates are a good fit beyond first impressions and likeability. Chore schedules, similar lifestyles, living with people who replace the toilet paper roll—these are the things roommate dreams are made of. Interview your future roommates to learn about their personalities and lifestyles.

Step 4: Understand your lease terms

Your lease is a legally binding document, so read every word! It’s also a resource for you as a tenant that you can keep on hand once you move in. Not sure if you can put that picture hanger into the wall? Your lease will tell you, and you can always refer back to it when questions arise. It will also cover the basics, like what your monthly rent payment is and how rent increases will work. If you’re lucky enough to find a rent controlled apartment (more common in big cities like NYC, San Francisco, and DC), your lease will break down those regulated increases so that you can plan accordingly.

Before signing a lease, make sure you understand the length of commitment (month-to-month or year long), rules around pets, parking and the security deposit, and what you are responsible for maintaining versus what the landlord will take care of. Ask questions, and go to a family member, friend, or the internet to clarify any terms you don’t understand before you sign.

Get your funds together for your move in costs

Typically you’ll spend a chunk of money to move in because you’ll need to pay your first monthly rent payment plus a security deposit—if you have a pet, expect to pay a separate pet deposit for that on top of your general security deposit. Most security deposits are equal to one month’s rent, but check your lease for the exact amount.

Don’t forget to prepare for other essential costs that are often not included in your rent like utilities—that’s electricity, gas, and internet. Many lease agreements include utilities like garbage and water but check your lease to be sure.

Sign your lease and move!

Once you feel completely comfortable with what you are spending and where you will be living, sign that lease! Then prepare for a smooth moving day. An organized packing job makes for an organized unpacking job once you’re in your new place—so get started early with your moving checklist, and make sure you have help whether from pros or a friend willing to lend a hand.

Bungalow offers private rooms in shared homes that are more affordable than solo housing options in the same neighborhoods. Wifi, utilities, and monthly cleaning are set up before you move in so that coliving is seamless. Find a Bungalow near you.

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Move in ready homes and a built-in community so you can feel at home, together — wherever you are.