9 Tips (and Good Advice) for First-Time Renters


NEW YORK – When we saw that rent at our current apartment would go up by several hundred dollars if we re-signed our lease this summer, my roommates and I knew it was time to start searching for a new place to live. We knew what we could afford between the three of us, and that we’d prefer to live in a house over another apartment complex. We knew we wanted a yard, a two-car garage, and to be within a 20-minute drive to Denver for our jobs. We knew how we planned to divide up our fridge space, how we’d rotate laundry days, and we even had a color scheme picked out!

What we didn’t realize was how challenging renting a house can be, especially in your early to mid-20s when you don’t have extensive credit, job or rental history. In college, I always had my parents as co-signers or guarantors on my lease, but with over a year of work history, I was ready to apply solo.

Renting your first apartment or home can be equal parts exciting and anxiety-inducing. As a young or first-time renter, navigating the complexities of landlords, lease agreements, budgeting, and even that darn Zillow app can be challenging. I put together these essential tips from my experience to help you make the best decisions for yourself and the people you live with.

1. Set a realistic budget

Before you start searching for a place to live, figure out how much you can afford to spend on rent. If you have roommates, figure out if you’ll be splitting the cost of rent evenly or not. I chose a smaller bedroom than my roommates and will pay a little less. As I learned recently, most landlords like for tenants to make about three times the monthly rent. Don’t forget to factor in additional expenses like utilities, internet, and renters’ insurance. Some places have extra fees for parking, trash and recycling. Creating an itemized budget with some wiggle room can help you avoid financial stress down the line.

2. Gather your work history and credit score

Landlords often require a background check, proof of income and a credit check before approving your rental application. You will likely have to pay for the background and credit checks yourself, which can run you $50-$100, so make sure you’re sure you’re really interested in a place before applying. As a freelancer, I submitted all of my recent pay stubs from the past two months and my most recent tax documents. If you also freelance or work as an independent contractor, communicate that on your application to avoid any confusion about variation in your monthly income. If you are about to start a new job, you can often ask your employer for a letter that lays out your pay and start date.

Know your credit score ahead of time and what credit score your prospective landlord wants. If you don’t quite meet the credit requirements, see if your landlord will accept proof of on-time payments at your current home. Having your documents organized and readily available can improve your chances of securing the apartment or house you want.

3. Research the neighborhood

The location of your home is just as important as the home itself. Spend some time researching potential neighborhoods. If you have kids, it’s always a good idea to check out the public schools in the area. Both of my roommates commute to Denver for work, and one of them uses public transportation, so it was important for us to be close to a bus stop for her. If you have pets, make sure the property is pet-friendly and see if they charge pet rent. Also consider factors like proximity to grocery stores, restaurants, and parks. It never hurts to ask your prospective landlord about their experience with the neighbors as well!

4. Understand the lease terms

Leases can be full of legal jargon, but it’s really important to understand what you’re signing. Some of the places we looked at had hidden fees, or ridiculously high security deposits. A standard rule for security deposits is no more than the price of one month’s rent, and make sure to confirm that you’ll receive your deposit back at the end of your lease so long as there are no damages.

A hidden fee we thankfully caught: a landlord wanted us to pay rent for the entire month of July, when we wouldn’t be moving in until our current lease is up on July 20. He assured us that moving in on the 20th was fine, but didn’t mention he wouldn’t offer a pro-rated cost. It was in the fine print of our lease agreement! We weren’t going to pay for an extra three weeks’ rent, so it was on to the next.

Another sneaky clause in a lease agreement we looked at: the homeowner wouldn’t return our full security deposits at the end of the lease, even if there were zero damages to the home.

Also, pay attention to the terms regarding lease duration, when rent is due, and what maintenance responsibilities are yours. For example, are you responsible for mowing the lawn to keep up with HOA rules? Don’t hesitate to ask the landlord or property manager to clarify any terms you don’t understand.

5. Inspect the property

Before signing a lease, thoroughly inspect the home for damages. Remember, you want to get that security deposit back! Make sure that all appliances and fixtures are in working order, and that you’re happy with the way the home is. Document any pre-existing issues with photos and notes, and ensure they are included in the lease agreement or a move-in checklist to avoid being held responsible for them later.

6. Consider roommates carefully

Having a roommate or two can make renting more affordable, and can even be fun if you live with friends, but it’s important to choose your roommates wisely. My two roommates are buddies from college, and we’ve lived together before, so I felt confident we have compatible lifestyles. Discuss expectations for chores, noise, guests, and expenses upfront. Make sure all of you are in agreement ahead of time with your boundaries to reduce future conflicts.

7. Know your rights

Familiarize yourself with tenant rights and landlord obligations in your area. These can vary by county but generally cover aspects such as security deposits, rental cost increases, eviction procedures, and repair responsibilities. Understanding your rights can help you advocate for yourselves and ensure you are treated fairly.

8. Get renter’s insurance

Renters insurance is almost always required to protect your personal belongings and provide coverage in case of accidents. Renters insurance typically covers damage due to fire, theft, and certain natural disasters. See if your landlord offers a plan (most apartment complexes do) or check out the cost of private insurance to make the best decision for yourself.

9. Budget for upfront costs

Moving into a new home will often involve several upfront costs beyond the first month’s rent. Is the place you’re moving into furnished, or do you need to furnish it yourself? How do you and your roommates plan to divide the costs of furniture and other shared items? Remember to budget for that pesky security deposit! You also may need to pay for movers and utility setup fees. Plan for these expenses ahead of time to avoid any financial surprises.

And here’s that good advice: Plan for the future

Think about your long-term plans before committing to a lease. If you anticipate changes in your job or relationship status, for example, consider the flexibility of your lease terms. Know if you’re signing on for a year-long lease, month-to-month, etc. Some leases may include early termination clauses or subletting options, which can provide some flexibility if your situation changes unexpectedly. Also communicate with private landlords about if they have any future plans to sell the house you’re renting.

Renting your first home is a major milestone that comes with its fair share of challenges. By setting a budget, understanding your lease, choosing solid roommates, and planning ahead, you can relax a little! The more prepared you are, the more confident you’ll feel. Happy house hunting!

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