Getting Your First Apartment: A Guide for Young Adults by a Young Adult
I've been out of my dad's house since I was seventeen. I lived with an old boyfriend, my best friend, a new boyfriend, and with my sister. After years of having no place to really call my own, I decided I was tired of it and that I was going to get my first apartment.
As I sit here in my lovely, little two-bedroom, third-floor apartment, I think about how overwhelming and stressful it was to get here. I had no guidance and no idea where to start, and that is why I wrote this article.
Adults make all kinds of assumptions about what young people should already know... things those young people have never been taught and have never had any experience in. I hope to shed some detailed light on how you, too, can accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of moving out on your own. I won't give you any unnecessary information and I'll try not to lecture. I just want you to know everything I know now to help you be fully prepared for what is to come.
How to Get Your First Apartment
When looking for an apartment, price is the first thing to consider, but price and location go hand-in-hand.
How old do you need to be to rent an apartment?
Only adults are legally allowed to sign rental contracts. Since most states set the age of adulthood at 18, this means that you can't rent until you're an adult, and landlords are legally allowed to refuse to rent to you if you're under 18.
I'm 17: Does that mean I can't rent?
There are exceptions.
- For example, you might find a nice landlord that's willing to take a risk on you, even though it could hurt them in the long run (because if you can't pay, they have no legal recourse if you're not an adult).
- Or if you're legally emancipated by the court, married, or in the military service, these circumstances might weigh in your favor.
- Also, if you can get an adult to co-sign for you and promise to pay the rent if you can't, this can also allow a younger renter to proceed.
How much money do you need to make in order to afford to live alone?
Landlords have strict income requirements to protect themselves from deadbeat renters (and protect renters from taking on more than they can handle). Most apartment complexes require you to make 3 to 3.5 times the cost of rent to be even considered for approval. This is because they know that your other life expenses (food, transportation, utilities, health, etc.) will cost that much, so you won't be able to afford to pay rent if you don't make the minimum income requirement.
Which apartments can I afford?
- If there is no elevator, the apartments on the upper floors will be cheaper because most people don't want to haul groceries up a flight of stairs.
- An apartment close to stores and other conveniences will be considerably more expensive than one a little further away from a main street.
- In general, a landlord will charge more if you smoke or have pets, since there will be more clean-up involved. Smoke- or pet-free apartments might cost a little less for this reason.
- Consider the cost of safety. I know that really cheap apartments seem like the perfect place for a broke, young adult, but having things stolen can be really expensive and the cost of replacing stolen items should be considered. If a low-budget apartment is all you can really afford, I suggest you either find a roommate and a better area or practice extra safety measures for yourself and your car. Also, invest in a deadbolt!
Where should I look for apartments?
Ask your renting friends to keep their ears open for vacancies in their building. Craigslist is always a great resource, but keep in mind that some very sketchy people use Craigslist, so it's always a good idea to be careful. Bring a friend with you when you go to see a Craigslist listing, or at least let your loved ones know exactly where you are.
Your Credit Score Counts More Than Your Age
If all else is equal, a landlord would likely choose an 18-year-old with a credit score of 750 over a 30-y-o with 550.
Different Types of Leases or Rental Contracts
If I have a roommate, whose name should go on the lease?
ALL of the tenant's names need to be on the lease! Seriously. This is a big one. This rule applies even if the roommate is your girlfriend, boyfriend, or best friend. If your roommate's name is not on the lease, they can leave you high and dry with a rent you most likely can't afford by yourself. If your credit is bad, then your roommate might sign the lease alone, but this leaves them legally and financially vulnerable, so they might not want take that risk that for you. Also, a broken lease is really bad to have on your record and makes it a million times harder to rent another apartment. Seriously, trust me on this.
What about subleasing or subletting?
If you find someone who's already living in an apartment and wants to rent you a room—or the whole place, while they're out of town—without putting your name on the lease, this is known as subleasing or subletting. In this case you, as a subtenant, must pay the rent you agree to up front and obey all the terms of the lease, but you're not ultimately contractually responsible if something goes wrong. On the other hand, since you didn't sign, you're not guaranteed a place, and they could kick you out whenever they want to.
Whom do you plan to live with? Is it with one friend or two? A boyfriend or girlfriend? Or even by yourself? Either way, you need to make sure that who ever you decide to take the plunge with is reliable, gainfully employed, and someone who isn't going to bail on you if things get tough.
What if I'm renting with my boyfriend or girlfriend?
I know it's tempting to want to move in with your boyfriend or girlfriend when you've been going out for a few months and hate to be apart, but please, please, please make sure you're ready to spend 6-12 months in a contract with your lover. Sure, not having to answer to parents' rules and the chance to create a little haven for just the two of you could be great, but just think about what happens if, in four months, the stress of bills, work, and who's gonna do the dishes finally gets to you?
I am personally very happy with my choice to live with my boyfriend, but we'd already tested the waters at his parents' house. Not everyone is so lucky. If you think that you and your mate have enough stamina to move out together, that's great! More power to you and good luck! Just make sure you come to an agreement on what happens if you do decide to break up before the lease is up.
What if I'm renting with a friend (or more)?
This situation is not quite as risky as moving in with your significant other, but it still poses some possible problems. Living with too many people can get annoying. Sometimes my roommates want to have a party when all I want to do is watch tv in the living room. You both need to agree on how to deal with those situations, how you'll share the responsibilities, and whether or not you're going to buy food for the whole house or buy your own food. Make sure they are dependable!
What if I want to live alone?
Wow, it take's guts to move out on your own. Although sometimes it can be harder to get approved if you have no credit, kudos to you if you can do it! Make sure you can do it on your own and stay safe. Not much advice I can give on that.
If Your Name Isn't On the Lease...
...you can't be held responsible for the property, but you can be kicked out any time.
Questions to Ask When You're Looking at an Apartment
Go ahead and ask all the questions. It's better to ask too many questions than not enough. They should see it as a sign of responsibility.
- Is there laundry on site? Is it free, or will you have to pay to use the machines? If not, is there a laundromat in walking distance?
- What's the water pressure like? Will there be enough hot water during peak hours?
- Is the apartment noisy (traffic noise, noisy neighbors, dogs barking, etc.)?
- Is there a resident manager on site?
- Is the area safe?
- What is the parking situation? Is there a lot, are you assigned a space, does parking cost extra?
- Is it close to transportation (bus or train)?
Other things to think about when you're viewing an apartment...
Consider bringing a tape measure so you can check to make sure your furniture will fit.
Questions to Ask a Roommate Before You Move In Together
- What is your daily routine?
- What are your priorities: work, play, or sleep?
- Are you a morning person, or do you stay up late? Do you take naps?
- Is sleeping difficult or easy? (Do you require total silence?)
- On a scale from 1 to 10, how tidy are you?
- How will we divvy up the chores?
- How often do you cook?
- Will food be shared, or will we keep our food separate?
- What's more annoying: a pile of stuff (clutter) or actual dirt and messes?
- How warm (or cool) do you like to keep the apartment? Will you be turning on the heat or A/C?
- Do you like loud music?
- What will you use your home space for? (Work, parties, etc.)
- Which space or objects are public (belonging to everyone) and which are personal?
- Do you plan to have your girlfriend/boyfriend over? If so, how often?
- Can we have overnight guests?
- Will there be pets?
- On a scale of one to 10, how modest are you?
- What are your pet peeves?
- How will you divvy up the shared expenses?
There's a free app called Splitwise (on the web, iPhone, and Android) that helps you track shared bills and expenses and automatically divide the cost so it's fair!
What Documents You'll Need to Get Your Own Apartment
Once you've found your ideal apartment, the really stressful stuff begins. You need to be approved by the leasing agents. Here are a few things they look at and what you need to qualify for most apartments.
- You need to have your last three pay stubs and you must have held your current job for at least 6 months.
- Your monthly income must equal 3-3.5 times the amount you'll be paying in rent.
- You'll probably be asked to supply the names and contact info for both professional and personal references. These are people who will vouch that you are a responsible person.
- They'll probably also want to know which bank you use and what balances you carry. They might ask to see those bank records.
- Credit check. Landlords often charge applicants a fee to run their credit reports. Even if you don't get the apartment, you might have to pay this fee. This is a big one for most apartment complexes, especially for first-time renters.
How can I see my credit report?
There are three companies that track your credit: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. You can get one free copy of your credit report from each of them every year if you order online from annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.
What if I don't know my credit score?
Even if you don't have any credit cards, you should check your credit score just to see what it says. If you don't have any credit at all, the report will come back without a score. But if you have a credit card or if you pay a car loan or student loans, you'll have a credit score.
What kind of credit score do I need to get an apartment?
If you don't have a good credit score, a landlord is not likely to rent to you. I don't have much credit history since I have never had a credit card, bought a car, paid bills, etc., and that almost prevented me from getting my apartment. Thankfully, one of my roommates had good credit history and that saved us.
How can I get an apartment with bad or no credit?
If you don't have good credit, it's unlikely a landlord will rent to you. You'll have to find an apartment with friends who have good credit or ask a responsible adult to co-sign for you.
How can I improve my credit?
Before you move out from your parents' or guardian's, you need to start building your credit.
- Get a credit card and pay off your balance every month.
- If you can't be approved for a credit card, consider asking a parent to co-sign a credit card with you or allowing you to be an authorized user of their credit card.
- Learn what your credit score is and how to check it. Read Quickest & Best Ways to Improve Your Credit for more info.
- Be responsible! I can't stress that enough. Not having credit is one thing, but having bad credit is another, and it will be very hard for you to rent if you have bad credit. What you do now affects you for the rest of your life. Bad credit honestly makes life so much harder than it has to be.
What Different Kinds of Rental Leases are There?
- Most apartments have month-to-month leases and offer everyone flexibility. This means that either the renter (you) or the landlord can change or end the agreement at the end of each month. If no one renegotiates the contract you signed, the lease will automatically renew each month, though, so you don't have to keep signing new documents. To end this agreement, you have to give notice.
- A fixed-term lease means you agree to stay and pay rent for the an extended period of time (usually a year) and if you break this lease, you'll lose your deposits and the landlord can sue you. There is no guarantee you can stay after the year is up.
Is the Apartment Handled by a Property Management Company or By an Individual Landlord?
You'll want to know if the property is managed by a rental company or just an individual landlord. The company will probably be less hands-on, but sometimes it's nice to deal with an individual person. Either way, you'll want to do your research first to make sure there are no red flags. You can ask the other tenants of the building what their experience is, for example, or talk to the neighbors. Do a quick Google search of their company, name, or the rental's address to see what you can find out.
Don't Forget Moving Costs
Don't forget the cost of movers, boxes and packing materials, a truck or van rental, gas, storage, etc.
How Does the Rental Application Approval Process Work?
How long does rental approval take?
Approval can take from three days to three weeks, depending upon how fast you get all the information needed to the leasing agents and how quickly they complete it. For us, it took almost three weeks because we were not prepared and the four of us did not coordinate as well as we should have.
Are there any fees?
You will normally have to pay an administration fee, as they like to call it. It's basically paying them for the time spent trying to get you approved and check your income, employment, rental history, and references. Our administration fee was $45 for each signer of the lease.
What about a deposit?
After you are approved, you'll need to pay the security deposit. It is refunded when you move out, minus any damage repair costs or cleaning fees. We had a deposit of $250 due to our lack of credit.
How much will it cost to move into an apartment?
Add up the administration fee, the credit check fee, and the deposit, plus first and last month's rent, and that's the hefty sum you'll need to pay up front before you can even get your hands on the keys.
What Are the Hidden Costs of Getting an Apartment?
Even after you've paid all the move-in fees and gotten your keys, there are more things you'll have to pay for up-front, like electricity, utilities, furniture, kitchen stuff, cleaning supplies, and additional expenses.
Electricity and Gas
When you are approved for your apartment, you will be required to have electricity and gas set up by the date you are scheduled to move in. Useful website to check when choosing your electricity company are www.whitefence.com and www.powertochoose.com. Don't wait until last-minute to set this up because there is normally a 3-5 business day wait period until they can get out there and turn it on.
How much will electricity and gas cost, per month?
My electricity bill ranges from $125-$180. I have a two bedroom and we rarely run the a/c, although we do use the heater during winter. I try to turn off the lights when no one is using them, but my roommates are not as careful.
Apartments normally charge for water, sewage, and trash pick-up.
How much will utilities cost, per month?
These bills can range anywhere from $15-$50 a month. I pay roughly $25-$50 for water and trash. It is a little higher than most due to the fact that my complex uses allocated water which means my water bill is dependent on how much water the entire complex uses. A lot of apartments will charge a set fee, which may be better for those who will be living on a very strict budget.
Side note: I am by no means rich. Having three roommates softens the blow of these expenses. I end up paying $15 for my share of the water bill. :)
Internet and Cable
Don't forget to budget for internet and cable. You'll want to shop around to find the best deals before you decide which company to go with.
There are many ways to save money and still have all the functional furniture you need.
- Try garage sales, Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, flea markets, or friends and family who have a couch or end table they don't want anymore.
- Check Craigslist, where you'll often find great deals on items... some are even free!
- Never underestimate the power of Febreze and a couch cover to revitalize that junky old couch on the curb. Look hard and you might come across some awesome finds!
- You can also rent furniture. Sometimes, they offer package furniture rental deals that may even include a tv with a living room set. They offer financing programs that allow you to pay monthly installments.
Don't forget about everything else you need to allot money for in your budget. Here are the things I can think of that you will also be spending money on:
- Gas or transportation
- Personal hygiene products
- Kitchen pots, pans, and utensils
- Cleaning supplies
- Detergents and dish soaps
Set a realistic budget and get all the things you need before moving in. I suggest collecting them slowly over a few paychecks so the cost isn't so heavy when you're trying to pay for the deposit.
What If I Have a Pet... or Want One?
If you're just moving out of your parent's house, leave all the pets there if you can. If you don't have a pet but want one, I strongly suggest that you wait. I know you want the company of an animal friend, but you don't yet realize how expensive pets are: vet bills, vaccinations, food, litter... not to mention the fact that it'll be harder to find a place that allows pets and you'll have to pay additional, nonrefundable deposits. I assure you, taking care of yourself is going to be challenging enough. You don't need to take care of a pet, too!
What If My Rental Application Is Accepted? What's Next?
After you pay the hefty move-in costs and get your keys, don't forget to do the pre-move-in checklist. You and the rental agent should do a walk-through of the property with a checklist to make note of any damage. This is really important because if you don't make notes of all the chipped, broken, scraped, or damaged things you see, you could be blamed for them later and lose all or part of your security deposit.
Congratulations! You're officially on your own!
I may have missed a few things, or perhaps you want to ask specific questions in the comments section below. I'll try to answer as best I can. Thanks for reading and good luck!
Keep a File of All the Documents
Make sure to keep copies of the walk-through checklist, the contract you sign, and any other move-in documents!