Apartment Living: First-Time Renter's Guide

Updated on April 16, 2020
carlajbehr profile image

Carla J. Swick is a freelance writer who resides in NW Pennsylvania and works in higher ed technology.

First-time renters can find an abundance of advice in this guide.
First-time renters can find an abundance of advice in this guide.

There are many reasons people rent, and according to MSN’s Real Estate site, “One-third of Americans, or nearly 37 million families, rent instead of own.” These renters do so for a multitude of reasons, including limited finances to run and purchase a home, less responsibility for property care, and, finally, location.

But whatever the motivation, there are a few things a renter should know before he or she signs on the dotted line of a lease. As a renter myself, I consider myself somewhat of an expert—here are my recommendations:

  1. Know Your Landlord
  2. Inspect in Detail
  3. Research Utility Costs
  4. Read Your Lease
  5. Document Your Request

An apartment building.
An apartment building. | Source

1. Know Your Landlord

Your landlord usually requires you to fill out an application wherein they run a credit check and may contact references, but have you conducted your own investigation on your landlord? This is essential, because you will be in a relationship with this person for the duration of your lease—maybe longer if you decide to renew. There's a reason I made this number one on the list. It's important!

Speak to Current and Former Tenants

If you speak to current and former renters, you can find out a lot about your landlord and how they do business. The biggest question: “Does the landlord perform necessary repairs?”

You don’t have to think “ghetto” to think “slumlord” (see definition below). On a lesser scale, a landlord who basically disappears after the signing of your lease is someone you want to avoid. No one is going to know this better than their current or former tenants. Start asking around—the condition of your new unit depends on it.

A good landlord will understand basic wear and tear on a residence and provide necessary upkeep like painting of shutters and replacing any worn-out plumbing, etc. When you are paying rent, you are entitled to a clean, healthy, safe place to live.

The Importance of Mutual Respect

The relationship between a tenant and a landlord should be one of mutual respect. The tenant respects the landlord's property, and the landlord respects the requests of the tenant. Knowing your landlord is absolutely imperative for your final decision. Any less and your lease agreement could make you feel like you are trapped without a way of escape instead of enjoying home sweet home.

What Is a Slumlord?

n. unscrupulous landlord who milks a property without concern for tenants, neighborhoods or their own long term interests. Slumlords overcharge for property in poor neighborhoods that is kept in poor repair and allowed to deteriorate.


2. Inspect in Detail

Do not ever judge a book by its cover when it comes to renting. That quaint, retro-style kitchen may be a nightmare of rust and non-working silverware drawers. Inspect the property thoroughly, inside and out. This can be uncomfortable with the landlord in tow, but you really have no choice, and he/she should have nothing to hide.

Here’s a to-do list as you inspect:

• If included, open appliances (refrigerator, stove, dishwasher) Are they clean? Do they work well? Don’t be afraid to ask the age of the machines. Look for signs of damage (broken seals, knobs, racks, etc.) Is there an odor?
• Open cubboards and closets? Inspect for water damage, mold and mildew? Rust? Especially inspect any area that is on the opposite side of wall to a sink or bathtub. Pull back doors or shower curtains on bathtubs and examine where you'll be bathing. You’d think this is a no brainer, but how many people actually walk into a bathroom and look under the sink for evidence of past leaks?
• Inspect basements and question about water, mold or mildew. Have someone with you who understand furnances, water heaters and electrical units. Make sure everything looks fairly modern and maintained. Question an outdated water heater or electrical service – these will cost you money in high utility bills. Check and make sure the washer and dryer hookups will work with your current appliances. Look at electrical outlets - old-fashioned 2 prong electrical outlets may not be grounded or efficient. Check attics for evidence of leaks or rodent droppings.
• Check doors and windows – do they function properly? Is there water damage? Damaged screens? Are the locking devices functional and sufficient to keep you and your family safe?

Know What You Can and Cannot Deal With

I realize you are renting this apartment or house, not buying it, but it is better to know what you are up against than to find out later. Maybe you say to yourself, "I have no problem if the basement is a little wet; everything else is fine, and the location and price are right."

Someone with allergies, on the other hand, may be willing to deal with the fact that the refrigerator is ancient, but a wet basement with mold might be a deal breaker. Know what you can and cannot deal with, and use it to help make your final decision.

3. Research Utility Costs

Probably the easiest way to research utility costs is to ask the landlord what the former owner was paying for monthly utility bills. Although it's not very accurate, you may also try getting a history of costs from the utility company.

If you're really serious, you could obtain an HES score.

What Is an HES Score?

"The best way to think about energy in our homes is to think of how we measure a car's efficiency through the miles-per-gallon metric," says Liz Robinson, president of the Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance in a Foxbusiness online article.

"Right now, the closest thing we have to mpg for the home is the Home Energy Score, or HES," says Michael Estrin, article author. "Developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, the HES rates a building's efficiency against similar buildings in the same climate zone. The HES works on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the best."

The Home Energy Score (HES) is the energy rating developed by the Department of Energy. The rating on your house is comparable to the MPG rating on your car. It rates the home on a scale of 1-10, based on how efficient the home uses energy. Unlike a traditional energy audit that is based on utility bills, the Home Energy Score only uses the attributes (furnace, insulation levels, windows, etc.) of the home to calculate the home energy score.

Visit the Home Energy Scoring Tool for instructional videos and more information on the HES.

4. Read Your Lease

As I pored over the two legal-sized pages of small print given to me when I rented my last apartment, the complex secretary said, “I’ve never seen anyone read a whole lease.” I looked up, smiled, and said, “I’ve learned my lesson."

Know that lease! Know your responsibilities and know your landlord's responsibilities. Pore through your lease with a fine tooth comb, because if you don’t now, when something breaks at your apartment, you’re going to be asking, “Who is responsible for the replacement?”

Keep your lease in a safe place, and if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask your landlord. If you are having difficulty with your landlord, certainly it is your right to contact legal representation.

Make sure that you document everything.
Make sure that you document everything. | Source

5. Document Your Request

Whatever you do, document, document, document! Copy whatever request, letter, complaint you send your landlord. Avoid making phone calls about serious issues unless you follow them up in writing and make copies.

Hopefully, nothing ever occurs that you and your landlord have a showdown, but if you do, you will have documentation of everything you have asked of him/her and how well he/she has met these requests.

In Conclusion

Renting an apartment or a house is serious business. This will be your home! Follow these five steps can help assure you that you have done everything possible to provide a safe, healthy and happy home for yourself and/or your family.


Estrin, M. (2012, July 12). Estimate Cost of Utilities on Your Next Home | Fox Business. Fox Business | Business News & Stock Quotes - Saving & Investing. Retrieved July 25, 2013, from http://www.foxbusiness.com/personal-finance/2012/07/12/estimate-cost-utilities-on-your-next-home/#ixzz2ZtnzAuh3

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


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    • carlajbehr profile imageAUTHOR

      Carla J Swick 

      6 years ago from NW PA

      Thanks Ms. Dora - those of us who rent know the challenges. : )

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      6 years ago from The Caribbean

      Great article. Been a renter for a number of years. You offer good advice, especially number 5. Voted Up!

    • carlajbehr profile imageAUTHOR

      Carla J Swick 

      6 years ago from NW PA

      Thanks Teaches - I'm glad my experience can help others.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      We plan to sell our current home within the next year and we are considering renting instead of buying a new home. This article will help much. Thank you.

    • carlajbehr profile imageAUTHOR

      Carla J Swick 

      6 years ago from NW PA

      Many thanks, ladies! Much appreciated!

    • KT Banks profile image

      KT Banks 

      6 years ago from Texas

      I was in Property Management for over 20 years. You make a lot of good points here. Voted up and more!

    • Sue Bailey profile image

      Susan Bailey 

      6 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

      Very useful hub Carla. Voted up and shared.


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