What to Consider Before Renting a New Apartment or Townhouse

Updated on March 19, 2018
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Alexis is a special education teacher and a Jacklyn of all trades. She enjoys traveling, writing, and playing the violin.

Apartment complexes come in all sizes, like this beach spot in Maryland.
Apartment complexes come in all sizes, like this beach spot in Maryland.

Two years ago I leased an apartment that I planned to stay in for the next 2-3 years. I kept that promise until this month. Due to renovations being done to the entire complex, renewing my current lease is not an option. This leaves me with no choice but to seek out a new apartment. It has also been a while since I’ve needed to actually find a new apartment since I initially moved into this one due to references from friends.

Searching for a new apartment, townhouse, or even house to rent can be a stressful process. This becomes truer with age and as your tastes change, solidify or your family dynamics change. It also causes someone to ask more questions when renting a place as opposed to just, "Is it cheap?."

There are some things you don’t realize until you’ve lived in more than two apartments. After all, renting is very much a learning experience and acknowledgment to always trust your gut, even if the writing sounds right. Therefore this article tackles the questions you should ask yourself before signing a new lease.

Note: This list is not in order of importance.

1. Cost and Utilities Included

This is one of the three biggest questions (location, roommates, cost) someone asks themselves when searching for a place. Apartment places can vary widely and even ‘averages’ listed on websites aren’t completely accurate. The general rule of thumb is no more than 30% of your monthly gross income (including you and your SO, spouse, if applicable), however, that's impossible in some areas or even situation.

Factors that should be considered with rent include;

  • What amenities are included?
  • Is water, trash, electric or internet included or separate?
  • Are you spending more on gas commuting from a lower cost apartment?
  • Are you saving money by opting for an unsafe neighborhood?
  • What stores or restaurants can you walk to, which will save you travel/gas money?
  • Does the size and cost match up?

If you’re having to pay for all utilities (including internet), you may find that you’re really paying more. Be sure to play with numbers to determine if the $800/month apartment with no utilities included is really better than the $1000/month apartment with all utilities included.

Apartments are expensive and sometimes the numbers don’t add up, especially if its just you and you live in an expensive area (speaking from experience here!)

2. Roommates

One way a lot of people save money on a place (or afford it) is by having roommates. Roommates are an entire topic themselves. However, if you're single, having a roommate might be a feasible way to save some more money. There is a different dynamic of living when you have roommates and for some, it's non-negotiable. This one entirely depends on what you (or your family, if applicable) and your finances dictate.

Sometimes its financially not possible to not have roommates, which is something I often see in the city I live (being one of the most expensive areas to live in the United States). Then again, there’s something to be said about paying an extra $100 a month to not have roommates.

As an added thought on roommates, you should consider if you want extra bedrooms in your apartments. By having an extra bedroom, you can rent out the extra room or offer it to a friend staying the night. It can be a money maker, but some leases don't allow you to rent a room out to someone in the middle of a lease.

Location can be key!
Location can be key!

3. Location, location, location

One of the most important aspects of selecting a new apartment or townhouse to rent is the location. It can become more complicated in cities, especially if there is more than one adult and each has a job in a different part of the city. Living further away can cause wear and tear on your car, but living closer to work can make your monthly rent go up.

Also, consider:

  • Closeness to public transportation
  • Availability of services nearby (mechanic, hospital, police station etc.)
  • Availability of stores (food, clothing etc.)
  • Distance from work
  • Distance to family and friends
  • Distance to school, college or other educational centers
  • Closeness to resources important to the tenant (volunteer work, game shops etc.)

When selecting a place, it’s important to take all things into account. Speaking from experience, I have lived in places where I saved money by having a longer commute, but remained close to important amenities and/or friends. I soon found that long commutes to work hindered other things and that the money saved wasn’t worthwhile. It’s up to you which factors are non-negotiable or which aspect is most important.

4. Apartment Features and Amenities

Apartments can range in features from furnished and unfurnished, hardwood floors or carpets, optional dens, sunrooms, balconies and more. Naturally, if an apartment has less, it’s going to cost on the lower end of the rent scale, with the reverse being true in luxury apartments with more features. That being said, there are often more than a few options tenants can have when looking at different apartments or even within the same complex. My previous apartment complex offered six different apartment styles to choose from, with the main difference being that there is the option for a carpeted or hardwood floor apartment.

Other apartment features can also include having a balcony, storage area, washer and dryer, den or fireplace. While features may not be as important as other aspects in an apartment, they’re still worth considering. Just remember that nicer features often come with a higher price tag!

If you are renting at an apartment complex, many entice renters with amenities such as gyms, swimming pools, and even cafes. These are nice features, but should not serve as a deciding point when choosing an apartment. They should simply be seen as ‘extra add-ins’ for the price you’re paying.

5. Lease Length and Procedures to Break Your Lease (If Needed)

The standard apartment lease is 12 months or one year. However, it’s not uncommon to find a month to month or short term lease apartments, especially in cities known for transitioning students and professionals. Even still, some places will offer 24-month leases at a discounted price per month. A longer lease will usually give future tenants a cheaper price, after all, you’re guaranteeing your landlord(s) more money at a set amount of time. Vice versa, selecting a short-term lease means you’ll be most likely paying more per month.

Depends on what you’re looking for is what you want to consider. I have done both a month to month and a yearly lease before. Both have their own pros and cons and each had their own method of ending the lease agreement. Each state also has its own laws regarding leases and you should always be informed of what current laws exist.

Speaking of a lease agreement, you should always look at what’s required to break a lease. Things happen, such as layoffs or unexpected moves. A lease should always have a procedure for the tenant to get out. It’ll be costly to break, but less costly than trying to pay monthly rent when you’re in the process of moving away or have been laid off. Often the cost is one of the following;

  • One month's rent (and you may or may not get your deposit back)
  • Paying until a new tenant is found

Practice good guidelines when you rent otherwise you might find yourself staying in a hotel.
Practice good guidelines when you rent otherwise you might find yourself staying in a hotel.

6. Deposits and Fees

This can be a big one and a deal breaker, depending on your situation. Deposits are usually the same amount as a months worth of rent (i.e. an $800 apartment requiring an $800 deposit). In more expensive apartments or townhouses, the deposit is usually less. The money is a guarantee that you won’t cause damage to the apartment. If damages occur, then it comes out of your deposit, with the remaining amount being refunded to you.

Some apartment complexes will also charge an application fee. This is used to check your credit history, do a background check and some places do it just to safeguard them (or get more money out of you, let's be honest). I have also seen landlords charge ‘amenity fees’ for tenants to use the swimming pool, cafe or gym, regardless of whether a tenant utilizes said amenities.

If you take care of things and have a good landlord, you’ll get all of the money back when you leave. Again, it’s important to check your lease and be aware of what is and isn’t allowed.

7. Pets

If you have pets, you certainly want to find out if you’re allowed to bring a pet into a potential apartment. This one will vary widely as different landlords have different policies, but most landlords are pretty upfront about their pet policies. Some places will limit the breed of dog you have because a larger dog may have difficulty living in a smaller apartment.

If you have pets and your landlord allows tenants to have them, they are likely going to charge a fee for your pet. Apartments that I have seen that allow pets require a pet deposit fee (ranging from $50-250) and sometimes a monthly ‘pet rent fee’ that is as high as $100. My current complex charges $150 initially for a pet deposit with an additional $50/cats and $100/dogs fee, with a limit of two pets.

8. Parking

This may seem simple, but it’s something important to consider. Some apartments or townhouses may only offer limited parking options. In some areas, the only option is street parking, hindering tenants from having guests. Other areas may have large lots with specifically marked visitor parking or a garage that only tenants can use, leaving guests to figure out parking elsewhere.

Personally, I have opted away from places that aren’t friendly for visitors to park in. Living in a large city, I have been very grateful that my complex offers a large amount of parking for visitors. This can be a double-edged sword, however, as sometimes the lot is full if I come home late during the weekend.

One important thing to consider is how visitor parking is handled. I've seen it done the following three ways in my city;

  • Guests are required to have a special pass before parking
  • Guests have strict limits or lenient limits on how long they can stay
  • Guests have to utilize street parking

9. Safety

Always, and I mean always, check crime maps or ask around to see what kind of area your potential new apartment is in. While this isn't a guarantee, it is probably the best safeguard you can use. Never feel bad to inquire with a landlord about safety measures in place, such as deadbolts, security systems, automatic lights etc. Also, always make sure you have a good renters insurance plan in place!

I say these things because I had someone attempt to break into my townhouse, twice. The city I lived in after graduating college had some nice outlying areas, including one that was close to the school I worked at. I got a townhouse for a dirt cheap price AND got a fantastic landlord (I still judge all landlords by her!) However, after two years of living there, I got a message from her on Christmas Eve stating there had been an attempted break-in. When I called her, I learned that the townhouse next to me had electronics stolen, but they weren't able to get into my apartment because I had locked the back door with a deadbolt. A month later, they tried breaking in again, but once again were unsuccessful. That same month, there was a domestic dispute down the road that involved gunshots. I got a job less than a month later and moved out.

The moral of the story, always make sure security guards are in place AND research where you live yearly. New tenants can change the atmosphere of a place, even if that's something you can't control. What you can do, is safeguard yourself and make sure your landlord ensures your area is safe.

It also doesn't hurt to walk around an apartment complex during 2-3 different times of the day to see what it's like. If you feel comfortable walking around, you're golden. If you feel nervous, your gut might be trying to tell you something.

It never hurts to walk around an area you want to rent in to determine safety.
It never hurts to walk around an area you want to rent in to determine safety.

Closing

Finding the right apartment can be hard and often takes time. Sometimes changes have to happen quickly, leaving little time to consider some aspects. Due to the fact many apartment leases last a year, it's still important to consider the above aspects when selecting an apartment. If you ever have a gut feeling about an apartment, listen to it, you may safely avoid a toxic landlord or a bad environment.

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    © 2018 Alexis

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