The College Grad’s Guide to Apartment Hunting
If you spent your college years in a dorm, claiming a space of your own without RAs, quiet hours, and communal bathrooms is pretty enticing. Even if you’ve lived in an apartment while in college, finding it was likely mostly done by word of mouth. Students tend to live in concentrated areas near campus, and in less-than-desireable apartments. However, once you graduate, apartment hunting becomes a whole new ballgame.
Finding your first apartment after college can feel like one of the largest leaps into adulthood. I, for one, would have greatly benefitted from a brief college tutorial on broker’s fees, renters’ rights and how to find a legitimate place without the fear of being scammed.
The rental market moves quickly; even the most experienced renters feel rushed and flustered at times. But don’t fret – at the end of the day, you are the consumer. With a little knowledge and preparation, you can head into your first apartment hunt with confidence and control.
Before you fall down the apartment search rabbit hole, prep yourself by learning the rental lingo, taking a look at your finances and learning how to market yourself as a trustworthy tenant.
Renting Basics: Getting Started
You’re likely to spot a few unfamiliar phrases and requirements in rental posts. Let’s breakdown the absolute basics:
- Advertised rent is due monthly, typically on the first of each month.
- Rent will often include some or all utilities, depending on your city and the lease agreement.
- Apartments listings range in size from studios to multiple bedrooms. A studio means that your sleeping and living/dining space is all in one room.
- To rent an apartment, you will typically visit the space, fill out an application, and if approved, sign a lease for a set period of months.
The rental posting may also list details about:
Brokers and Broker Fees: A broker or agent helps facilitate the relationship between you and the landlord. If you can afford this expense, a broker can quell any nervousness you have about handing over half your bank account to a guy you’ve known for two days. Depending on your city, a broker fee often runs you between 8% and 15% of the annual rent.
Can you find an apartment without a broker? Absolutely. But depending on your region, you sometimes have access to additional apartments in your area by using a broker.
Guarantor: If you have limited or poor credit, a lower income or a short rental history, a landlord may require you to provide a guarantor on your lease. This person is responsible for your rent if you are unable to make payments. Your guarantor must be able to prove strong credit and consistent income to act in this role. This is a common fix for affording your first apartment if you’re still getting on your feet.
Security Deposit: Landlords require that you submit a deposit to protect them from damage, missed payments or eviction costs should there be any issues during your stay. Depending on your state laws, security deposits often range from one to two month’s rent. Some states require or recommend landlords to place your deposit in an interest-bearing account during your stay.
At the end of your lease, the landlord must return the amount within a set amount of time unless there are damages to the apartment that exceed typical wear and tear described in the lease terms.
Regulations on fees, lease signing requirements and deposits vary depending on city and state, so be sure to check out your local government’s housing laws for details. A rental lease, after all, is a business agreement. Both you and the landlord have rights and protection against scams.
Starting Your Search
Depending on your city, you may have to wait until the final weeks before your move to find an opening. In many places, the current tenants are only required to give 30 days’ notice of their departure. No need to worry — as long as you walk in the door prepared, you can find the perfect apartment in no time. Even with the quick turnaround, begin your search several months in advance just to get a sense of what’s out there and to find the best neighborhood for you.
Top rental websites include:
You can also reach out to a local real estate agency directly. Many brokers will send you apartments within your search parameters and guide you through the process.
The Hunt for a Roommate
There’s a solid chance you’ll be living with a few friends — or soon-to-be friends — in your first apartment out of college. For every roommate horror story out there, there are just as many stories about finding that lifelong Craigslist friend. Either way, roommates can be the financial key to opening up a larger apartment. By splitting a higher rent, you can enjoy a larger common area, better facilities and even a nicer neighborhood.
There are a few ways to go about finding a roommate if you don’t have a specific plan right out of school:
- Reach out to your university: Many schools have an alumni or student affairs message board for connecting with alums in the same boat.
- Craigslist: While always proceeding with caution, the “rooms/shared” housing tab of Craigslist often includes apartments with an available empty room. This is where an existing tenant or tenants request someone new to join their lease.
- Online Communities: There are also plenty of online communities specifically for connecting with those looking for roommates like RoomieMatch or Roomster.
- Subletting: Different from leasing, subletting is typically when you take the place of an existing tenant for several months. The room may be furnished or semi-furnished with their things and ready for a quick move-in.
How Much Can I Afford?
Housing costs will most likely account for the majority of your monthly spending. It’s important to take an honest look at your finances before talking yourself into a larger place with a rent beyond your means.
Elizabeth Warren created the 50/30/20 budgeting structure, recommending that no more than 50% of your monthly take-home pay goes toward necessary costs like housing, utilities and car payments. If you go over this amount, you are more likely to get into trouble with the other two categories —lifestyle costs and savings.
Many landlords will even require that you make 40 times the monthly rent to sign for an apartment. In the early days, that number sounded absurd. I couldn’t imagine making 40 times any amount. The math is kinder than it sounds. For example, if the monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment if $1800 a month, you and your roommate may need to have a combined annual income of $72,000.
Words of Advice
It’s normal to feel hesitant about the rental experience, especially when scrolling through endless posts that are hard to decipher. As my parents always said, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Trust your gut when reading a rental post or speaking to a landlord.
On the other hand, there are amazing apartments out there, plenty of them. When you find the right landlord and space, you could lock down an amazing rental for years.
When looking for a new apartment, consider the following tips for safety and success:
- Invite a friend or family member to come along on your apartment visit — both for safety and for an extra set of eyes.
- Explore the neighborhood in the daytime and evening to ensure you feel comfortable and safe.
- Try not to feel rushed. When you visit a potential apartment, many brokers and landlords will look for an answer right off the bat. Whenever possible, ask for a night to sleep on your decision.
- During your walkthrough, run the faucets to check water pressure and check light switches for electrical issues.
- Keep an eye out for general disrepair, leaks, or bug traps. If the landlord promises repairs before you move in, request dates and details in the lease.
- Clarify what comes with the apartment (parking, utilities, cable, etc.)
- Ask if the apartment will be painted and cleaned before your move.
- Clarify move-in details, including availability date, how much money is due at signing, and included utilities.
Never hand over any money without something formal in writing. Even if you’re nervous about losing the apartment, it’s better to protect your information and cash than rush into an unsafe situation. If they are a good landlord and broker, they will respect your diligence and professionalism.
Even with all these words of caution, finding a new apartment is an exciting adventure. Make a wishlist for your first space and prioritize which features are deal-breakers. Even if you don’t check every box on your list, your first space will always hold a special place in your journey.
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