Get in the door (of your first apartment)

Up until college graduation, you probably had little say in where you lived. For most of your life, you stayed with your parents. When you left for college, the school may have offered you a limited selection of dorm rooms.

Now that you are on your own, where you live is up to you, which is both scary and exciting.

Finding your first apartment can be challenging. Here are six steps to make the process go as smoothly as possible.

Step 1: Figure out how much you can afford. This will determine everything. You may want to live downtown in a brand-new building with fabulous amenities, but that might not be realistic on your entry-level salary. An older building in the suburbs might be more within your budget.

The standard rule is to spend no more than 30 percent of your gross monthly income on housing. But if you are in an expensive city such as Washington, expect to spend more than that. Keep in mind rent is not the only cost you will have. Utilities may or may not be included. And paper towels and toilet paper don’t magically appear when you need them.

You will also need to pay an application fee (usually to cover a credit report), a security deposit (possibly first and last month’s rent) and moving costs (boxes, supplies, movers). Before you splurge on a smart TV, be sure you have enough money for lamps, rugs, dishes, silverware and towels. And don’t buy that overstuffed sofa until you have measured to make sure it fits. Parking could cost you, too. Don’t forget renters insurance.

After adding up the numbers, you may come to the realization that you can’t afford your own apartment. To cut costs, consider roommates or a group house. In either case, before entering cohabitation, decide how you will split expenses and divide cleaning tasks. It’s also good to find out whether your roommates are morning people or night owls, whether they have dietary restrictions and what their pet peeves are early in the process.

Be careful who you live with, warns Janet Portman, a lawyer, co-author of the book “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide” and executive editor of Nolo.com, a legal-information website. Each of you is responsible for paying the rent, and each of you is liable for the other’s actions. “Choose your roommates very carefully because you and the roommate will have equal rights to live in the place, and if things go sour, you can’t simply kick them out,” she said.

Landlords will want to verify that you can pay your rent. Be prepared to provide your financial records. Cindy Clare, president of Kettler Management, a property management company based in McLean, Virginia, and chair of the National Apartment Association, recommends bringing a form of identification and proof of income. (Pay stubs, usually.) If you haven’t started your job yet, an offer letter that lists your salary will suffice.

“Property managers want to make sure residents can pay for the rent and a security deposit as well as any fees,” Clare said. “If you don’t have established credit, then a third party, usually a parent, can serve as a guarantor and would need [to provide] information for a credit check.”

Step 2: Set your search parameters. How far are you willing to commute to work? What features and amenities are important to you? Keep in mind that you are probably going to have to compromise on a few of your requirements, but they will help focus your search. Craigslist is the starting place for many apartment hunters, but its reliability can be hit or miss. Watch out for scams. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Nancy Simmons Starrs, founder and president of Apartment Detectives, an apartment-search service covering the District of Columbia, Maryland and Northern Virginia, has seen an uptick in apartment-rental scams. When renting a privately owned property, she recommends asking for the landlord’s name and searching the public tax record to make sure the names match. Before sending money or personal information, confirm that the property is available for rent and does exist by viewing it in person or by having someone you trust see it.

“Taking these extra steps will be well worth the effort to be sure all is well,” Simmons Starrs said. “You want to be certain everything is in order before moving forward on an application and submitting security deposits to ensure you will have a legitimate lease and keys in hand on moving day.”

Other apartment services to try include Apartment Guide, Apartments.com, Apartment List, ForRent.com, Hotpads, Lovely, PadMapper, Rent.com and Zumper.

Real estate agents can be helpful if you are struggling to find a place or new to a city. Another option is to walk around the neighborhood where you want to live. Go into buildings and ask about their availability. As a bonus, you’ll discover how close the nearest grocery store, dry cleaners and coffee shop are.

Step 3: Know what questions to ask. When you meet the landlord or building manager, you should try to find out:

—What is the turnover rate in the building? How long has the apartment been empty? How long did the last tenant stay? If it has been empty for months or the last tenant lasted less than a year, that’s a red flag.

– Are utilities included? Is heating/cooling individually controlled?

– How long is the lease?

– How much is the rent and when is it due each month?

– How much is the security deposit?

– What is the typical rent increase? How often are rents increased?

– Under what conditions is breaking a lease acceptable? Can you sublease?

– What are the fees/penalties for late payment and returned checks?

– Is there an on-site maintenance person? How quickly do they respond to maintenance requests?

– Is the landlord required to give notice before entering your apartment? If so, how much notice is given?

– Where’s the laundry and how much does it cost?

– What internet providers are in the building?

– Are pets allowed?

– Can I paint the apartment?

– Does the building offer incentives? In a competitive market, you might be able to get a free month’s rent or a break on a move-in fee.

After you are done questioning the landlord or building manager, find a resident or two. Ask them what they think about living there.

It’s also worth familiarizing yourself with landlord/tenant laws and regulations in your area. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a page linking to tenant rights by state. Nolo.com and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide” feature state-by-state rent rules. “Landlord-tenant law in the United States over the last 20 years has become extremely specific,” Portman said.

Step 4: You’ve found a place. Now what? Read the lease. Then read it again, thoroughly. Ask questions about anything that’s not clear. “When you are signing a lease, you are obligating yourself. It’s a contract to rent the place, typically for 12 months,” Portman said. “That means you can’t break the lease unless you have a legally justifiable reason to do so.”

Read the rules. Does the building allow you to move in only during certain days or hours? How are furniture deliveries handled? Do you have to reserve the freight elevator?

Step 5: Document the apartment’s condition on move-in day. Before you bring a box in the door, inspect everything and take pictures of any damage. Bring it to the attention of the landlord or building manager immediately to avoid losing your security deposit when you move out.

Step 6: Be a good tenant. Living in a community involves sharing space with other people. Don’t blast your music. Open the windows when you cook your grandma’s onion and curry dish. Keep your apartment clean and sanitary. Develop a good relationship with the landlord or building manager. If you have a problem with a neighbor, try to address it yourself.

And remember: If your place isn’t a good fit, you can always try again once the lease is up.


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