One of the first steps to living on your own is finding an apartment. Like most things, being well prepared will make the transition smooth and your apartment search more likely to succeed.
I’ve been renting ever since I went to college—more than 10 years now. I’ve rented in two different states, and with every configuration of living situation (alone, with roommates, and with my partner). Over the years, I’ve had a ton of interaction with landlords, lease agreements, and state renter’s rights. I’m going to be putting the combined experience into this guide to give you the best chance of rental success.
SET A BUDGET
If you’re renting an apartment and you are on your own, start by determining how much rent you’ll be able to afford. Take an hour or two to understand your potential expenses and how far you can stretch your income.
If you do some digging on other financial blogs, the consensus on how much you should spend on rent is around 30% of your gross income (before tax).
Another metric is the 50-20-30 rule. It’s a way to divide up your income to create a sustainable budget. If you are following this rule, you should be putting 50% of your income towards needs (rent, utilities, and groceries), 20% towards your savings and 30% towards wants (shopping, hobbies, and travel).
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As of the 2019 US Census, the median monthly cost of an apartment in Vermont is $980. The overall average rent for an apartment in Vermont is $1,007. That should give you an idea of where to start before factoring in estimated utility costs. To help you budget for your rent, there are also some helpful calculators online, such as this one on the real estate website Zillow.
UNDERSTAND YOUR RIGHTS AS A RENTER
Renting an apartment is a two-way relationship, and is more likely to succeed when both the tenant and landlord know their respective rights and responsibilities. This will both help protect you from wrongdoing on the side of the landlord and know what is expected of you as a tenant.
If this is the first time you’re renting, navigating a legal agreement with a landlord can seem daunting. The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) offers virtual classes on a number of topics to help first-time renters. These range from finding housing and getting ready to rent to basic legal skills for navigating a lease.
If you have never rented an apartment before or are unfamiliar with reading legal documents, understanding a lease can be difficult. If you are signing a lease with an individual landlord, ask them to talk through the lease with you. Leases held by larger property management companies (LLCs) with multiple holdings can be more complicated and harder to parse through, so be sure to ask plenty of questions.
That said, most lease agreements will include the following items:
- How much you’ll pay in monthly rent
- When your rent payment is due
- How much the security deposit is
- How long the term of the lease is (usually 12 months)
- What the address and apartment number is (if it’s an apartment building)
- Who manages the rental property, including their address and phone number
It will also include penalties and fees:
- Late payment—It should specify when your rent is due, what grace periods there are (if any) and what the penalties are for making a payment late.
- Early termination—It should include information on what will happen if you “break the lease,” or try to move out of the apartment earlier then the lease’s end date
- Subletting rules—It should also state whether you’re permitted to rent your apartment to someone else while you are away. (Many landlords don’t allow this.)
Some contracts may specify how far in advance you need to notify the owner regarding lease renewal. Some will default to a month-to-month agreement after the initial term runs out. Other times, the lease may include an automatic renewal clause, which starts a new lease agreement unless you give notice by a specific date.
You’ll want to understand this prior to signing a lease because it helps you act in a timely fashion and hopefully encounter fewer problems.
KNOW YOUR UPFRONT COSTS
Before you move into your new apartment, there are several expenses and fees you will need to pay. The rules for every lease can be different, but you can expect to pay a security deposit, first month’s rent, and your last month’s rent upfront when you sign the lease. While the first and last month’s rent go toward your time living in the apartment, you can get your security deposit (usually equal to one month’s rent) back if you keep the apartment in good condition.
A landlord requires a security deposit to pay for damages if a tenant causes excessive damage outside of general wear and tear. If you were to break a section of your kitchen countertop, the landlord will need to repair it when you move out. The landlord would then deduct the cost from your security deposit, rather than charging you a separate fee.
To give yourself the best chance of getting your security deposit back, do your best to keep the apartment in good shape. Knowing the rules of your lease and following these steps can help you avoid losing your security deposit. Read your lease and your landlord’s repair and cleaning policies.
- Before you sign anything, clarify any questions you have about the lease with the landlord.
- Document and photograph the apartment’s condition when you move in and share it with your landlord.
- Call your building’s maintenance person when problems arise (i.e. water damage from plumbing issues).
- Document and photograph any damage that happens while you’re living in the apartment. This way you can protect yourself against any fraudulent damage claims or additional damages once you move out of the apartment.
- Keep any receipts from maintenance or repairs that you’ve done yourself.
DO YOU NEED RENTER’S INSURANCE?
If you’ve had good luck with your previous rentals or never rented at all, renter’s insurance can seem like an unnecessary monthly expense.
Well, it’s not. While most apartment complexes and owners will have their own insurance, it only serves to protect the actual building that you’re living in. That means if there’s a fire or damage, their policy will not cover your personal belongings, leaving you responsible for any replacements or repairs. Some apartment complexes make having renter’s insurance a requirement as part of your lease agreement.
When shopping for renter’s insurance, there are two different kinds of policies you’ll see:
- Renter’s Insurance Policy—This protects your belongings if you ever have a fire, something is stolen, or face any other kind of damage. This is the basic policy that will cover you in most cases if something happens to your property.
- Liability Coverage—This protects you against any possible damage to your apartment or to anyone in your apartment caused by negligence on your part. This would include overfilling your bathtub until it floods your unit, or if someone tries to take you to court if they are injured in your apartment.
Luckily, looking for insurance is relatively easy. Most insurance companies that cover auto and residential insurance also have renter policies. You can even save some money by getting renter’s insurance with an agency that is already covering your car.
APPLY FOR AN APARTMENT
Applying for an apartment can take a long time, but you can speed up the process by knowing what to expect and getting ready ahead of time. A landlord will typically ask for copies of various documents (listed below!) when considering your application.
Filling out a rental application is the first step for the landlord or management company to decide if you’ll be a good tenant for their building. You may need to pay a non-refundable application fee of around $50 that covers a background and credit check.
Every landlord has their own unique form. A single landlord renting a converted home may have a more “common-sense” lease, while a property management company will have a lease written by a legal team that may be harder to decipher. Be sure to check with the management company or landlord to see if you need to include any additional documents or forms with your application.
However, the documents that you’re generally expected to have are:
- Photo ID (driver’s license or passport)
- Copy of last pay stub
- Copy of last W-2 form
- Copy of Social Security Card
- Contact information
- Recommendation from a previous landlord and their address
- Information about your current employer
- Personal and professional references
- Vehicle information
- Pet information (if any)
Processing an application usually takes 24 to 72 hours. It is a good idea to ask how long you should expect to wait for a reply, though, because it can vary depending on the landlord’s situation. If the unit was recently renovated and has been sitting empty for a while, the landlord might want to rent it more quickly (perhaps even the same day). Other times, the landlord may be choosy about finding a tenant, which can be a lengthier process.
It might look like a ton of effort to do all of the necessary homework to apply for an apartment, but doing this work upfront can prevent headaches down the line. Understanding the application process, knowing your state’s renting guidelines, and planning ahead will give you an advantage over other potential applicants and help you negotiate with your future landlord to land your new apartment.
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