Renting your first apartment is a big deal, regardless if you’re moving off campus or out of your parents’ basement. You’re an adult and you finally get to do what you want, the newfound freedom is everything you’ve imagined – and some things you didn’t, like the responsibilities that you’ve never had to worry about before. You’re on the hook for things like rent and renters insurance, which can seem overwhelming, to say the least. This complete student renting guide will walk you through everything from finding a roommate, to reading a lease, to how to spot a rental scams. Use these downloadable templates to guide you through the questions you should ask your landlord and potential roommates.

In This Article:

Everyone dreams of finding the right place right away. Sadly, it’s rarely ever the case. When you’re shopping around, ask yourself these questions to help make the best renting decisions. 

What’s your budget?

Approximately 12 million renters and homeowners pay more than 50% of their income for their housing, though the Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests that you should aim for no more than 30%. Anything above 30% is considered financially burdened and could even pose issues for paying rent or affording everyday necessities. Those who live along the coasts in urban areas are most likely to live with these burdens. 

When you’re looking for your first apartment, you need to be realistic about what your budget is. Think about how much you make in a month and what your other obligations are; this will influence your renting options. Try to stay within the 30% rule to ensure you aren’t scraping for pennies when the first of the month rolls around. 

What additional costs are expected?

You’ll find that renting an apartment is a lot of money upfront. Things like a rental application, security deposit, renters insurance, and pet rent are required before you even move in. Some landlords may even require that you put down your security deposit, first, and last month’s rent all at one time. Renting a storage unit, moving truck, or professional movers are additional costs you should anticipate. Always make sure you have accounted for these extra costs before you sign a lease.

Will you need a co-signer?

For renters who are either in or just out of college, you may not have much of a credit score to speak of. Even if you have one and it’s not great, that’s okay, it just adds another step to your application process. If you have good credit, you’re not out of the woods yet; some apartments require that the net income of the total residents be three to five times the monthly rent, for liability purposes. This may complicate moving before you have a job or offer letter, or moving in while you have a job but your roommate doesn’t yet. Whatever the factors, to ensure you are able to pay your rent on time, your rental company may require that you use a co-signer. Though they do not live in the apartment with you, co-signers are liable for the lease. If you cannot make your payments, your co-signer is expected to pick up the slack.

Using a family member or close friend with a good credit score as your co-signer is the best option. Don’t go into this agreement lightly, it’s important to sit down and go through the stipulations of the lease to make sure all parties understand what they are being held accountable for. If you do not have someone to co-sign with you, there are co-signer services that can do the job, though they can be expensive. 

What are your transportation needs?

When you are thinking about where you should live, consider your transportation needs. It’s easy to say “I’ll make it work” and compromise on a tight bus schedule or long commute for a deal, but when life gets in the way, you need to make sure it’s practical.

Another thing to consider when looking for your first apartment is parking– for both you and your guests. Does your apartment require you to pay extra for a parking spot? Will you and your roommate be able to alternate who gets the shared parking spot?  If you don’t have a car, parking is an expense you can avoid, but if you have one, it’s something you have to decide if you’re willing to pay. You should also consider guest parking if you regularly have people over. Many apartments have strict parking regulations that may result in your guest being towed. 

How to Budget When You’re a Full-Time Student

Get a roommateDepending on what’s important to you, special amenities and selling points like pool access may be worth paying extra for. That doesn’t mean you have to go at it alone. Finding a roommate is an excellent way to cut your costs and allow you to opt for an apartment you couldn’t afford otherwise.
Cut the cordMore and more people are moving away from cable companies and choosing to depend on streaming services instead. A Reviews.com study found that Cut the cord who cut the cord did it because of the money they saved. Opting for streaming services is a way to cut out channels you don’t use and focus the money you spend on the content you care about. 
Reduce your energy useLeaving lights on when you’re not home is one of the easiest ways to waste energy. Consider installing energy-efficient lighting to combat, or smart light options that you can control remotely. 
Use a budgeting appUsing a budgeting app like Mint will help you track what you spend and bring visibility to your unnecessary spending. You can also set up alerts for balances and bills so you never accidentally miss a payment.
Take advantage of seasonalityPrices are generally at their cheapest in December and January because fewer people are moving at this time. Moving during the off-months may help you score a better monthly rate.  

Choosing the Right Roommate

Living with a roommate is not for everyone. Being in close quarters and depending on someone else to wash the dishes when it’s their turn is not something everyone is interested in, though the financial perks of living with another person cannot be ignored. Splitting the cost of utilities and rent in many cases allows you to live somewhere you may not have been able to afford on your own. 

Similar social circles

Start in your social circles when looking for a roommate. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who have similar values and interests is a way to avoid possible conflicts for the future. However, picking your closest friends is not always a sure fix either. If you find that you aren’t compatible as roommates, what happens to your friendship? An alternative is asking your friends or family members if they know of anyone looking; their recommendation can be a great starting point.

Financial responsibility

It’s easy to want to live with your closest friends, but that’s not always the best idea. Choosing a roommate that is financially responsible is one of the most efficient ways to avoid any financial issues. If it’s someone you know, think about how they handle their money. If it’s someone you don’t, contact their references and ask if they have ever had any issues paying their rent in the past. Make sure they are aware of the exact cost of rent and the approximate cost of splitting bills, that way there are no surprises and they enter into a lease with a good understanding of responsibility. 

Similar schedules

Finding someone with a similar schedule is essential. If you’re in bed by nine for an early morning class, you don’t want a night owl who’s up playing music until three. Addressing your class and work schedule is a crucial part of successfully cohabiting a space. Additionally, if you are particular about your study sessions, make sure your roommate is respectful of your expectations. Finding someone with a compatible schedule and similar studying preferences is a way to avoid these issues.  

Good communication

Deciding who to live with can be a hard decision and may even take a little while. But it’s worth the effort to find someone who is the right fit. Consistent communication is a staple in living with another person. If you are opting for a person you aren’t familiar with, start the conversation as soon as possible. You want to be comfortable with the person you choose to live with and feel like you can bring up things that bug you. 

Define your expectations

It’s never a bad idea to have multiple interviews with roommate candidates. Take the time to grab coffee or lunch so you can spend time with them. Pay attention to the details and see if you get along. It’s okay to have preferences, just make sure you are clear with all of your expectations. 

Steps to Take if Roommate Issues Arise

Refer back to the roommate agreement

We would all like to believe that living with a roommate is always a breeze. While you may gain a lifelong friend, you may instead inherit some serious problems. A roommate agreement is a legally binding contract that you and all roommates sign before moving into your apartment. Referring back to the roommate agreement can remind the roommate(s) what the original terms of living together were. Not every part of this document – like doing the dishes or sticking to the dusting schedule –is enforceable in a court of law. If your roommate fails to pay their share of the rent or refuses to pay for any damage they caused however, you could potentially take action.

Things to include in your roommate agreement:
The price breakdown for each tenant. Include how utilities will also be divided if they are not included in your rent.
Responsibility for damages to the residence
Guests and significant others
Cleaning responsibilities
Rules surrounding sharing food 
How to resolve conflict
Expectations for quiet time
Pets
Rules for smoking and drinking

Reconsider your lease

If you find that the living situation is not working, it’s time to have a conversation about it. If you decide to go your separate ways, your options are somewhat dependent on your lease. 

  • Subletting: If your roommate chooses to move out, check your lease and see if you have the option to sublet their room. If you do, make sure you talk to your landlord about the details.
  • Shortening your lease: Some landlords are more flexible than others. Some may allow you to transition to a month to month option to avoid ending your lease entirely. 
  • Breaking your lease: It’s important that you know when to leave. If the situation is unlivable or dangerous, staying to save money isn’t worth it. If subletting is not an option in your lease, you may be forced to break your lease

Rental Scams

Rental scams are designed to trick you out of money by misrepresenting the price or availability of the property. According to the Better Business Bureau, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago experience the highest levels of rental scams. If you come across a rental scam, report it to the State Consumer Protection Services and local law enforcement officials. Here are the most common rental scams to watch out for:

Rental scamRed flagWhat you should do
Copied listingsScammers sometimes copy and paste legitimate listings to create their own. Generally, the price is too good to be true and requires a deposit right away.Look over the listing carefully and check it for any typos or grammar errors. Meet with the landlord and confirm the listing price matches up with the actual price of renting. 
Renting on behalf of the ownerThis scam advertises that  the owner may be out of the country or sick and needs someone else to rent their property. The details of these listings are generally very vague.Do your research to find out who owns this property. Ask them for identification on any tours.
Asking to wire moneyOne of the clearest cases, the person renting the property will ask you to wire your security deposit, sometimes even the first month’s rent.Never wire money. Pay in cash or gift cards. A lot of reputable listings ask for money orders on initial deposits.
Signing a lease right awayAnother staple of common scams, they will ask you to sign the lease or put down a deposit without ever seeing the property or doing a background check.Do not sign anything without seeing the property and going through the background check process. Landlords want reliable tenants, they will not skip steps.

Safety tips for touring

Use the buddy system

It’s always a good idea to take someone with you when touring an apartment. Regardless of your gender, bringing a parent or roommate along is one way to avoid unexpected situations. Also establishing a signal or code if you become uncomfortable can help your buddy know when to remove you from the situation. 

Keep family updated

If you do have to go alone, make sure that you keep your family updated on your plans. Give them all the information you have: the address, the landlord’s name, contact information, and if anything changes. Downloading a location-tracking app can take care of some of the upkeep. 

Do your research

Before you go on any property tours, do some diligent research.. Not only should you know as much as you can about the property, its location and its safety rating, but you should also check out the leasing company and landlord.

Ask for identification

Confirm the person you are meeting with is the person you expect. Sometimes you will meet at the leasing office to do some paperwork, but you may also meet them directly at the property. Ask for their driver’s license and any additional agent credentials they may have to make sure they are the right person.

Opt for Renters Insurance

It falls entirely on you to protect your disasters from disasters or theft. Renters insurance is the only way to protect yourself, and most apartments won’t let you rent without it. Generally, it involves liability, personal possessions, and additional living expenses.

  • Personal possessions: Your personal belongings are protected against disasters, vandalism, and theft. Floods and earthquakes are not covered.
  • Liability: This part of renters insurance protects you against lawsuits that claim bodily harm or damage caused by you or someone in your household.
  • Additional living expenses (ALE): If your property is destroyed and you have to move, ALE covers any expenses in between. 
Common misconceptions about renters insurance
It’s too expensiveRenters insurance is one of the cheapest insurance policies out there. That said, you should still shop around to get the best deal.
You don’t need it if you don’t have muchRegardless of how much you have, insurance protects all of your belongings whether you are at home or not. If your laptop is stolen while you’re at the library, your insurance will cover it.
It only covers what’s in my homeRenters insurance covers damage caused to your neighbor’s possessions from anything that originated in your apartment, like a bathtub overflowing. Additionally, liability insurance protects against guest lawsuits of damage or medical expenses.
My landlord has insurance, so I don’t need itYour landlord is not financially responsible for what’s in your apartment, only the building that you live in. 

Sharing insurance with roommates

Some companies allow roommates to share the same renters insurance, which is particularly helpful for college students with limited funds. Though some states, like Florida, don’t allow you to share insurance unless it is your spouse. For the states that do, it doesn’t mean you should. There are some obvious benefits like splitting costs and saving money. Though there are some downsides to consider before deciding to share your insurance: Filing a claim becomes very complicated if you share your insurance with a roommate. Additionally, any past claims they have filed can impact you and raise your insurance rate.  

Insurance protects you from possible damage

Fire

It never hurts to take precautions. Unsuspecting things can cause some real damage if you aren’t aware of what can happen. For instance, you may think that your sweet-smelling candle and twinkling fairy lights are cute, but they also pose a serious fire hazard. If you choose to add these to your home, make sure you never leave them unattended. Try using string lights with an auto-turn off feature to cover all your bases.

Theft

Many people opt to save on air conditioning and open their windows instead. Forgetting to close and lock your windows gives thieves a clear entrance into your home and your belongings. 60% of residential robberies happen as a result of open windows or doors. You should take care to lock every entrance into your home when you are not there, even if you are just running out for a minute or two. 

Property damage

Having your friends over to your new apartment is a rite of passage. More than likely, especially if you live with a roommate, there will be a string of people in and out of your home. Ensure that you’re covered from any damage they may cause by insuring your residence with renters insurance.

Water damage

Ignoring a leaky faucet or forgetting to take the steps to make sure your pipes don’t freeze can potentially result in some serious water damage. If you live in an apartment you run the risk of also damaging units that border yours. Contact the property management immediately if any issues in your apartment arise, so they can fix them, but also so it’s on record.

Pests/bugs

You share a lot of things when you live in an apartment building: an elevator or stairwell, smells, walls and potential pests. Wood-destroying insects can damage the structural integrity of your home, so exterminating them is essential. Cleaning regularly and throwing away your garbage in sealed receptacles are some of the ways to avoid pests in your home. If you do find them, read your lease, contact the property management and discuss what steps to take. 

Read Your Lease Carefully

Your lease is a legally binding contract between you and your landlord. It’s vital that you read it carefully and fully before you sign it. Make sure you understand everything you are agreeing to, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about things you don’t. The lease will outline a number of things: any and all fees, rent prices, utilities, length of lease. Renters commonly overlook things like parking for guests, the details of their pet policy, the guest policy, and subleasing options. Request a copy of your lease so you always can refer back to it.

Know your rights

The rights you hold as a tenant will vary from state to state. Though landlord-tenant law does set forth a number of laws that your landlord must follow.

  • Reasonable accommodations: If you have a disability, your landlord must make reasonable accommodations for you. This would include installing ramps or putting you in a ground-level unit, major remodeling is not included. 
  • Safe living conditions: Your landlord is required to fix anything important in your apartment in a timely manner. That would include the water heater or AC unit. They are accountable for keeping the rental in livable condition, though this does not cover minor repairs and damages. 
  • Notice of entry: Landlords cannot come by unannounced, they must give at least 24 hours notice. Unless there is an emergency, like a fire or major leak.
  • Security deposit: The required security deposit to lease a property must be the same across all tenants. Additional charges can be added in the case of pets.
  • Notice of eviction: You cannot be evicted from your residence because of retaliation from your landlord. Materially violating the lease or not paying rent are the most common reasons for eviction. 

Ways to lose your deposit 

Everyone wants to get their security deposit back. If you’ve taken good care of your apartment and haven’t broken your lease in any way, you most likely will! Most states give the landlord 30 days from your move out date to get your security deposit back to you. Still, there are some ways you can lose your deposit, they include:

Property damageYour lease will state the definition of normal wear and tear. Any damage outside of that classification will result in the forfeiture of your security deposit. Depending on how severe the damage is, your deposit may not cover it and you would get a bill from management. 
Not cleaning before you leaveLandlords do not expect your apartment to be perfectly clean when you leave. Though if excessive cleaning is required or if they have to hire someone to come in, they will use your deposit to cover the costs
Leaving before your lease is upYour lease states what kind of notice is required to vacate your apartment. If you do not follow what is outlined and leave early, you forfeit the deposit. 
Leaving your belongingsNever leave anything in the apartment once you’ve moved. In some states, you aren’t “moved out” until everything you own is out of unit. If you leave something, your landlord might be able to charge you an extra month’s rent. 

Decorating Without Causing Damage

Don’t stress over your security deposit, it doesn’t mean you can’t decorate. Landlords generally include what you can and can’t do to the unit you rent. If they don’t say it directly in the lease, ask them what regulations they have when you’re touring the apartment. 

Hanging art

Many landlords are flexible on allowing you to hand things their rental properties. Even still, there are great alternatives to making holes in your walls. There are a ton of adhesive hanger options on the market. You can choose by size, color, and how much weight they can hold. When you want to hang things that aren’t framed, try Washi tape or other colorful vinyls. Use them to make patterns or hang your favorite pictures. 

Wall alterations

Why settle for plain white walls when you can dress them up with peel and stick wallpaper? Made for hanging in rentals, removable wallpaper is a fun way to transform your rental. For a functional twist, try removable chalkboards

Rugs

If you aren’t in love with the flooring in your rental, try adding rugs to liven up the room. Having rugs in your home also protects your floors. What’s not to love about that? To avoid any injury to yourself or guests, consider adding a non-slip backing to your rugs on vinyl or hardwood floors. 

Navigating the rental process for the first time is both exciting and scary. The most important way to prepare is to be well-read. Know your budget and know what to do if you’re experiencing roommate issues, and what rights you have as a tenant.

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