When looking for an apartment figure out how much you can afford.  Look at your monthly income. Experts recommend only spending between 25%-35% of your after-tax income on rent and housing. So, let’s say your pay after taxes is $1,500 a month. Ideally, you shouldn’t pay more than $525 a month on rent. You also need to consider that you may be responsible for some of the utility costs of your rental. So, you’ll need to figure in another $100+ to cover those costs. Keep in mind that some apartments have income requirements that will put you out of the running altogether. If you can’t find a place within your budget, consider getting a roommate. Create criteria for your ideal apartment.  What are you looking for in an apartment? Do you want a studio or a single bedroom? Maybe you want to rent a small house? Do you need the apartment to come with appliances, including washer and dryer? Do want it to be close to school or your work? Do want it to be within walking distance of retail, like groceries or coffee shops? Are you willing to live in a neighborhood known for its crime levels?

Write down whatever comes to your mind. While you might not be able to get everything on your apartment wish list, it will help in narrowing down the possibilities. With your list of criteria in hand, hop online and start searching for apartments. Google brings up a map that pinpoints apartments or homes for rent in your city. That map makes narrowing down potentials easy because you can see if the apartments are close to work or school, near grocery stores, or are in safe areas of town. Once you narrow apartments down by location, check to see if they have the things you’re looking for in a rental, i.e. appliances, number of bedrooms, etc. Most big apartment complexes have a web page where you can look at floor plans, the amenities they offer, and the cost of rent.  Smaller units might only have a phone number. Give those apartments a call and ask about their vacant units and cost. Don’t just limit your search to Google. Make sure to hop on Craigslist to find homes or apartments that might be for rent by individual owners as opposed to bigger companies.

When you visit a potential apartment, the landlord or apartment manager will be evaluating you just like you’re evaluating them. They want to make sure the people they rent to are reliable, courteous, and easy to get along with. Your first impression starts with the phone call to set up the appointment. Be polite and speak clearly. When you go visit the apartment, dress for the occasion. While you don’t have to wear a shirt and tie, you shouldn’t come rolling in to your appointment wearing sweatpants and a crummy t-shirt. Nice jeans and a polo will work well. Be on time! If you show up late to your appointment, the manager or landlord could take that as a sign you may be late in paying rent. When you meet the manager or landlord, offer a firm handshake, a warm smile, and thank them for meeting with you. As you look at the rental unit, keep your comments positive and your possible complaints close to your vest. No need to spout off a list of upgrades and requests before you’re even offered the place. That will just scare landlords away from you. Wait to bring up your concerns until after you’ve been accepted as a renter. As you walk through the apartment, check the following things, but again, don’t broadcast your concerns right away:

Look for signs of mold, mildew, and insect infestation.

Open and close all the doors and windows, and check that the locks function properly. Flush the toilet and run the water in the sinks and showers. Pay attention to water pressure and temperature. Look for obvious damage like broken fixtures, holes in walls, broken tile, etc. Check for wear and tear in the carpet. Ask question! While you should keep small concerns to yourself about the unit while looking at it, feel free to ask the landlord or apartment manager any questions you might have that will help in your decision. Here are some possible questions you may consider asking: What’s the monthly rent? Are any utilities included with the rent? How much is the security deposit? When is rent due? Do you have auto-pay? What’s the make-up of the other tenants? Are they mainly younger students? Married couples with families? Older folks?

Have you had any break-ins in the past year? Are car break-ins a problem?

What’s the parking situation like? Do you pay for a parking spot?

Do you take care of small maintenance issues or am I responsible for some of the repairs in the apartment? Am I able to re-paint the walls or make other modifications?

Again, be friendly and polite when you ask these questions. No need to be combative.

Ask current tenants about their experience. Online apartment reviews are worthless in my experience. It seems the only people who leave reviews are folks who had a terrible experience with the landlord or apartment manager. And when you read the reviews, you often get the sense that this person is a little unhinged and probably had a hand in creating the problem they’re griping about in the first place.

To get a better idea of what it’s like to rent at a complex, it’s best to ask current tenants. When you’re visiting, and don’t have a person from their office by your side, ask any tenants you may run into about their experience living there. Is the landlord easy to work with? Are they responsive to repair requests? Do they feel safe living here? Are the neighbors quiet and friendly?

When you find a place you like, you’ll likely have to fill out a rental application. Landlords and apartment managers use the application to screen potential renters. The application will ask about your employment and monthly income as well as your rental history. You’ll also be asked to sign a consent form giving permission to the landlord to run a background and credit check. Be completely truthful when filling out the application! Any fibs on it will likely be discovered during the background check, resulting in your application ending up in the trashcan.

And to be clear: submitting a rental obligation in no way obligates you to anything. If the manager approves it, you’ll then be asked to come into the apartment office to sign a lease.

Check your credit history before submitting a rental application. Landlords are allowed by law to check the credit histories of potential renters to screen for people who are or aren’t likely to pay rent on time. If they see that you’ve had trouble paying bills on time, that’s a red flag that they shouldn’t rent to you. It’s good to check your credit history before applying so you can correct any mistakes that may adversely affect you in the rental process.

Be ready to pay a rental application fee.  Landlords can charge you an application fee to cover the cost of the credit check. The fee should be in the $20-$30 range; anything more, and you’re probably getting ripped off. If you’re submitting multiple rental applications, the credit check fees can quickly start adding up. To curtail those costs, you might consider getting your credit report yourself and making copies of it to give to landlords. Some may insist on requesting the report themselves, out of worry that you may have doctored the copy to make it look better than it is. But you may be able to persuade a few to accept your copy, thus saving you some money. It doesn’t hurt to try.

Have a list of references ready. You’ll be asked to provide a list of personal and professional references. Have those ready and make sure to tell your references they should expect a call from a landlord.

After your rental application has been approved, the landlord will ask you to come to the office and sign a lease. This is where you can bring up any concerns you had about the rental unit, as well as negotiate for better terms or perks. You need to be on your game during this time, because once you sign your name on that dotted line, you’re pretty much stuck with the terms written in the lease.

Have enough money in your checking account to cover the security deposit and first month’s rent. When you sign your lease, the landlord will usually ask that you pay a security deposit as well as the first month’s rent. Make sure you have enough money in available (they may only take cash, money order, or debit card) to cover both amounts. The security deposit will be stored in a savings account during the term of your lease. If you terminate the lease early or leave the apartment in disrepair, the landlord will use the security deposit to cover those costs. If you leave the apartment in the same condition as you got it, you can get your security deposit back. More on that later.

Difference between a lease and a rental agreement. Leases and rental agreements are pretty much the same thing except for one thing: time. Rental agreements typically go from month-to-month, while leases last for a longer period, usually a year. Landlords are free to raise the rent at the end of each month when a rental agreement expires; leases lock in the rate of rent for an entire year.

If you know that you’ll only be in the apartment for a brief period of time, ask for a rental agreement; if you plan on staying in your place for at least a year, get a lease.

Read the lease or rental agreement before signing!  Don’t sign anything until you’ve read through the lease line-by-line. You want to know exactly what you’re getting into when you agree to rent from a landlord. Make note of anything you find disagreeable, and ask questions about what you don’t understand

Before you take possession of the apartment, the landlord should give you a Landlord-Tenant Checklist that lists all the rooms, fixtures, and appliances in the apartment. Inspect the apartment and make note of the condition of the assorted items on the list. If you notice any damage, make sure to photograph it, and point it out to the landlord or manager. Be as thorough as possible during this inspection. This will protect you from forfeiting your security deposit for damage that already existed before you took possession.

In addition to the provisions in the lease agreement, many states have statutes on the books listing the responsibilities of the renter.

Keep the premise clean, safe, and in good repair. This is the most common responsibility you’ll see listed in statutes. Basically, you’re required by law to take care of the apartment while you’re a tenant there. Not too hard.

Reimburse the landlord for any damages you may cause. If you don’t keep the apartment clean, safe, and in good repair, you have the responsibility of reimbursing the landlord to make the apartment clean, safe, and in good repair again.

So your lease is up and you’re ready to move on to greener pastures. How do you get that $500 security deposit back? In my experience, most landlords will try to do anything to ensure that they don’t pay back your deposit.

First, clean your apartment as well as you can, including carpet cleaning, if possible (landlords will often clip you on this). Second, get your Tenant-Landlord Checklist that you filled out when you first moved in and run an inspection again with your landlord. You can’t be charged for ordinary wear and tear that comes with living in an apartment, but you can be for damage and excessive filth.

If they try to charge you to replace something when a repair would be sufficient, object. Also, if you paid a cleaning a fee before moving in, your landlord can’t deduct your security deposit for any cleaning. If the landlord does have to deduct from your security deposit to replace and clean your apartment, you’re entitled to an itemized statement that explains the purpose of each deduction. If you think any of the amounts are excessive and unwarranted, push back and make your case. If your landlord won’t change his mind, unfortunately your only recourse is to take him to small claims court. Make sure you have everything well documented, though, should you choose to do this.