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Life Skills 101: Five Guidelines for Renting for Your First Apartment

Tina Pestalozzi -- Whether you're a college student looking to live off campus, or a recent graduate entering the workforce in a new city, here's how to conduct your rental search in a prepared and thoughtful manner.

The first experience most of us have with living on our own is not with home ownership, but with renting. The city you choose to live in will most likely be dictated by your job, school or family connections, but the actual address you decide to call home will most likely be chosen on the basis of what you can afford. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

Know how much you can reasonably afford and never commit to more.
Your verifiable income, that which can be proven, such as from your employer, should be at least three or four times the rent you are considering. This means you may not be able to qualify for a rental if more than 25 percent to 33 percent of your monthly income is to be used for your rent. For example, if you bring home $2,400 a month, you shouldn’t consider spending more than $800 a month for housing. Once you figure out how much you can afford, don’t be tempted to spend “just a little more.” $830 sounds pretty close to $800, but reaching for that extra $30 a month might turn into too much of a stretch.

Prepare for the search.
Before you begin actually looking at rental units, take the following steps to make sure your search goes smoothly.

-- If you have a credit history, get a copy of your credit report. This ensures you are aware of its contents and won’t be caught off guard if there’s a negative item in your report. Go to If the report contains a mistake, do what you can to correct it before your search begins.

-- It’s not uncommon for a young person to need help with their first rental experience, so you might want to consider this very carefully and line up your options. If you will not qualify for a rental unit due to lack of a credit history, for instance -– a parent or other family member may be willing to co-sign or be responsible with you. Of course, if you get a co-signer, make sure you treat the agreement responsibly and take extra pains to pay the rent on time and in full.

-- Obtain permission from two or three people to use their names and contact information as possible references if asked.

-- Gather information you will need, such as current and former employer contact information, pay sub, Social Security and drivers license numbers.

-- Decide what you are looking for. What factors are most important? How much room do you need? Do you need a place that allows pets? Are some neighborhoods more convenient for your situation than others? Having an idea of what your requirements are will help you focus your search.

What to look for.
In choosing the place that is right for you, knowing what to look out for is as important as knowing what to look for. You have to take the lead and ask the right questions.

-- Pay close attention to the neighborhood. Do you feel safe? Visiting the unit in the daytime will help you see what shape it’s in. If it becomes a real possibility, revisit it again at night. Notice the lighting in pathways, alleys, hallways and stairwells.

-- While it is common to view a similar unit or model to see if you are interested, eventually you need to look at the exact unit you would be living in. Never sign a lease for a unit sight unseen.

-- Take notes while you are searching. It’s easy to get confused after looking at several units for several days or weeks.

-- Find out what utilities are included in the rent. For instance, the water bill is often paid by the owner and not the separate tenants. Ask what the average utility bills cost to determine if your budget allows for this expense.

Make sure your questions are stated directly and to the point. It is considered misrepresentation if an owner or manager lies to you, but it is your responsibility to ask the questions that may be of importance. For example, you should ask “Has the carpet been professionally cleaned since the last tenant moved out?” instead of “Is the carpet clean?”

-- Is the asking rent in line with comparable units?

Your rental agreement.

The last big consideration is the rental agreement or lease. It’s a contract. It spells out what the obligations are for both you and your landlord. It is in your best interests to make sure you thoroughly understand every word. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or to get help -– and refuse to be rushed into signing. Signing the document is agreeing to it, so the time to request changes to the agreement is before you assume responsibility for its terms. If you accept the terms, but only if certain conditions are met by the landlord, such as the unit must be completely painted first, make sure to get the exact conditions in writing, with a date and the signature of the landlord or manager.

Trust your intuition.

This may sound too simple, but if you’ve conducted your search in a prepared and thoughtful manner, found both a rental unit and a rental agreement that work for you, what your gut reaction is to the place may be the final and most important information you need to choose your first apartment -- that’s right for you.

Tina Pestalozzi is director of Global Protocol and Etiquette Services. She presents seminars on civility and business and social etiquette to corporate, government and educational organizations. This content was adapted from the new edition of Life Skills 101: A Practical Guide to Leaving Home and Living on Your Own, which is available from your favorite bookseller, or from

© 2013 Stonewood Publications

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