Complete Guide to First-Time Apartment Hunting

So you're ready for that next big step in your life: renting your first apartment.

Congratulations. Renting your first apartment is an exhilarating experience. It makes you feel like you're one step closer to being a "real adult."

But before you rent, you must hunt. And for a first-time renter, apartment hunting can be a daunting experience.

Where do you even begin to look? And other than a place with four walls and a ceiling, what are you supposed to look for? If you're a first-time renter, you're likely a little confused about the steps you need to take to line up an awesome first place.

Here's a guide to walk you through everything you need to know about first-time apartment hunting.

Figure Out Your Must-Have Features

Here's the thing with renting your first apartment: you only get to choose one. The one you choose you're usually stuck in for at least a year.

While this may seem like obvious information, it's worth stressing. Once you sign that lease, you're pretty much locked in until the end of it.

Before you dive headfirst into your search, make a list of everything you want. Creating a list will help you prioritize your search.

You should divide your list into three categories:
-Nice to have, but could live without
-Dream features

Some factors on each list might be:
-Bedroom size
-Number of bedrooms
-Certain amenities
-Square Footage

If it's your first apartment, you likely don't have a ton of disposable income. So, having this list will also help you decide when it's okay to compromise.

Figure Out Your Budget

The next step in the apartment hunting process is figuring out how much you can afford in rent.

Now, if you're fresh out of college and you just landed your first "real" job, you're probably really excited about having an actual salary.

But you don't want to work just to pay the rent. You're going to need some money left over for other expenses as well. Plus, it's also never too early to start saving.

You should aim for a rent that's 25-35 percent of your monthly, after-tax income.

Let's say you'll be bringing in $3,600 per month. Ideally, you'll want to pay no more than $1,260 per month.

This cost should also factor in:
-Pet fees
-Building fees

Also, don't forget that when you sign a lease, you typically have to pay a security deposit. This is often equivalent to the first month's rent. You may also be required to pay the first month and the last month's rent.

If the numbers just aren't adding up, you may want to consider getting a roommate (or two). A roommate can help you significantly cut down on costs.

Figure Out If You Need a Cosigner

If you're just starting your job, have no credit history, or no rental history, you might need someone (such as a parent) to co-sign your lease.

A cosigner is basically someone who agrees to cough up the rent if for some reason you can't. Typically, the consigner's income needs to be 80 times the monthly rent. For example, if you're looking to rent a place for $1,000, your cosigner would need an income of $80,000.

Pro tip: Not all apartments require a cosigner. But it's still good to have one in tow as they'll have to fill out some documents.

Location, Location, Location

Another very important factor to consider when apartment hunting is the location.

In general, rent goes up the closer you get to the metropolitan areas. But, you may not have much choice depending on where your job is.

It's also very ideal to be within walking distance of your work. Transportation costs can quickly burn a hole in your wallet.

Likely, you'll have to settle for somewhere in between.

Start the Search Online -- Watch Out for Red Flags

Apartment hunting online is usually your best bet, especially if you're strapped for cash and for time.

Most apartment sites let you filter your search by location, rent, amenities, and apartment site. But as with anything on the internet, there's a few red flags you'll want to watch out for.

Too Good to be True

Everything on your dream-list and it's super cheap? It's probably a fake. If the landlord doesn't ask for any background materials, you're in trouble. Also, look out for someone who replies to the listing saying they are out of the country/unavailable to show you the place. Click here for more tips on identifying rental scams.

Same goes for listing responders who jump down your throat and pressure you to sign.

Pro Tip: Your landlord shouldn't just be verifying you. You should also be verifying your landlord. Go to your local assessor's office to look up the apartment's tax records and make sure the names match up.

Be Prepared to Lock it Down Quickly

Every time you visit an apartment, you should be ready to lock down a lease on the spot.

Because guess what?

Your dream apartment is likely a dozen other people's dream apartment. It's super competitive out there for young people. Everyone is looking for a safe place to live in a cheap neighborhood.

Likely, you won't be able to sign on the spot, but you will be able to fill out an application. Make sure you've got all the necessary documents with to do so. These include:
-Valid photo ID
-Social Security Number
-Recent pay stub
-Vehicle info
-Contact info for references

Read the Fine Print

You found a place you loved and the landlord accepted your rental application.

Now, the last step: reading the fine print. You'll be given a standard lease agreement to sign. Read the whole thing! Don't be afraid to ask questions about anything confusing. Don;t worry if it takes you an hour to read. Read it because you are legally bound to it once you sign it!

Make sure you're aware of all the add-ons, such as cleaning fees. Same goes for any other important info, like what you'll be charged for moving out early.

Pro tip: Take pics of the place before you move in and submit a thorough damage report (we're talking every knick and scratch.) Landlords can be stingy about security deposits. Proper documentation will help ensure you're not responsible for a hole in the wall left by previous tenants.

Apartment Hunting: Wrap Up

Following this apartment hunting guide will arm you with the tools to make the best first-apartment decision.

Best of luck to you in your apartment search and drop us a question if you have any.