3. Do your homework.

Once you know where the money is coming from, get the necessary paperwork in order. Holly, the real estate expert, suggests creating a PDF (easy to print and share!) with all of your information. In New York, she says, most landlords will want to see:

  • A copy of your identification (driver’s license, passport, or state ID card)
  • A letter from your (or your guarantor’s) employer, stating how long you’ve worked there and how much you make annually.
  • A copy of your (or your guarantor’s) last two pay stubs and bank statements (you can black out the account numbers for security).
  • If this is not your first rental, a letter from your last landlord stating how amazing of a tenant you were. If you haven’t had any landlords yet, Holly suggests getting a recommendation letter from an employer or teacher.
  • A short bio of yourself—where you go to school, what you study, your job, etc. This might seem over-the-top, but the rental market here is cutthroat! “That little human touch puts a face on your application,” Holly says. “There’s going to be other people that want the place you want. Every little thing that you can do to not only be on time and perfect but to set yourself apart makes all the difference in the world.”

The Rental Girl website is also a great resource for learning how to get together an application package, even if you’re not planning to live in L.A. There’s even an instructional video! “It’s like going to a job interview,” says Ellie. “You wouldn’t go without getting your things together. It’s all about preparation. First impressions do matter.”

Yes, this all sounds daunting and a bit scary, but it will make the rest of the process much easier. “It’s a pain in the butt, but it will be the difference between scrambling around sucking info out of your parents and losing the apartment because someone else is well prepared,” says Holly. Especially in big cities where people are constantly jostling for apartments—in New York, just about two percent of places are vacant at any given moment–a good apartment, and even a below average one, will be snatched up FAST. That’s not true everywhere: In small towns, or places with more options the pace is less breakneck and the requirements less strict. But it still won’t hurt to be prepared.

4. Search safely.

Sites like Craigslist, ApartmentFinder.com, and StreetEasy are a great place to start your search. The classified section of a local newspaper and the bulletin board at neighborhood coffee shops are also known to have apartment listings. IMPORTANT WORD OF WARNING: Many of the listings on websites and in newspapers, especially in big cities with tight rental markets, are fake! Some real estate companies post ads for too-good-to-be-true deals as bait—only to offer you much crummier and/or more expensive places when you call. Even worse are the straight-up scams, where some asshole lists a totally fictional apartment, then tries to get cash or a credit card number out of you. Be wary of ads with no photos and no address for the place in question. (Though our music editor, Jessica, points out that not all of the no-photo ads are fake. There’s no harm in calling, in any case. “No one calls about those places,” she says, and they could be that hidden gem. Just don’t give them any of your personal or financial information when you call! “Craigslist is like a thrift store,” says Ellie. “You have to go through a lot of junk to get to that one magical piece.”)

Never should you ever:

  • Take a place sight unseen. If you’re trying to move to a city you aren’t yet living in, there are options: Someone you trust fully can be your representative—that’s what I did with my first place, as a last resort—making visits and taking photos. Or you can set aside some time to sleep on couches, at a hotel, or a youth hostel while you hunt. It’ll be worth it in the end.
  • Visit an apartment alone. Take your future roommate/s with you, and if they’re not free, bring a friend.
  • Agree to meet somewhere besides the apartment in question. Holly advises to watch out for anyone or any listing that is vague about or withholding of information—especially the address. “If you can’t have the address, don’t even bother looking at it,” she says.
  • Wire somebody money electronically. If they promise to mail you the keys as soon as they receive a payment, just don’t. Seriously: Do not. It’s a scam.

You’re probably not going to be scammed by your friends, so don’t forget to put out a call for word-of-mouth recommendations. “Put what you’re looking for on Facebook,” suggests Holly. “Someone always knows a place before it’s listed.” Include your preferred neighborhood, number of rooms, and your budget, using your sphere of influence to lure the perfect place into your lap.

Another option is to hire a real estate agent, sometimes called a broker, who will hunt for you. But in some places, that will cost you—make sure you know the agent’s fee (sometimes it’s up to 15 percent of year’s rent) before you get involved.

One more tip from Jessica: Try moving in the middle of winter. “You find amazing bargains because no one is trying to find an apartment in January or in October,” she says. Busier times tend to be in at the beginning of the summer or fall, when school is starting or ending.

“Give yourself at least three weeks to look for a place and lock it down before you need to move in,” Holly recommends. As Kanye says, #ITSAPROCESS.

4. The application.

When you’ve finally found the place of your dreams—or at least the one you can afford and make work—you have to apply for it. You already have your trusty paperwork PDF all prepared and on file, and you’ll almost definitely have to fill out a few more forms with basic information: name, date of birth, social security number, etc.. (You can refuse to give the potential landlord your Social Security number, but they in turn may very well refuse to rent you an apartment. The potential for identity theft is “a necessary risk,” says Holly. The landlord needs it to run a credit check.) You may be asked to pay a nonrefundable application fee (anywhere between $25 and $125), which will be used toward a credit check.

What’s credit? I can hear you asking. And what if I don’t have any? The answer to the first question is: It’s basically your reputation as a handler of money. Your credit score tabulates whether you’ve paid your bills on time, how much money you have in a bank account, how many credit cards you have, etc. The second answer is: Don’t worry. If your credit history isn’t long enough for the landlord in question, that’s where your guarantor comes in.

After you apply, the approval process could take anywhere from 24 hours to five business days (so, way quicker than college, at least). Don’t be afraid to ask questions: Are there any other applications on this apartment? What’s my status? It’s usually first come, first serve, Holly says. “Keep in touch with whoever is processing your application. Check in and be proactive.”