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How to Rent an Apartment

Finding and moving into your own place is an expensive, exhausting, occasionally infuriating process, but it’s so, so worth it.

5. Protect yourself.

CONGRATULATIONS — YOU’VE BEEN APPROVED! YOU GOT THE APARTMENT!! Time to move in, right? Chill, kid. We’re not done yet.

At this point, you’ll be asked to sign in blood, promise your first-born child, and turn over your entire piggybank. Just kidding, kinda. Before the deal is done, the landlord will ask for more of your money—probably the first month’s rent and a security deposit, equal to one more month’s rent (and which will be returned to you at the end of your stay, assuming you don’t break anything). In some places, landlords typically ask for two month’s rent (plus the security) to account for your first and last monthly payment. The standard lease is for one year, but there are all sorts of exceptions (see subletting below).

Yes, the money adds up quick. For example, if your rent is $1,000-a-month (median rents span a huge amount in the U.S., from $628 (Tucson, AZ) to $4,000 (San Francisco, CA) costs could be:

$125 application fee +
$1,000 first month’s rent +
$1,000 last month’s rent +
$1,000 security deposit =
$3,125, before you even walk in the door. Take another deep breath.

In more casual renting situations—a temporary stay in an acquaintance’s room, for example—you may be able to work out rent payments and deposits with more flexibility, but always get your deal with whomever you’re paying in writing to prevent misunderstandings down the line. For a shorter amount of time, like a summer in a new city, search for a sublet—that’s when you rent from an existing renter for a portion of their own lease or from an owner looking to fill a room. Possible sublets are all over Craigslist—remember, be safe and smart!—and are especially good options for when you’re new to a place or just getting on your feet financially. The laws on subleasing vary from town to town, state to state, and country to country, so be sure to research the rules—here’s a good place to start in the U.S. There are similar sites for other countries, such as the UK, France, and Germany.

With the money in order—most landlords will want the total delivered via personal check or a certified check directly from a bank (make sure you know which your landlord requires and never agree to a direct cash deposit)—it’s time to sign your lease, or the contract of your living situation. Read it closely and don’t be shy about asking for clarifications—what day of the month rent is due, whether or not water and gas are included, length of the lease, move-in and move-out dates—and additional terms. For instance, sometimes a place will get a fresh coat of paint or new floors before a new tenant moves in and sometimes it won’t—make your specific requests beforehand or risk being disappointed. What about pets? “It makes things even more difficult,” says Ellie. It helps to be upfront with landlords and ask questions from the very beginning. Who knows: You might even be able to convince a landlord if your dog is cute and well-behaved enough. That said, if you’re moving into a building in New York, I’m gonna go against my own full-disclosure advice by telling you about a little-known law that states that even if pets are forbidden by your lease, if you manage to keep one for three months without trying to hide it from anyone, and the landlord has not objected, you can keep the pet.

Keep in mind that when you move out, you’ll be responsible for returning everything to how it was when you moved in. If you want to paint pretty colors or hang things on the wall, be ready to reverse it all or you might lose your security deposit. A good rule of thumb is to ask your landlord when you’re signing your lease whether they allow whatever cosmetic changes you’re thinking of making.

If you have any remaining questions about the renter’s laws in your area, try contacting the local chamber of commerce or real estate board. These places, along with tenants’ rights groups, can also help if your landlord isn’t living up to their end of the deal—which includes keeping up structural maintenance on the apartment, like plumbing, heat/air, and electricity. The lease-signing is also a good chance to ask about how to make sure things like heat and water are turned on. If the place was vacant, you may have to call the utility companies to make sure your new place is ready for you.

6. Keep your chin up.

Let’s be real: This process is exhausting. But the more you know before you dive in, the smoother the jump into the adult-world abyss will be. “Moving can be so overwhelming and so murky,” says Holly. “But it doesn’t have to be. It can be so very easy if your expectations are correct and you’re prepared.” There will be sacrifices—I traded all my personal space and privacy to live in my dream neighborhood, remember?—and there will be expenses, so many expenses. The first place might not be perfect, or the second, or the third. Sometimes we settle and in a few months, or a year, we breathe even more deeply and try again. But there will also be sweet, sweet freedom, and every square foot, no matter how few there are, will feel like your own, because you earned it. ♦


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  • spudzine February 7th, 2014 7:54 PM

    Eeek this is such a great article!! This honestly helps me envision what the moving out process is like realistically!


  • llamalina February 7th, 2014 7:56 PM

    This is almost scary to read because of how real it makes everything; I’m gonna have to be doing this in just a few months. Gah. Real life.


  • Username February 7th, 2014 8:20 PM

    This is really great advice! If only I’d had it back in December..

  • silversnows February 7th, 2014 8:44 PM

    Great article! Just wanted to point out a typo/forgotten editor’s note (?). On the first page, 4th paragraph, it says “window, s where you live now? and a [etc]“. Not sure whether that’s supposed be there! Otherwise, handy advice – though I have rented a place and followed literally none of the rules (and miraculously ended up in a fantastic place and not, like, murdered)!

    • silversnows February 7th, 2014 8:47 PM

      Okay, this is super embarassing – I just left a comment and for some reason it’s showing my real name & not my username – I can’t figure out how to change that or delete the comment? perhaps you could just delete both this & the original comment? haha, sorry!

      • Anaheed February 9th, 2014 10:28 AM

        I fixed it — I’m so sorry! It was a weird WordPress glitch that crops up every once in a while for no apparent reason.

  • mimsydeux February 7th, 2014 11:04 PM

    This was a super helpful read – thanks Joe!

    FYI editors: I’m not sure whether the sentence “…and leaves visible in every window, s where you live now? and a nice, hotel-quality shower” is meant to include that question in the final copy. Also is “as a last result” meant to be as a last resort? :)

    • Anaheed February 8th, 2014 10:36 AM

      Thank you! Those were my errors. Fixed now.

  • painting_the_roses_pink February 8th, 2014 12:51 AM

    Thank you so much for this article rookie! I’m turning 18 this september, and graduating next june, so I’ve been having a lot of anxiety about not knowing all the ins and outs of being an adult. This article was really informative and has helped me plan a little for where I’m going to move and how to do it.

    Thank you again rookie, this is why I love y’all!


  • ada berglund February 8th, 2014 7:20 AM

    in sweden where I live (born and raised) getting your own place is near impossible. Even finding a dorm room in your student town is almost equally impossible.

    add to that the non existent job market and you will have in front of you the so called lost generation.

    I am 22 years and still live at home because of this.
    I hope this feeling of stuckness will come to an end.
    I am so sick of living my life like this..

  • Snacky Onassis February 8th, 2014 1:44 PM

    I’ve always wondered..is that rent calculation for gross income or actual take home income?

  • Pikaa February 13th, 2014 8:35 PM

    This came just in time – I’m moving out on Saturday and couldn’t be more freaked out