How to win at the apartment-hunting game

Text size: aA aA aA
Whether you're looking for your first place, a more affordable place, a bigger place, or simply a new-to-you place, finding the right apartment isn't always easy. From noisy neighbors and faulty appliances to drafty windows and lousy water pressure, there are a lot of things to watch out for.
That being said, finding a good apartment is definitely possible. To land one that's right for you, you just need to keep a few key things in mind.

What can you afford?

It might seem okay to stretch for that swanky apartment — after all, you'll be living there. But once the reality of paying a high rent sinks in and you find yourself eating at home every night to save money, you might be kicking yourself for overspending.
To maintain sound financial health, experts suggest that you keep your rent expense to about one-third of your monthly income. So, before you start getting too excited about places you can't afford, figure out how much you can spend. Want more than you can afford on your own? Get a roommate — preferably one with a steady income and similar priorities.
Once you've found a place you can afford, don't sign on the dotted line until you're sure everything in the apartment works — the heat, the stove, the refrigerator and the hot water. Check the water pressure and be sure to document any preexisting damage, like scratched floors or holes in the wall, so that they don't get held against you when it's time to retrieve your security deposit.
SMART MOVE #1: Figure out how much you can afford to spend before you start looking.

What's your target location?

It's easy to fall in love with a great-looking apartment, but if it's far from friends, work, or in an undesirable neighborhood, you may soon find yourself wishing you'd heeded the age-old advice: "location, location, location."
Instead, home in on a couple of neighborhoods that are convenient to work, restaurants, grocery stores and facilities you use regularly — like the yoga studio or coffee shop — so you can spend less time and money in transit. No wheels? Then be sure to assess each apartment's proximity to public transportation.
SMART MOVE #2: Identify a safe neighborhood that's close to many of the places you visit often.

Are you a good negotiator?

Want to negotiate a discount in rent? First position yourself as a desirable tenant — have your references and checkbook in hand — and then tell your prospective landlord you're very interested but hadn't planned to spend as much as he or she is asking. Think about it — the worst he can say is, "No." In the "asking" mood? Then keep going! Ask utility companies to waive connection fees or transfer fees — they may offer a discount if you suggest that you're considering signing with a competitor. Bundling services like internet and cable with the same provider can also yield savings. If you primarily use your cell phone, then consider skipping the landline altogether.
SMART MOVE #3: Don't be afraid to ask for discounts.

Are you ready to review the fine print?

When agreeing to rent an apartment, don't rely on a handshake alone. Before you seal the deal, make sure your contract indicates how long you must stay, how much notice you must give before you move out, which repairs the landlord is obligated to perform, and if there are any rules regarding subletting. If the landlord promises an upgrade before you move in — such as painting or replacing a dated appliance — be sure to get it in writing.
SMART MOVE #4: Read the fine print — all of it — and get any exceptions in writing.

Did you factor in all of your costs?

Often, the cost of rent is just the beginning of your potential living expenses. Ask if utilities such as heat, air conditioning, water, trash removal and electricity are included in the rental price. Does your apartment come with parking? Be sure to factor in extra costs like laundry, cable and phone service, too. And remember that once you move in you'll still have to eat!
SMART MOVE #5: Make sure you understand all of the costs you'll need to cover.
Ask the landlord:
  • Which utilities are included in the rent?
  • Where are the fire exits?
  • Does the building provide janitorial services for common areas?
  • Do all the appliances work?
  • How do I shut off the water or electricity in the event of an emergency?
  • Whom do I call if I have a question or lock myself out of my apartment?
  • Whom do I call after regular business hours if I have an emergency?
  • When were the locks last changed? Beside the tenants, who has a key to this apartment?
  • Do all the windows open?
  • Where are the nearest laundry facilities?
By asking these questions, and possibly making a few compromises, you'll be well positioned to land an apartment that works for both your lifestyle and your budget.
Next steps
  • In addition to searching for an apartment through online listings, get the word out that you are looking and network among family, friends and colleagues
  • Want to get a better handle on budgeting? See how to live within your means.
  • Landlords may check your credit report before leasing an apartment to you. Visit Better Money Habits to learn about building and maintaining good credit.