#MyFirst: 7 Keys to Your First-Time Apartment Rental

After graduating from college in 2009, I packed up my belongings and left my small and tight-knit hometown behind for a move to the big bad city-NYC. It was my first foray into the somewhat scary and complicated process of renting my own apartment, and it's a drastic understatement to say I knew very little about the protocol. Now, six years and four apartments later, I consider myself somewhat of a seasoned pro. I've learned the ins and outs from making countless mistakes (some more severe than others) to dealing with good and bad landlords, new and old buildings, and brokers. And I am sharing my hard-wrought wisdom with you so you can avoid my pitfalls. Keep reading to rent the apartment of your dreams with ease.

There's usually quite a price range when it comes to apartment options in every major city. Mostly, the price is factored into the details like location, proximity to public transportation, square-footage, updated appliances, and, of course, the number of bedrooms. Before you make your move, be sure to detail a yearly (leases are commonly signed for 12 months) budget so you know you won't run into any trouble midyear. It's important to not only look at the monthly numbers but also to calculate the full year in terms of how much you can spend or save after turning over the monthly rent.

My best advice is to avoid looking into apartments that would be any sort of a stretch, as your strict budget will go out the window when you start rationalizing features of apartments that are out of your range. Stick to what you can afford and make it work, whether it's choosing a specific neighborhood or living with roommates or in a smaller studio so you don't find yourself in debt over an in-unit washing machine down the road.

For my first apartment, I was in search of something perfect. It had to have enough space for a queen-sized bed (an upgrade from the college-sized twin), updated appliances, and a bathroom where the toilet wasn't inside the shower. This proved much more difficult than I'd originally expected. After taking price and location into consideration, the apartments I viewed were far from meeting my expectations. I forced myself to trek around the city with various brokers (we'll talk about how brokers fit into the process coming up), looking at dozens of apartment options. Not one of them resembled the photos (look out for false listings by cross-checking the address online), and many were so small that I could barely fit a dresser, let alone my new big bed.

I slowly came to the realization that I would have to prioritize what's most important in my search because I would ultimately have to sacrifice several things for something more important. Maybe a bigger bedroom with no windows and a tiny bathroom or outdated kitchen is better than a tiny bedroom with big windows and a nice living space? The key here is to imagine yourself in the space and figure out what you'll need the most to live comfortably. If you can handle showering in a tiny bathroom, make that sacrifice for something more important, like a new stove or shiny kitchen appliances. I ended up going with a tiny (we're talking baby nursery-size) bedroom in my favorite neighborhood with a roommate, so lots of sacrificing on my end. But for me, it was worth it to be in the location I wanted, near my work, friends, and favorite restaurants.

When you finally find the right apartment, there are several things to take into consideration. In NYC, landlords typically require a tenant to earn 40 times the monthly rent in salary by showing a guaranteed income, as well as a credit report. This can be especially difficult if you're moving and starting a job at the same time. Many ownership groups will allow you to use a guarantor who can basically produce several documents to prove they meet this requirement, but in this case, 80 times the monthly rent in earnings is required. If you're planning to live with several people, landlords will take your combined salaries into account. You'll also have to produce a laundry list of official documents right away if you don't want to be beat out in the application process, so have these items ready to go in case you have to sign the dotted line on the spot (it can happen, believe it or not):

  • Work reference letters
  • Landlord reference letter
  • Two recent pay stubs
  • Most recent tax returnВ
  • Most recent bank statementВ
  • Drivers license or non-drivers license ID or passportВ
  • Guarantor information (if necessary)

After you've turned over these documents for review, you'll also be expected to fork over some serious dough for the deposit (which you can get back if you lose the apartment to another more qualified tenant). If you're accepted, you'll then be expected to turn in the first month's rent, a security deposit (typically equal to two months' rent), and a brokerage fee, if you used a broker. It's a ton of money upfront, which can be extremely stressful, but if you can come into the situation knowing what to expect, it's less of a shock.

While there are several unavoidable charges upon signing a lease, there is one fee that can be avoided in many cases: the brokerage fee. The typical broker's fee is 15% of one year's rent, so for a $2000/month apartment, the broker would be paid $3600 solely for showing you or providing you access to the apartment. This fee, as mentioned above, is due with your first month's rent and security deposit upon signing the lease, so it can add up to quite a lump sum. There's not always a way around this depending on the property, but many times you can avoid it by searching for the building's ownership group and attempting to go directly through them for the lease. Search-sites like StreetEasy allow you to tailor your options to show only results without a broker's fee.

If you're planning to live alone or as a couple, don't immediately eliminate the studio as an option. If you're not keen on sleeping next to your stove, look for alcove studios, which have a separate open area for the bed. Depending on the studio's square-footage, it could sometimes be larger or give you more space than a tiny one bedroom. Though the name implies a typically small space, many studios have plenty of room to put up dividers, which can create a makeshift room as you need. It's a great option for saving money without losing out on space. But, the right layout is key.

Though you may know exactly what you're looking for in an apartment, it's important to map out where you're actually interested in living. Do you want to live in close proximity to your work so you can walk and save money on transportation? Would you rather be further away from work with easy access to public transportation and closer to a park or running trail? Maybe you'd rather live in a specific neighborhood because of its quiet tree-lined streets and coffee shops? Going into your search with a geographic game plan will help you narrow down your options, and you'll also be happier in a neighborhood that caters to your needs even if your apartment isn't the best one on the market.

After you've settled into your new space, it's likely that you'll find that something is broken or working improperly. In my first apartment, the stove blatantly refused to work. Since appliances are almost always included in your rent, stay on top of your landlord about updating or fixing them if they're broken. Don't be surprised if it takes you three to four phone calls and a few texts or emails, as landlords typically manage several tenants, depending on the size of your building. You should have a healthy living space, so don't give up or compromise because your landlord is out of reach. It's your right to have working appliances if you're paying a monthly fee to live there, so be persistent about the problem until it's fixed. I can tell you from firsthand experience, this works.

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Have you ever rented an apartment? What are the best and worst aspects of being a first-time renter?В