Life Skills: Renting an Apartment

Life Skills is a series of posts by former MiddBlog lead editors. J-term is ending, so we’re drawing this series to a close. Clearly, not many students are going to go out and put our advice into action immediately (except maybe you graduating febs!), but know that these posts remain here as a resource to come back to or as a place to start thinking about all these post-grad variables. As I said in my first post, this is a good time to “wean yourself off the good life.” Hope you’ve enjoyed the series and love to hear about what else you’d like from grads on MiddBlog. -Ryan Kellett ‘09.5

So, you’re FINALLY moving out of your childhood room, huh? Nah, just teasing. For some, ma and pa’s house is a great place to live (not kidding) regardless if you have a job or not. But I’m assuming you’ve made the call that you want to move into a place of your own (and not a dorm room) and that you’re most likely in a city some kind. First, congrats! Renting your own place is one of the quintessential “growing up” milestones. Only one small thing — no one ever told you how to go through this process.

Oh, your apartment has a communal swimming pool, right?

Under Pressure

My own experience is one of always having to find a place to stay under pressure. My advice: don’t put yourself in a situation in which you have to find a place in mere days or even weeks. The best search is one where you can go at your pace, do your research, and feel comfortable committing to a lease. As such, you should try to buy yourself some time to go through the apartment search you want to go through. Ways to do that: stay with friends (but don’t overstay), stay at a short-term group house, stay with friends of family or family (for rent or not), airbnb, or house sit for a bit. All those tricks you pulled out for intern housing over the summer? Use ’em again here. It’s not glamourous but this you might have to rely on the kindness of others until you can find your way apartment-hunting. Some say it’s a right of passage to live somewhere really bad before getting what you want, but I’d attempt to avoid it.

Getting started

Reality check: that dream apartment is not a mere click away on craigslist (or padmapper). Like most things, looking online is a natural way to solve your problem. But I’d caution that it’s not the only way. Just like getting a job, strategies abound: Facebook, workplace, network, etc. 

Leases

Now’s the time to say the obvious: READ THE CONTRACT. Most of the time, leases are fully fleshed out documents that outline a lot of situations you could find yourself in. What happens if you need to end your lease early? Who pays utilities? Who pays for snow removal? What happens if something breaks? Again, read the document. If you don’t understand something, ask. If you think something is unfair or have a better solution, it’s okay to ask for a lease to be amended. A friend of mine was re-signing a lease in a building that accepted no pets of any kind but asked her landlord if she could have a cat. Her lease was amended with the exception. Negotiation is normal — so learn to stick up for yourself. If your document is pretty basic, ask before assuming. For instance, asking “What’s the move-in procedure?” is a good question. Others: What happens when I move out? What happens after my one-year is up? What number do I call if I have maintenance issues? etc.

The typical lease is a one-year obligation with monthly rent. Many landlords want to know you can and will pay. It’s normal for them to ask to see your paystub (if that still exists), proof of employment, or credit check. More strict places will have rules. For example: You can only lease if the monthly rent is less than 30% of your monthly income. The more hard and fast the rules are, the trickier you might find the situation. Why? Because you’re young. Your credit score is uncertain. Your salaries are not likely super high. Your parents may or may not be helping to support you. In some cases, you may need your parents to act as guarantors for whatever reason. Again, when you’re not sure, ask about it, and don’t feel shy about saying what your situation is. You don’t want your landlord to rule you out even if you can pay.

Sublet

Sublets allow you to rent month-to-month or by portion of a month instead of signing a longer-term contract. Sometimes sublets are informal agreements. Sometimes there is strict documentation. Sublets can be both the best and worst thing. Best – great flexibility to move. Worst – often uncertain how long you’ll be able to hold on to your place. Best – landlord might let you use some of her stuff. Worst – their stuff is everywhere. For sublets, I’d argue there is no such thing as “normal.” While I’d think a Middkid is generally trusting, it can often help to just get it in writing, even if it’s just an email exchange.

Percentage of income / prices

You’ll notice, I threw out of this 30% rule above – some places want you to be paying no more than 30% of your salary toward rent. In many cases, that’s just not possible for our salary-depressed generation. But I’d remind you that it is one guidepost to at least know of. Look at your costs in the context of other costs in your life: food, drinks entertainment, insurance, savings, investment, etc. Come up with a monthly price that you’re comfortable paying and a price that you cannot go above. Stick to it.

Is your apartment building falling down?

Hitting the pavement

The early bird catches the worm. Do you think the landlord really wants to sit around vetting dozens of people? No. They want to feel comfortable that their property is not going to be ruined, that you will pay (on time and in full), and that you won’t cause trouble. So prove you are that person by being responsible and make it easy for them to decide to rent to you. Follow up quickly and politely. Don’t let a landlord take advantage of you (see: Under Pressure) though.

When you visit the place, really inspect it. Is everything working? Will it be clean? Is this a place you want to live in? Is this a place you can live in? Bring a tape measure if you have items that need to fit. Bring a camera to take photos to remember things. Ask if you can take photos. Ask if there are known problems with the place. If you see neighbors, ask them how they like it. Ask about average utility costs for water, electricity, cable, internet, etc.. Ask about how they hook up Internet and charge for utilities. Ask about what’s nearby (or better yet walk around nearby). Get to know the neighborhood. Google map your commute time.

Agents

Some people will tell you that they used a real estate agent to help them. That’s fine but know that it doesn’t come free – agents I know of ask for one month’s rent in return for their help finding a place. It can take a lot of the headache out of researching and finding a place, if you trust your agent. If that’s for you, great. If that’s not, fine too. Just remember to keep in mind what incentives there are for an agent to help you and their mindset in working with you.

Compromise

You will not find a place that is perfect. Know what you’re not willing to compromise on and what you are. Find a balance and go from there.

Committing

If you have done your research and you feel good about something. Do it. Depending on the renting environment where you are, you might have to act pretty darn quick to make some of these decisions — within hours. The more places you see, the faster you’ll be able to make decisions about what’s right for you. That’s it – congrats!

Renting with others

On a side note, many grads coming from college want to live with others (because social life isn’t handed to you like at school). That’s awesome. But the flip side of the coin is that you’re dealing with lots of moving parts when searching/signing a lease. Before starting, figure out with friends what your position is and how you will make decisions. The other option is to have one person do the work and then bring others on board later. Up to you — but have a clear strategy or else things can go south quickly, no matter how good of friends you are.

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