A How-To Guide for First-Time Renters

If you’re renting an apartment for the first time, the process may seem overwhelming. Where can you find places for rent? How do you know a listing isn’t a scam? What should you look for in a lease? For the true beginner, we’ve got information on finding properties, avoiding rental scams, signing a lease, and paying the rent.

Where to Find Rental Listings

To find available rentals, you have a lot of options. Take a look at your local newspaper for listings or inquire directly with an apartment complex to see if they have any available units. You can also search online rental listing websites. Here are some websites to check out:

If you’re a student, you can also check with your university. Most universities have an Off-Campus Life department that offers an online database or a list of housing providers.

Looking for a roommate? Take a look at Craigslist, RoomsterOodle, and Roommates.com. You can also search Facebook for groups that post rentals.

Contact the landlord or property manager for more information on the property and set up a time to see the property in person. Treat the property showing like you would a job interview. You can skip the suit and tie, but keep your interactions polite and professional. After all, this is a chance to make a great first impression. If you are serious about the unit, be sure to follow up quickly and respond to the landlord. You are most likely not the only interested party and you want to secure the home as soon as possible.

How to Spot a Rental Scam

When you’re browsing through rental listings, you may run across some fraudulent listings. Here are some things you can do to catch a scam when searching through property ads.

  • Read the listing description carefully and check for the following:
    • Spelling errors – Many scammers who are out of the country and are non-native English speakers rely on translating tools, which don’t  pick up the nuances of the language. It’s often easy to see text that has been translated because the sentence structure will sound awkward and the word choice may be a little odd.
    • Inconsistencies in unit details – Make sure that the details are consistent in the description of the listing, the photos, and any conversations you have with the contact person. If the listing is described as a 3-bedroom ranch-style home, but the photos show a studio apartment, then you may be looking at a fraudulent listing.
    • Features that seem too good to be true – Does it have every possible amenity? Is the lease term extremely flexible? Is the rent amount incredibly affordable? Then it may be too good to be true. If you’re not sure what your local rental rates are, then check the rent price with a site like Rentometer to make sure that the rent is reasonable for the area.
  • Get a tour of the property before sending money – See the property first. It may seem pretty basic, but if you’re relocating or the landlord says that they are out of the area, it may be tempting to take an apartment without seeing it in person. Be wary of situations where the landlord or property manager refuses to let you view the property and is asking for a deposit or a holding fee
  • Talk to the landlord before applying to the property – Most likely, you will need to submit an application fee when applying to a property, so it’s good to be sure that you’re interested in the property and that you know that the landlord and the property exists.
  • Don’t wire money – Just don’t do it. It’s hard to track and if the property turns out to be a scam, then you may not recover any of your funds.

Look here for more information on spotting and reporting scams.

Applying to a Property

Once you have found a place that you’re interested in and have seen it in person, the next step is to fill out an application to formally express your interest. Be prepared to pay an application fee when applying to rental units. The national average cost of an application fee is $42. Find out what the cost is and what it includes. Ideally, you want the application fee to cover your credit and criminal background check. Always make sure you speak with the landlord before filling out an application to ensure that it’s still available.

When filling out an application, you’ll want to have the following things handy:

  • List of references
  • Pay stub & employment information
  • Photo Id
  • Emergency contact information
  • Payment method (for application fees)

Most likely, a landlord will ask for information regarding your employer, previous landlords, and financial statements. In order to run a screening report, the application will also have a place for you to provide your social security number and phone number. Always be sure that you are providing information to a reputable company or secure online form when providing your personal information.

If your credit is not so great, you may be asked to have a co-applicant or co-signor that acts as a safety net in case you default on the rent. They do not live on the property, but they assume financial responsibility. If you have a co-applicant, then they would be asked to provide their information or fill out a separate application.

Tenant Screening

You will most likely be asked to complete a tenant screening as part of the application process. It is best practice for landlords to run a credit and criminal background check on all applicants over the age of 18. Resist the urge lie or hide a criminal history or eviction on your application.  It’s better to disclose these yourself instead of letting the background check do it for you.

Be sure that the credit report is a soft inquiry and not a hard inquiry. The difference between these inquiries is how they affect your credit score. Hard inquiries, like those used by financial institutes when applying for loans or mortgages, can negatively impact your credit.  A soft inquiry will not impact your credit and is similar to the type of report run when you check your own credit.

The property manager will also contact previous landlords, employers, and references that you listed on the application. Make sure that the contact information you provided was accurate to avoid a delay. Be aware that many landlords and property managers will also track down an applicant’s social media accounts. When thinking about what posts and photos to make public on your account, think about this: if it’s something that you wouldn’t want your mother to see, then you probably wouldn’t want your landlord to see it either.

Signing the Lease

The lease, or rental agreement, is a document that you and the landlord will sign that outlines the responsibilities and rights of both parties. If you see something in the lease that seems discriminatory, please check with your local laws or click here to learn more about Fair Housing. Here are some quick tips about reviewing the lease:

  • Read it carefully.
  • Ask questions if you’re unsure.
  • Do not sign until you’ve discussed the terms.

Remember, you will be held to the terms of the lease, so make sure that you understand what you’re getting into. Here are some important elements to consider:

  • Lease terms – At the end of the term, you will need to renew the lease or will need to give the required amount of notice if you are not renewing.
  • Pet policies – If you have a pet or want to get one, make sure you know what kind of pet you are allowed to have
  • Rent payments – How does the landlord want the rent paid? When is it considered late? How much is the late fee?
  • Altering the dwelling – Find out if you’re allowed to paint or alter the home in any way.
  • Utilities – Know what’s included and what you’re responsible for.

You should also complete a walk-through inspection prior to move-in to protect yourself from being held responsible for damage that was caused by a previous renter. For more information on walk-through inspections, take a look at this article, What You Should Know About Walk-Through Inspections.

As a first-time renter, we highly recommend hiring local movers to help get you situated in your new home. And be sure to check out our Renter’s Toolkit for more moving services to streamline your exciting new journey!

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