Somehow in my group of friends I have earned the title of "The Responsible One." I have had friends' parents and sometimes strangers call me this before, even. It's a title I bear with honor and it is because of that title, I believe, that I have recently been contacted by many different people asking for advice on how to be a Responsible Adult. In response, I've decided to make a few blog posts on Adult 101, starting with the most requested topic: how to find/acquire a good apartment.
So, without further adieu, Ten Steps to Finding the Right Apartment
Step 1. Establish a Budget
First and foremost, establish a budget. If you are rooming with a friend or a significant other, have them make a budget as well. You'll figure out together what you can afford, but first create these individually. I'll make another post on this later, but basically, compile a list of expenses you already incur monthly and then add in estimates of what your new utilities will cost. If you are unsure of the cost of utilities in the area you are looking to move into, do a quick google search. Don't forget to include items like gas and groceries and if you are unsure of anything, overestimate, just in case.
Once you have that done, subtract it from your income. This is the absolute maximum amount of money you have to spend on rent, if you don't buy anything ever in your life.
Most websites (and property managers) will tell you to take your monthly income before expenses and divide by three to get your maximum rent. I also suggest this, but I want you to put together your budget and expenses list first, because for some people, you may not have a third of your income left after student loans and car insurance. But it is very important to have both numbers in mind while looking for an apartment.
Now, take whichever of these numbers is lowest and subtract however much "play money" you think you'll need in any given month (this will also double as your emergency expense pillow) and what you have left is your maximum rent.
Step 2. Search within That Budget
Next, go to a website like apartments.com (which I highly recommend, it helped me so much in my own search!) and type in the town you are looking to live in. Then type in the range you can afford, using the number you've just calculated. This will take out anything you can't easily afford and remove the temptation to move somewhere awesome, but outrageously expensive.
Step 3. Know What You Want/Need
When you're filling out these search restriction fields, you will also be able to specify the number of bedrooms and bathrooms you need. Will people be sharing rooms? Will your roommate hog the bathroom for hours at a time? Know that ahead of time. This is also a good time to think about the amenities you absolutely need. Will you be in an area where street parking is hard to find and therefore require an assigned parking spot? Do you require a washer/dryer (or hook-ups), or is a laundromat fine? If you are using Apartments.com, once you get through the initial search page, you can customize your search by clicking on amenities and clicking on the ones you absolutely require. This is also where you can specify if you need an apartment that allows certain kinds (and sizes) of pets.
Step 4. Look at the Floor Plans
When you're scrolling through that list of apartments, make sure you look at more than just the pictures of the apartments. Sure, those pictures may look great, but remember that these rooms are set up to look great by professionals and the model is going to look a heck of a lot better than the actual apartment you'll end up in. My advice to you is to check out the floor plans (if they're available) to get an idea of what the apartment really looks like. How big are the bedrooms? Is one twice the size of the other and will that be a problem? Is the dining room effectively a hallway?
Do you have preferences on where things are? For example, I found a lot of apartments in my own search where the dining room was combined with the living room and far away from the kitchen, which I didn't like. Additionally, while looking at floor plans, I discovered a lot of strong opinions on closets that I wasn't previously aware I had. If you have any opinions on odd things like that, then this is the point where you can use those opinions to weed out the places you would hate.
Step 5. Map It Out
When you come across an apartment that is within your budget and that looks like somewhere you'd like to check out, map it out. When I was looking to move, I set up a shared map with my roommate on google and saved all of my favorite places to it in order to see where they were, and also to keep each location straight, since I was only vaguely familiar with the new area.
When you pull up the apartment location, take note of what's around it. What stores are nearby? Will you be alongside a noisy highway? How close will you be to work? Do you know the area? If all you see are bars and tattoo parlors, you may want to avoid that neighborhood, unless, of course, that's the kind of thing you want. You can also find out which schools are nearby, if you have need of them.
Step 6. Search for Crime Reports
Now that you have the address for the apartments you like, run them through http://www.crimereports.com. This will give you a better idea of how safe the neighborhood is. It lists recent crimes by type, as well as provides a list of sex offenders in the area and where they live.
Step 7. There is No Such Thing as Too Much Research
Research the crap out of those apartments and areas. Read the wikipedia page. Check out the reviews on Yelp and Google. Look anywhere you can possibly think of and research every small question about the area you have, even if it's whether or not there's a place you can get ice cream at 3 AM.
If you know anyone in the area or know anyone who knows someone in the area, ask around. Are there apartment complexes or areas to avoid? The chances are, once you start telling people you are looking to move to a specific place, everyone will have heard something about it. I moved 5 hours south and still everyone I had spoken to had either been there or knew someone who lived there. Just put the word out and the comments will come rolling in.
Step 8. Narrow Down Your Possibilities and Compare
Okay, after you've done all that, narrow your list down to a handful of apartments, with no more than ten. Now you're going to want to focus on these ten and compare them. What I did was create an excel spreadsheet where I listed each apartment and all the information I had so I could compare apples to apples. Some of the fields I used were price, number of bedrooms, various amenities, and their pet policy. Once you have all this information in front of you in a way you understand, rate each apartment and put them in order of most to least desirable.
Now focus on your top five, or even your top three. Don't completely discard the bottom five, because you may need those later if none of your top choices work out the way you wanted.
Step 9. Visit the Locations
Call or email the property managers to set up a time to view the apartment. Most places allow you to walk in during office hours, but find out what time they stop showing models, as it will likely be earlier than close. Certain places require an appointment, so call ahead. You should also mention the model you are interested in viewing, as one may not be available in your timeframe and therefore not worth spending your time touring.
It's best to do all the of viewings on the same day if you can, so that you can compare them better. Bring a camera, too, and a notepad or even a smartphone, anything on which you can take notes. Write down all the pros and cons you can think of for each place, as well as important notes, such as the length of a contract, when payment is due, and anything else the manager cares to mention. If the room sizes were not listed on the online floor plans, be sure to ask for them so you will know whether or not all of your things will fit in your room. Personally, I went so far as to create room plans for both bedrooms in each apartment where I drew in all of my major furniture, but this is for the unnaturally organized only and not by any means a requirement.
On a side note, when you are viewing an apartment, note where all of the outlets and cable hook-ups are, as well as what kind of lighting there is.
Step 9.5 Ask Questions
When you are viewing a location, or even afterwards, don't be afraid to ask questions of the property manager. Ask every question you can think of, even if it sounds stupid. Every area and apartment is different and it's better to know things up front. For example, in the Chicago area, it's normal to be required to pay for a city sticker, but when I asked about this in St. Louis, everyone was surprised to hear that any city required such a thing. That gave me a little more money to play with and the knowledge was helpful, especially if the situation had been reversed.
If you don't know the kinds of questions to ask, I suggest checking out Apartments.com's Apartment Living section and perhaps even more importantly, My First Apartment. Write down all the questions you think should be asked and all the questions you never thought to ask and bring that list with you to the apartment showing. In addition, a simple google search will yield you pages of other questions to ask.
Step 10. Get the Apartment
Once you've looked at a number of different places, done hours of research, talked it over with your roommate (if applicable), and given it some deep thought, pick the apartment you want. When you're ready, contact the leasing office and let them know you're interested. When you go in, pretend that it's a job interview. Dress nicely and be respectful; let them know that you're the kind of tenant they want in their building. In essence, this IS an interview. You've looked at the apartment and decided it was a good fit for you, now the leasing office manager needs to decide if you're a good fit for the apartment.
If they decide they want you and you want them, the office will require a security deposit and a lot of information from you. After that, they'll run a credit check and may require you to validate your income. This may take some time, so be patient! If all goes well, you'll get a call in a few days letting you know that you've got the apartment and what the next step will be.
Finally, please remember that moving costs more than rent, especially if it is your first apartment. For more on this, please read my earlier post: You Can't Just Get an Apartment.
Now, this is by no means a complete list, but you get the idea. If anyone has any questions or needs added help with their apartment search, feel free to comment below or contact me.