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Survival tips for new renters

Plan ahead to make your new home as stress-free as it can be.

From finding the right rental property and roommates to dealing with landlords, real estate agents and even utility providers, here’s how to rent your first place.

Finding the right rental

There are two main obstacles you face when searching for your first rental property:

Finding a place that suits your needs and budget

Come up with a budget before you start apartment hunting, and don’t look at any units outside of your budget.

If your budget is tight, rank which features are most important to you, and look for apartments with those features. For example, would you rather have a bigger apartment or one that’s more centrally located? While you might not be able to afford your dream apartment in your dream location, you might be able to compromise by choosing a studio or living outside of the downtown area.

Getting a rental property when you don’t have a rental history

If you don’t have any rental history to show, work around it by doing the following:

  • Get a reference from your employer.
  • Offer to pay a few months’ rent in advance.
  • Show proof of any regular payments, like car payments.
  • Talk to the leasing agent, build a relationship with them and ask for advice on how you can improve your application.
  • Get a cosigner, like your parents or a family member, to back your application and guarantee to the landlord that you will pay your rent on time.
  • Consider renting a room for a while to build a rental history. If your name isn’t on the lease, ask the leaseholder or real estate agent to write you a reference when you move out.

What is a rental lease?

Once you’ve found a property, the next step is signing a lease, which is a legally binding agreement between you and your landlord. It sets out all the specifics of your rental arrangement, including the following:

  • How long you’ll be renting the property.
  • Who will be living in the property.
  • How much the rent will be.
  • Your responsibilities for maintaining the property.

Signing the lease means you agree to all the terms and conditions it contains, so read it closely before signing. Breaching the lease conditions means the landlord can have you evicted, so make sure you know what you’re getting into.

Do I have to sign a lease?

Yes, most apartments will require you to sign a lease. And if a landlord doesn’t have a lease, that can be a red flag. Both you and the landlord have to abide by the lease, so it protects you both. It also helps you prove that you’re legally living in the unit, so the landlord has to follow all local laws and respect your rights as a tenant.

Legislation regarding the rights of tenants varies slightly between states and cities, but generally:

  • The landlord can’t show up unannounced.
  • The landlord can’t force you to pay for maintenance costs and general repairs.
  • The landlord must ensure that the property is clean and in good repair when you move in.
  • The landlord must give you notice before eviction.
  • The landlord can’t evict you without good reason, such as you breaking the lease or the building being sold.

What is a security deposit?

The security deposit is the amount you pay at the start of the lease agreement. This deposit provides financial protection for the landlord in case you breach the terms of the lease for example, if you damage the property or fail to properly clean it, the landlord can use the deposit to cover repair and cleaning costs once you leave.

The deposit is paid back to you at the end of the lease, minus any money you owe for rent, repairs, cleaning or other costs.

The condition report

When you first move into your apartment or home, you’ll usually be given a condition report. You’ll need to carefully inspect the unit and note down any issues on this form so that you don’t get charged for them when you move out.

Take your time filling out this form, and note down and damage to the unit — no matter how small.

How do I choose roommates?

A bad roommate can make your home the last place you want to be, so choose wisely. The fact that you’re friends with someone doesn’t mean you should live with them, and just because someone seems nice enough doesn’t mean they won’t throw parties until 3 am on a Tuesday morning, leave clumps of hair in the shower drain or just constantly drive you up the wall.

Sometimes you can’t know that someone is a bad roommate until you’ve lived with them, but there’s plenty you can do to minimize the risk of ending up in a bad situation.

  • Advertise the room for rent and give a description of what you’re looking for in a roommate.
  • Meet potential roommates before asking them to move in.
  • Ask for references.
  • Ask questions to find out more about their hobbies, pastimes, general behavior and habits.
  • Be upfront about money: Do they have a job? How much rent will they need to pay? How will you split utility costs and other shared bills?
  • Be very wary of moving in with friends, especially if you don’t know their living habits.
  • Establish ground rules concerning housework, paying bills, parties and privacy before moving in together.

What should I do if me and my roommate aren’t getting along?

The first thing you should do is try to talk things out. In many cases, an open discussion to re-establish ground rules can help solve problems. For example, if you feel like you do most of the cleaning, maybe you could set up a chore schedule together. Or if opposite schedules are keeping you up, talk about having quiet hours, but be willing to compromise on weekends.

But if things can’t be resolved, you can talk with your landlord about breaking the lease early or find someone to sublet your half of the apartment.

How will I pay rent?

The method you’ll need to use to pay the rent will be stated in the lease. Depending on your landlord, you may be able to pay in cash, with a check or money order, or online using your bank account or card.

If you ever fall behind on rent, talk with your landlord immediately to try and work out a solution to avoid being evicted. Many landlords have a grace period for paying rent late, but it’s not required in all states. Otherwise, you might want to explore these other ways to cover rent in an emergency.

How will I pay utility bills?

Will your regular bills be included as part of the monthly rent, or will they need to be paid as they arrive? Water, electricity, gas and Internet will all need to be covered, so you and your roomies need to work out a fair way to divvy up the costs.

From a personal perspective, you’ll also need to adjust your own budget so you’ve got enough money to pay the bills. If your budget is tight, consider taking money out for bills as soon as you get your paycheck.

How to take care of household tasks

If you and your housemates can’t agree on keeping the bathroom, kitchen and living area clean and tidy, the situation can turn ugly pretty quickly.

With this in mind, it’s a good idea to sit down with your roommates from day one and work out a plan for all those boring household chores. From mopping and dusting to cleaning the toilet and mowing the lawn, work out how you’ll tackle everything so the chores are divided equally.

Making sure to always clean up your own mess and to wash your dishes after eating can also go a long way towards ensuring a harmonious household.

How do I handle repairs and maintenance?

It’s your responsibility as a tenant to keep the property clean and undamaged, but it’s up to the landlord or the property manager to ensure that the property is kept in a reasonable standard for you to live in.

What does this mean for you? If the property ever needs repairs, including emergency repairs, it’s up to the landlord to organize and pay for them. So if the roof is damaged in a storm or a pipe under the kitchen sink breaks, the landlord should foot the bill.

Of course, if you have a wild party and one of your drunken guests accidentally puts their foot through the wall, the repair costs will usually come out of your pocket. Routine inspections will be held throughout the lease so that the landlord or property manager can be sure that you’re keeping it in a satisfactory condition, but you’ll usually get at least a 24-hour notice before they happen.

How can I insure my stuff?

Some landlords will require you to have renters insurance before you’re allowed to move in. But even if they don’t, you might still want to consider it.

Renter’s insurance provides coverage for all your personal belongings if they’re lost, stolen or damaged. For example, if your laptop was stolen or a kitchen fire destroyed your small appliances, your insurer could reimburse you.

Take a few minutes to tally up the value of everything you own TV, laptop, smartphone, clothes, furniture, appliances and everything else. If all of those items were damaged beyond repair, would you be able to cover the cost of replacing them? If not, renters insurance can help keep you financially secure.

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How do I handle a dispute with my landlord?

If you have a dispute with your landlord, start by checking if they’ve violated the terms of the lease or any of your tenant rights. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development can help you find tenant and landlord laws in your state.

If your landlord is in the wrong, start by talking with them. Show them which part of the lease contract they broke or which law they’re violating, and ask them to rectify the situation.

If that doesn’t work, contact the city manager’s office or the bar association closest to you and ask what mediation services are available to help solve a landlord dispute in your area. Mediation services are available for free or at low cost in many areas.

If the dispute still isn’t resolved, you may need to take your landlord to small claims court.

How can I save money while renting?

If you’re new to living on your own and managing your finances, you’ll need to come up with a budget that allows you to meet all of your expenses. To save a little extra:

  • Plan your meals and consider having shared meals with your roommates.
  • Cook a little bit extra and save the leftovers for the coming days.
  • Consider finding an additional roommate to reduce your rent.
  • Be conscious of your energy use to lower your power bill.
  • Set up a savings account so that the funds you put aside earn an attractive rate of interest.
  • Put away a portion of your paycheck each week month. Consider using an automated savings app or set up an automatic transfer to a savings account.

Checklist for moving out of your parents’ house

If you’re moving out on your own for the first time, you’ll need to make a plan for:

  • Money. Your finances are probably the most important thing you need to consider when moving out. It’s essential to work out whether you’ll have enough money to survive on your own, so consider your income, rent, utilities, food, transportation and other expenses to work out whether you’ll be able to make ends meet. Before taking the leap, draw up a budget to make sure you won’t be headed for financial trouble.
  • Where to live. Your budget will be a huge factor that determines where you rent, while your work commitments and social life will also play a part. Look for somewhere affordable and safe, and factor in transportation options if you don’t have a car.
  • Moving costs. Moving can be expensive, especially if you don’t already have furniture, dishes, blankets and everything else you need for a home. Factor in the cost of making your new home livable, and save up before you move.
  • Insurance. Budget for renters insurance, especially if it’s required by your landlord. If you’re on your parents’ car insurance, check how much it’ll cost to get your own at your new address. You might also want to check whether you need to take out your own health insurance or whether you’re still covered by your parents’ policy.
  • Mail. Change your address with USPS so that you mail will go to your new home.
  • Utilities. You’ll need to get electricity and internet connections set up so your property is ready to go as soon as possible after you move in.
  • Extra expenses. If you want to keep your Netflix, Hulu, Spotify or other subscriptions, budget those in to make sure you can afford them before you move.

Bottom line

If you’re a first-time renter, there can be a lot of things to do before you’re ready to move into your new place. Take it one step at a time, and keep your budget at the top of your priority list to avoid trouble down the line. And to make sure you’re protected against the unexpected, take out renters insurance before you take the leap.

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