The first step in flying the coop and getting your own nest is to think about what you want in an apartment. How much can you afford to spend? (Don’t forget you will likely be paying utilities on top of rent.) How many bedrooms do you want? What is your ideal location? What amenities do you want? Do you want a roommate? (Having a roommate will usually save you money, but it also means you could be living with someone who drives you crazy or does not pay his or her share of the rent, so if you decide you want a roommate, you should choose carefully.) Do you want a place that is pet-friendly? Also, since you may not be able to get a fabulous 3 bedroom-pad in the heart of downtown with parking, a swimming pool, and a gym for $300 a month, which are the things that are deal breakers, and which are the things you can live without?
Once you know what you want, you are ready to start the hunt. You can usually find listings on-line or by driving through the neighborhood you are interested in and looking for “For Rent” signs. There are also brokers that show apartments (many real estate agencies have a rental division), although keep in mind that they may charge a fee. When you find something that you like, usually the landlord will want you to submit an application listing your personal information, past rental history, and income/employment status, and he or she may also check your credit report. What if you have not yet established a credit history? Some landlords are willing to overlook this. (Individual landlords are often more flexible than property management companies.) Another option is to have someone co-sign on the lease.
After your application is approved and you decide you want the place, typically the next steps are to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent and sign the lease. As the name implies, the security deposit provides security to the landlord – if you leave the apartment without having paid all of your rent or caused damage, the landlord can cover the rent or repairs with the funds from your deposit. Otherwise, it will be returned to you when you leave. State law determines the maximum amount a landlord can charge for the security deposit. It is a good idea to know what it is in your state to be sure that the landlord is not trying to take advantage of you.
The lease is a legal document that governs the terms of your tenancy. It typically spells out the monthly rent, due date, length of the lease, and rules that you must follow (e.g., whether you can sublet the place, whether you can have pets, whether you can paint the walls). Before you sign the lease, it is important to read it over carefully. If you disagree with anything (perhaps you want to have hot pink walls and the lease says that no painting is allowed) ask the landlord if he or she is willing to change it. Once you and the landlord sign the lease, it is binding for the length of the lease. This works both ways, meaning not only do you have to follow the terms, but your landlord does too. If the lease says that the rent is $700 a month, your landlord cannot change it to $800 a month. However, once the existing lease ends, your landlord can create a new lease with different terms.
Most leases are for an extended, fixed time period (usually a year). If there is no specified time period, the lease is month-to-month. (It may be called a rental agreement instead of a lease.) It automatically renews each month unless one party terminates it. Generally, only 30-days notice is needed to terminate or change the terms of the lease, unless state law says otherwise.
Once you move in, it is very important to pay the rent on time and follow the rules. Failure to do either can result in you being sent an eviction notice. If you do ever find yourself in a position where you cannot pay the rent, call your landlord right away and see if you can work out a payment plan. If you are breaking your lease early, remember that you are still responsible for the rent for the months remaining under the lease. This does not necessarily mean that you will wind up having to pay all that rent yourself, though. The landlord must try to re-rent the unit, and once there is a new tenant, you no longer have to pay (unless the rent the new tenant is paying is less than what you paid, in which case, you are responsible for the difference). Instead of having to wait until the unit is re-rented, some landlords will let you off the hook if you pay an early termination fee. This may not be a good option in a strong rental market, but you may want to take advantage of it if you expect your apartment to sit empty for a while.