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A 5 Step Guide to Renting Your First Off Campus Apartment

Living in a dorm or with your parents has its perks for sure—food on demand at the top of the list—but nothing beats getting the first set of keys to your own apartment.

Looking for a new place and moving in can be a lot of fun, but there’s also a lot of logistics to figure out and it can be a costly process. There’s signing paperwork, handing over deposits, buying furniture and decor, budgeting for food and utilities. 

Nearly 80% of Americans living on their own under the age of 25 are renters. Renting allows you to seek out new job opportunities, meet new people and try out a new town without the financial commitment of home buying.

It may sound overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. A little patience and a lot of planning go a long way. We can get you started with our five-step guide to renting your first off campus apartment.

Do Your Prep Work 

Before you start picturing walk-in closets and outdoor space, think about where you want to live and who (if anyone) you want to live with.

You will also want to begin your financial homework. What can you afford to spend and still have money left over for food, utilities, and fun activities? The median national rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $960 per month, but that can vary dramatically depending on where you choose to live. The median rent for a one-bedroom in California is $1,446, for example, while the median rent in Michigan is $721.

Trulia and Zillow are great places to look to get an idea of what’s available in your area. And Apartment List has an online rent calculator.

If you are going to be moving in with roommates, make sure you talk beforehand about your priorities. 

“It’s really important before you start looking to get together with your group to decide what you need and what you want,” said Jacob Kronenberg, a 22-year-old PhD student living in Brooklyn, New York.

Also, consider where in your city you will live to make sure it meets your needs and your tastes. 

“A big part of how you interact with the place that you live is walking around your neighborhood,” said Kronenberg, who scoped out his new Park Slope neighborhood before moving in with three other roommates.

If you are staying local, you may have an idea of what neighborhood you want to live in or you can easily walk around to check it out. If you are moving to a new town, the best place to start your research is the Internet—hit up Facebook or Instagram groups dedicated to your new town and ask questions. Look up area magazines, newspapers, and online listings to check out the offerings important to you, whether it’s music, nightlife, fitness, or the food scene.

Start Apartment Hunting

Online listings are great and easy to pour over from the comfort of your own couch, but you will need to see the apartments for yourself. 

Beware of scams, said Juli Jenkins, a Baton Rouge area realtor with Keller Williams Realty First Choice. A common scam targeting unsuspecting renters involves listing a vacant home for a below-market rate, then demanding a deposit be sent sight unseen. Usually, the scammer will have some sort of excuse as to why they can’t meet in person, Jenkins said, such as a sudden military deployment or family emergency. When the renter shows up to claim their new place, they find that the listing wasn’t available for rent and they are out their deposit. 

“Never ever, ever give someone a deposit to hold a property because you think it’s a smoking hot deal,” she said. 

Ask a lot of questions when looking at apartments, Kronenberg said, and don’t be shy. 

Ask whatever you need to know,” he said, such as what kind of amenities or utilities are included and whether all the appliances are in good working order. “No question is dumb.”

Kronenberg said he found out the hard way that one of his earlier apartments didn’t have a functioning gas line and that it was up to him and his roommates to pay the cost of the hook up. Now, he said, he makes sure to test out the potential apartments by running the hot water for a few minutes or turning on the gas stove. 

And make sure the landlord is treating you kindly and with respect, Jenkins added. Just because you are young and starting out doesn’t give them the right to be condescending or dismissive.

Read Carefully Before You Sign on the Dotted Line

You found a great apartment that you can afford and you are ready to move in! But first, you have to get your name on the lease.

Before you sign anything, make sure you carefully read your lease and hash out with the landlord who will be responsible for things like routine maintenance. You should also ask what timeline the landlord has for making major repairs if you need a plumber or a contractor to come in.

Jenkins, who rents out 20 houses within a short distance of Louisiana State University, cautioned students and parents not to be so blinded by beautiful apartments that they don’t ask about the details.

“The communication needs to be very upfront,” she said. “Who is going to take care of these things, how is it going to be addressed.” 

If you are a college student or fresh out of school you likely don’t have a full-time income or a lengthy credit report. In that case, many landlords will want you to have a cosigner to ensure they will still be paid their rent if you can’t come up with the money. Don’t take offense—a cosigner acts a kind of a financial safety net for you and the landlord. Many young adults ask their parents to act as a cosigner, but other options include family friends or extended family.

Find out whether you will be on the hook to make up the remainder of the lease if one of your roommates moves out. Be prepared to pay your fees in full at the time of the lease signing. This can include first and last months’ rent, security deposits and broker’s fees if you used a realtor, which is a necessity in major cities with a lightning-fast market.

Get Renter’s Insurance

This may be an afterthought for many renters, but it shouldn’t be. Even though you don’t own the property, you are responsible for everything you own inside of it. More than 90% of homeowners had homeowners insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute, but only 46% of renters had renters insurance. 

For a national average premium of just $185 per year, renters insurance provides coverage to replace your belongings in case of theft, fire or natural disaster. While you may not want to fork over the money so soon after you finish paying your rental and moving fees, the cost of renters insurance is a fraction of what you’d spend to replace your lost or damaged items. 

Budget Your Move In Expenses

You’ve likely already dropped a few months’ worth of rent on fees and deposits and now you need to move in and furnish your new place.

Kronenberg said he saved some cash by renting a UHaul and moving with his friends rather than paying movers. And he bought his bed from Amazon for about $100 versus hitting up a pricey furniture store. 

But they also made multiple shopping trips for odds and ends, including two trips to IKEA. “It’s a lot of very small costs,” he said. “That adds up very quickly. In total, we spent more than a thousand dollars.”

Kronenberg recommends setting aside up to a month’s rent to set up your new apartment and comparison shopping before making any major purchases. 

And finally, enjoy your new home! — So grab a pizza and kickback. You can probably even put your feet up on the furniture.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest. 

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.