Moving into your first apartment is a major lifestyle change―and a big financial commitment.
You’ll need to find an apartment with affordable rent, utilities and other expenses. Plus, even before you sign the lease, you’ll likely have to pass a credit check and come up with a security deposit.
While moving out on your own can be exciting, it also can be a bit daunting for a first-time renter. Use these 7 steps to help guide you through the process.
1. Figure out what’s available and what you can afford
If you haven’t rented before, you may be in for a sticker shock. For example, the median rent in the top 50 metro areas rose 17% for the year ended in March 2022, according to Realtor.com. The median rent rose to $1,659 a month for one bedroom and $2,028 for two bedrooms.1
One reason for the surge: Supply hasn’t kept up with demand. Soaring house prices are leading more people to rent rather than buy a home, while others who waited out the pandemic with family are now ready to move out. And for those who were living in apartments, rents that were frozen early on in the pandemic are on the upswing as landlords play catch up.
Before you go apartment hunting, you’ll need to get an idea of what you can afford so you don’t get overextended financially. The last thing you want is to end up with total monthly expenses that exceed what you can comfortably afford.
One popular guideline is that your rent should not exceed 30% of your gross income so you can meet other financial goals, such as saving for retirement or repaying student loans. For example, a teacher with an average starting salary of $41,770 could afford a monthly rent of $1,044.2 If your 30% number feels too steep for you or is not realistic for the area where you live, you can consider getting a roommate (or two) to help defray the cost of your rent.
2. Create a budget for your new apartment lifestyle
Rent is just one expense to factor into what you’ll have to spend. You’ll likely have some one-time expenses with your new apartment, such as buying furniture, dinnerware, towels, sheets, a shower curtain and other essentials as you move out on your own. Check NEA Discount Marketplace for cash-back offers on home décor, furniture, appliances and much more.
Moving costs also can be a sizable upfront expense. This calculator at Moving.com can provide for an estimate for how much it will cost to hire a professional mover. If you don’t have a lot of stuff to move into your new apartment, you might be able to do it yourself or with help from family and friends.
You’ll also have a lot of recurring expenses you’ll need to include in your budget:
Groceries. Single people spend an average of $5,168 on food ($3,467 at home) each year, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which works out to about $67 per week at the grocery store and about $33 per week at restaurants. However, that was in 2020, well before higher inflation took hold.3 Food expenses have gone up dramatically, so it’s more important than ever to stretch your meal budget and find cheaper alternatives.
Basic utilities. Sometimes utilities are included in the rent. Or, the landlord might cover water, sewage and garbage, while you pay for gas and/or electricity. The landlord should be able to give you an idea of the typical cost of utilities for your apartment so you can plan your budget accordingly.
Internet and phone service. Apartments usually don’t include internet service, so you’ll likely need to set up a plan with a provider. Make sure you’ll have the internet speed you need if you expect to periodically teach remotely. NEA members are also eligible for discounts on their phone lines from AT&T.
Cable TV and streaming services. These can quickly add up, so make sure you only sign up for services you’ll use frequently. Check the NEA Discount Marketplace under Subscription Boxes & Services > Streaming & Digital Services to find cash-back offers from providers such as Disney+, Hulu, Paramount+ and more.
Renters insurance. Some landlords require it, but even if yours doesn’t, it’s a good idea to purchase renters insurance to protect your personal belongings from theft or damage. A renters insurance policy can also reimburse you for living expenses if you need temporary housing while your damaged unit is being repaired. Or, it can provide limited medical coverage if a guest is injured in your apartment.
Download our free guide to help you build and track your budget.
3. Identify your must-haves vs. nice-to-haves
Some apartment buildings offer amenities such as a rooftop pool, gym, spa, coffee bar in the lobby and concierge services. But don’t get distracted by the perks, which typically come with added costs baked into your rent. A pool, for instance, might not seem such a high priority if you have little chance to use it because you spend a lot of time commuting to and from work.
Draw up a list of essentials that help make apartment living easier, such as available parking, laundry facilities, short distances to work and a grocery store, a secure on-site storage unit, or a quiet space where you can grade papers. Once you find apartments that meet your top criteria, you can compare the other amenities they offer.
4. Know what to expect in the application process
Once you find an apartment you like that fits your budget and satisfies your must-have requirements, you’ll need to fill out an application either online or in person. You’ll be asked for your Social Security number, income, previous address, employment information and other key details. The landlord may ask for references. Application fees often range between $30 to $75, which helps cover the cost of a credit check.
Prospective landlords want to feel confident you’ll be able to pay your rent. Instead of only looking at your credit score, landlords often ask permission to pull your credit report. Your report can reveal any debt you have, whether you pay your bills on time, and whether you have filed for bankruptcy in recent years.
Credit reports and credit scores don’t factor in your income, so a prospective landlord might also want to verify your income directly with your employer. Or they may accept pay stubs, a recent tax return, or a letter from your employer confirming your income.
If you don’t have much of a credit history, you might still get the apartment if you find someone with good credit to co-sign the rental agreement. However, that puts your co-signer on the hook for the rent if you don’t pay it.
Before filling out a rental application, it’s a good idea to get a copy of your credit report to confirm its accuracy, and correct any errors that could make you look risky to a landlord. Through the end of 2022, you can get a free report weekly from the major credit reporting companies at AnnualCreditReport.com; thereafter, free reports will be available annually.
5. Be prepared to pay money upfront
The landlord likely will require a security deposit in advance that’s often equal to 1 or 2 months’ rent. This deposit is designed to cover any damage you might cause to the apartment while you’re living there. You also might be asked to pay the first month’s rent in advance, and in some cases, the last month’s rent, too.
If there’s no damage to the apartment when you move out other than normal wear and tear, the landlord should return your security deposit. State law dictates how quickly the money must be returned. In most states, landlords have at least 30 days after you move to return the money. Two states—West Virginia and Tennessee—have no time limit.4
6. Read the fine print on your lease
A lease is a contract, so make sure you read the terms carefully to know what you are agreeing to. For example, double check the amount of rent and when it’s due. See if your lease automatically renews once the original term is up, or how much notice you and the landlord must give each other if the lease won’t be renewed. Check whether there is a penalty if you break the lease early. Perhaps your landlord would allow you to sublet the apartment to another person through the end of your lease.
Landlords are generally responsible for maintaining common areas as well as keeping the heat, cooling, water and sanitation systems working. They also should repair major appliances that come with the apartment. Tenants are responsible for disposing of their own trash and keeping their apartment in sanitary condition.
7. Set ground rules with your roommate
Having a roommate can make the cost of an apartment affordable, particularly if you’re moving to a pricey area.
To avoid disputes with a roommate, set expectations. The best way is to do it in writing with a roommate agreement, which is a contract between the two of you.
The agreement can spell out:
- The amount of rent each must pay and when it must be paid.
- How the cost of utilities or common household items, such as cleaning supplies, will be split.
- How cleaning and other chores will be divided.
- Rules on parking spaces, overnight guests and quiet hours.
- Situations in which one roommate can terminate the tenancy of the other, such as a roommate failing to pay rent.
If you’re not sure how to start, search for “roommate agreements” online to find free templates that you and your roommate can download, fill out and sign. Roommate agreements are legally binding and can help make your case in small claims court if your roommate reneges on paying bills or the rent.
1 March Rental Report, Realtor.com.
2 Teacher Salary Benchmarks, National Education Association, April 26, 2022.
3 Consumer Expenditure Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020.
4 Security Deposit Return Timelines, Findlaw, Jan. 31, 2020