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Your First Post-College Apartment Checklist

June 29, 2015
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Now that you’ve graduated, it’s time to trade in dorm-room drab for real-world fab. But the apartment hunt, especially in a new city, can be a lot trickier than finding off-campus housing in a college town. Use this first-apartment checklist to power through your search, and you’ll find a place you love without sacrificing your sanity.

✔︎ Decide on a spending range before you start looking

Whether you’ll live alone or with roommates, a budget is key so you don’t end up spending the majority of your paycheck on rent. It can be hard to follow financial advisors’ advice that you should spend no more than 30% of your monthly income on housing, especially in cities with a high cost of living like New York or San Francisco, but try to keep as close to that ideal as possible so you can save for retirement and repay student loans.

Spend an hour or two looking at your pay stubs and recent bank activity to see how much you earn and how much in rent you can afford. A budgeting app like Mint or Level Money will track your spending and show you where you can free up extra funds. Once you start looking for a place, it might be easy to inch up your budget higher than you planned for, but stay firm. Be sure to factor in utilities such as electricity and wireless Internet to your budget, plus furniture and decorations for your new place in the first few months.

✔︎ Check your credit score

Many landlords will check your credit as a way to gauge whether you’ll pay your rent on time every month. Your credit report will show if you’ve kept up with your credit card bills and car loan payments and if you’ve had any legal disputes with past landlords. Many landlords will look for a solid credit score, which takes into account not only your payment history but the amount and type of credit you have.

If you have a low credit score or you haven’t built up any credit yet, it may be tougher to qualify for apartments on your own. But there are ways to get around that. Be candid with your landlord about your situation and, if necessary, offer to pay an extra security deposit or the first two months’ rent at the lease signing to show you’re responsible. You could also ask a parent or another trusted person to co-sign your lease, which means he or she is on the hook for the rent payment if you can’t make it.

✔︎ Schedule some real talk with your roommates

Roommates will help offset the cost of a pricey apartment, but they also come with potential headaches — even if they’re your close friends. Guard against the possibility of messy, disrespectful or loud roommates by having a frank talk about ground rules before you move in together. If that sounds scary, do it over a drink or a cup of coffee, and keep it light.

Address questions such as:

  • How often will you clean the apartment?
  • How will you decide whose turn it is to clean?
  • How many nights is too many nights for guests to stay over?
  • What time do you each have to be out of the house in the morning, and will you have to work around one another’s bathroom routine?
  • Do either of you plan to get pets while you live together?
  • What time do you expect the apartment to be quiet at night, with TV and music turned off?

Living with a particular roommate for the first time means you won’t know what it will be like until you’re moved in. But talking about your expectations upfront, even if it feels a little uncomfortable, will give you a sense of what issues you might need to work through.

✔︎ Make a list of neighborhood must-haves

If you’re living in a big or midsized city, you’ll probably spend many of your non-working hours meandering around your neighborhood. Think about what’s important to you, and make sure the areas you’re apartment hunting in will meet your needs. The easiest way is to make a list of must-have neighborhood features based on your hobbies and preferences.

Do you love the outdoors so much that getting out of the city is your biggest priority on weekends? Look for a place that has easy access to a highway or public transportation that will bring you closer to nature. Are you a night owl who tends to go out to dinner, grocery shop or do your laundry later than most? Make sure your neighborhood will have options for you. On-street parking can be hard to come by in some cities, so if you have a car try to find a place that will give you a dedicated parking spot, or at least won’t force you to circle the block for hours.

✔︎ Read your entire lease, and ask questions

Leases are long, boring and complex. But they also contain information that could make or break your relationship with your landlord. You want him or her to love you, because disputes could go on your credit report and you might need a landlord reference for the next apartment you apply for.

Check how long the lease term is: It could be month to month, one year or longer. Confirm whether you’re allowed to sublet your apartment, paint the walls or hang shelves, and have a pet. Ideally you won’t break your lease, but take a look at what the specific repercussions would be if you had to. Most importantly, read it all thoroughly, even if a landlord or broker is standing over you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions before you sign. And when the process is over, know that you’ll breathe that special sigh of relief reserved for victorious apartment hunters.

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Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

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