First-Time Renter’s Guide: How to Choose an Apartment or Rental Home

Contributions by 4 experts

Updated: May 22, 2024

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Whether you're branching out on your own for the first time or starting a new chapter of your life, you're ready to claim your first rental home. With some planning and foresight, you can find the perfect place to make your own. To get started, you'll want to consider your budget, the best location, amenities, how to make your application stand out and how to protect yourself financially and legally. Get valuable expert insights, resources and tips to nail your apartment hunt.

Getting Started: Preparation and Planning

Moving into your first apartment is a significant step into independence and adulthood. It may also be stressful if the process is new to you. Taking time to plan and assess your budget and needs will help you manage the apartment hunt with ease. To get started, consider a few essential factors below.

Steps to Choosing a Rental

Before you start looking for your apartment or house, determine how much you can spend for the monthly rent, the area you would like to live in, wants vs. needs in your home and working with a professional. Here are four steps to help you refine your search.

Determine your budget

There are a few schools of thought on how much you should spend on housing. If you follow the 5/30/20 rule, you will budget 50% of your income for necessities, including rent, 30% to savings and 20% for everything else. Some experts recommend following the 30% rule when it comes to housing costs. The typical renter should be able to comfortably spend 30% of his or her income on rent. To determine your affordability, take your annual income and multiply it by .3. Then divide that number by 12.

Pick a location

Consider renting a place that is close to the essential shops and services you use regularly. If you don't have a car or plan to drive much, look for walkable areas with public transportation availability. You should also consider your commute to work and assess how long it will take you roundtrip. To get an accurate idea of activity and noise level in the area, visit it at different times of the day and evening.

Determine wants vs. needs

According to a 2018 survey by, 74% of renters indicated they had to make a sacrifice to make their rental stay within their budget. Aesthetics like hardwood floors and granite countertops or enhanced technology like USB–charging outlets and app-controlled thermostats may be on your wish list but are things that you may be able to upgrade later.
You should assess your needs by what's necessary to make your home livable. For example, it may be more important to find a pet-friendly place if your furry friend will live with you, an in-unit washer and dryer if you're always doing laundry or high-speed internet if you often stream or work from home.

Getting help with your search

As a first-time renter, you may want to consider using a rental agent if you're moving to a major city with a competitive housing market like San Francisco, where an agent can help you find available places. An agent with knowledge of the city's layout and neighborhoods can be valuable, especially if you're unfamiliar with the area. Keep in mind that you or the landlord will have to pay a fee to the agent, but the fees vary by city. An agent may not be necessary if the rental market you're looking in has a high vacancy rate and plenty of options.

Types of Management: Pros and Cons

In your search, consider the type of management. Identifying this can also help you narrow down the ideal location you may want to live in and wants vs. needs when you tour the place. The three most common managements you may encounter are large complexes, property management companies and independent landlords.

Pros & Cons of Each Management Type

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Large Complex

Pros: More likely to be well-maintained under professional management with on-site maintenance. May also have more amenities like a pool, fitness center, business center and social community events.

Cons: It may feel more impersonal and less homey and may also get crowded during “rush hours” in the amenity or common areas. It may also be noisier due to more residents.

Property Management Company

Pros: Unlike a landlord, a property manager is much more involved with tenants. They can help manage tenants’ complaints and issues such as maintenance, repairs and move-outs.

Cons: Managing the property is the number one priority. Because they deal with many tenants (possibly at multiple properties), a personable relationship may not be feasible. They also tend to be more rigid when screening potential tenants and less flexible with how they receive payments.

Independent Landlord

Pros: When renting directly from a landlord, you have a direct communication line with the property owner, which may allow you to build a personal relationship. This may allow you more wiggle room with rules, like being allowed to paint walls or make other cosmetic changes to your rental.

Cons: If the landlord has a job outside of managing the property, they may not be as responsive about repairs and maintenance requests.

Type of Rental: Pros and Cons

Another factor to consider in your search is the type of rental. Depending on how small or large of a space you would like to live in, it can help you budget your monthly rent. First, determine how many people or pets will be living with you. Large spaces, such as single-family homes, can be great to have a few roommates and you can share the rent. Small spaces, such as an apartment unit, may be just enough space for you and your dog.


An apartment is typically a large building with individual residential units. Depending the apartment complex, you may be able to find different types of units, such as a one bedroom with one bath, or two bedrooms with two baths.

Pros & Cons

Pros: In some instances, renting can be less expensive as you don't have to pay out of pocket for maintenance and most repairs. The process of moving out is much simpler than selling a property.

Cons: There's generally less space and less storage. There are often restrictions on remodeling or decorating and the types of pets you may have. Rental rates also tend to fluctuate over time, possibly exceeding your spending cap.

Townhouse or Condo

A townhouse is a multi-floor home conjoined to another but has its own entrance. A condo is a building or complex of buildings made up of individually-owned units.

Pros & Cons

Pros: Townhomes and condos often provide more space than apartments without the price of a single-family home. They are also usually a part of communities with amenities like pools and fitness centers.

Cons: A townhouse or condo may provide more privacy than an apartment, but you still share a wall, yard and other amenities with neighbors.

Duplex or Triplex

A duplex is one building that houses two units, and a triplex houses three. Each unit can be side-by-side or on top of the other. To count as a duplex or a triplex, the building must share a common wall and roof structure.

Pros & Cons

Pros: Expect more space with a yard, driveway in the front of the property and fewer neighbors.

Cons: You likely won't have access to amenities like a pool, gym or 24-hour maintenance, and you may have to share laundry with your neighbors. There's a chance you may be responsible for lawn care, and sometimes your neighbor is your landlord.

Single-Family Dwelling

A single-family dwelling is a stand-alone residential home that sits on its own parcel of land. Many single-family homes are detached, meaning they do not share a common wall with another unit. Some can be attached.

Pros & Cons

Pros: Depending on utilities, you'll likely know your actual expenses each month. You don't have to pay out of pocket for significant home expenses like a new roof or broken refrigerator, and you don't owe property tax.

Cons: Typically, you have less flexibility with making aesthetic changes and upgrades, requiring permission from the landlord. Your rent may increase annually.

Accessory Dwelling Unit

A second small-sized dwelling attached or near a larger property. It may be an apartment over a garage, a tiny cottage in a backyard or a basement apartment.

Pros & Cons

Pros: It allows you to live close to a family or friend if you're on their property while maintaining some privacy. You may be able to share the cost of amenities and utilities.

Cons: These structures are usually small and offer limited storage, and you may not have a private entrance. Your privacy might feel more limited with the landlord on site.

Room with Shared Common Areas

A shared-housing arrangement in which residents have individual rooms in a house but share the common areas like the kitchen, living room and laundry room.

Pros & Cons

Pros: This may be quite affordable as you'll share the cost of amenities and utilities. All amenities are generally included in the rent payment.

Cons: In some co-living set-ups, you may not be able to choose your roommates. Sharing a communal space may mean not having access to specific amenities at leisure.

Finding Your Place: How to Know It’s the One

An illustration of a young family of four finding the perfect home.

You found an ideal place that checks off everything on your first apartment checklist, and you're on your way to living in your first rental home. Before you fill out the application, pay that application fee or sign the lease or rental agreement, there are some crucial things you need to know first as a first-time renter.

The Landlord: Questions to Ask

When you meet with your landlord, ask as many questions as you need to. If you don't understand something in your agreement, make sure you are fully aware of it before you sign. Here are a few common questions you might consider asking.

What's included in the rent?
Is renters insurance required?
What happens if I break the lease?

The Property: What to Consider

As you prepare to tour your potential new home, you may also want to take a look around the property — after all, the area could be your neighborhood for the next year. Here are items to examine.

Scope Out the Neighborhood

The neighborhood is just as important as the apartment. What’s the crime level? Is there an affordable grocery store in the area? Is it a reasonable commute from your job? Scope it out during the day and night to get a feel for the area.

Assess the Amenities

Some items are standard — and essential — like an oven and a stove. Others you may be able to do without like a dishwasher. Assess what matters most to you: In-unit laundry facilities? Ample parking? High-speed internet? Security cameras?

Check the Condition of the Property

Check for cracks, structural damage and evidence of water leaks. Examine the paint job: There should be no drips or chips along the wall. Make sure every outlet works and they are accessible. There should be smoke detectors near or in each room. Check that blinds and shades are working correctly and have no damage. Run your hand along the windows and doors to feel for any leaks or drafts. Inspect the flooring (carpet or wood) for stains or holes. Make sure the toilets flush properly and check all the faucets for leaks.

The common areas such as the gym, business center and pool should be clean and well-maintained. Is the equipment working correctly? Is the landscaping overgrown? Is there ample parking? In general, state laws require landlords to keep common areas clean, safe and in good repair.

The Price: How Much Will It Cost to Live There?

The cost of your apartment goes beyond the rent. There are other items you should factor into whether you can afford to live there, including the cost of utilities, cable, internet service, water, trash collection and pet fees that may include a one-time pet deposit and monthly pet rent. The price of each item will vary and depends on the individual property or landlord. Some properties may also charge for parking and using garages and storage units. Ask upfront about these costs before signing a lease.

The Lease: Make Sure It Works for You

Tenants are generally required to sign a lease before moving into an apartment. A lease is a contract that gives a tenant the right to live in a property for a fixed period such as three, six or 12 months. It also outlines payment procedures, late fees, rules regarding pets, guidelines on moving in and moving out, details on terminating the lease early, restrictions on remodeling or decor, how repairs are handled and causes for eviction.

Qualifying for a Rental Home

An illustration of a young man checking off the first item on his checklist to renting a home.

Once you feel comfortable with the property, the landlord and the terms and conditions of the lease, it's time to make sure you meet the qualification requirements for your new home. Although the rental application forms vary, they will generally involve similar steps.

Take a look at the documentation and rental requirements you may need below.

Documentation Checklist
  • Proof of income: This helps verify that you have a steady income and can afford the rent cost. Proof can be a letter from an employer, pay stub, bank statement or tax return.
  • Proof of identity: A driver's license, passport or other proof of identity will help the apartment verify that you’re you.
  • Recommendation or reference: A reference from a previous or current landlord, property manager, supervisor or colleague will help confirm that you’re reliable, responsible, financially stable and have a record of on-time rent payments.
Rental Requirements
  • Credit check: You'll have to give permission to the rental property to access your credit report. They'll want to check for indicators that you're financially dependable such as on-time payments, and your credit score will reflect that.
  • Application fees: You'll need to fill out a form with your personal information, including employment and income, background and emergency contacts. According to Zillow Group's Consumer Housing Trend Report, the application fee, which typically ranges around $50, covers the credit and background checks.
  • Deposit: This fixed fee is paid one time and covers damages made to the apartment after the tenant has moved out. It is usually refundable if there are no damages.
  • Rental history: This includes former addresses, payment history, evictions, criminal history, your credit score and other data to help a landlord determine your suitability as a tenant.

Making Your Rental Application Stand Out

In competitive rental markets like Raleigh, North Carolina and Los Angeles, California, where the vacancy rate was 2.2% and 2.3% respectively in the fourth quarter of 2020, using a little ingenuity to make yourself stand out can pay off. Think of it like applying for a job.

  • Be presentable for any meetings or tours, and create a rental resume with your educational background, employment history, prior rental history and any pets or people who will live with you. Highlight why you're interested in the rental property. Your application is your opportunity to give the landlord a clear picture of who you are and emphasize why you'll be a great tenant.
  • You may want to include letters of references from previous landlords who can speak to your reliability as a tenant and ability to take good care of a property.
  • If you have little to no credit history, bad credit or no previous rental history, coming prepared with a co-signer will assure the landlord that you have a reliable source for rent payment. Just make sure you choose someone who has a good credit history.
  • If you can afford it, offering to pay a few months’ rent in advance can showcase that you're financially secure and help push you to the front of the line.

Time to Move In

An illustration of a hand circling the move-in date on a calendar, and in the background, there are moving boxes and celebratory confetti.

Congratulations! You've landed the lease on your first rental property. What's next? It's time to prepare for move-in day. Here are a few key insights on setting up the utilities, arranging insurance and picking suitable moving materials to make the transition to your new place easier.


Some apartments provide the trash and water service as part of your rent but require you to arrange your own gas and electric service. For others, you may have to handle all the utilities on your own.

Once you know what you're responsible for paying, the landlord should provide you the local utility companies' contact information. Try to call at least one week before you move in, and arrange to have your services turned on the day before your arrival. In some instances, you may pay a deposit for the electric company, internet or cable if you don't have a previous history with them.


Renters insurance is crucial for protection when renting. Many apartments require it because the landlord's insurance usually only covers the building. A tenant's renters insurance covers personal property loss or damage caused by theft, vandalism or fire. It also provides liability coverage, which pays for bodily injury and property damage caused by negligence — or a liability policy specifically for pets, like if your cat gets loose and scratches a neighbor, which leads to your neighbor requiring medical attention. Your insurance company can let you know how much renters insurance you need.

Purchase Essentials

Before you settle into your new place, make sure you at least have the essentials on your first apartment checklist. You can always add more later.

  • For your bedroom, make sure you have a mattress and bedding, pillows and curtains if there are no blinds so you can have privacy.
  • Don't forget the wastebasket, toilet tissue, plunger and plenty of towels for the bathroom.
  • Your kitchen should have utensils, plates, pots and pans, along with paper towels and dishwashing liquid.
  • A TV stand, couch and coffee table will help the living room stay cozy.
  • A laundry basket, laundry detergent, stain remover and all-purpose cleaner should cover you for cleaning supplies.

Boxes and Moving Materials

There are many expenses associated with moving — boxes shouldn't be one of them. Save money by asking local stores (grocery stores, dollar stores, book stores, liquor stores, etc.) if they have free boxes after they finish stocking. Consider moving during the offseason — usually October through April — when demand for moving services is low. Stock up on moving supplies like tape by buying in bulk and stocking up in advance when it's on sale.

Spreading the Word

Don’t forget to let your bank, insurance, credit card companies and any subscription services know that you’re moving and provide them your new address. Also, make sure to request that the post office forward your mail to your new address, which you can do online. Try to get this done at least two weeks in advance of your move.

Expert Insight on First-Time Renters

MoneyGeek spoke with real estate professionals to help you narrow your search even further. They dive deeper into what you can expect from landlords, what questions you might want to ask and common mistakes or factors you should be aware of as a first-time renter.

  1. What’s the best formula or strategy for determining how much rent you can afford?
  2. Considering the pandemic, what would you say is its impact on the current rental market, and how does that impact first-time renters? What should they be mindful of?
  3. What are some questions that potential renters should ask property managers?
  4. What are some common things that potential renters often overlook?
  5. What are some common mistakes people make on their rental application, and how can they be avoided?
  6. What should you expect when your landlord does a credit check or background check?
  7. How can first-time renters improve their chances of approval if they have no credit or a low credit score?
John Yeressian
John YeressianProfessor and Department Chair of Real Estate at El Camino College
Kris Lippi
Kris LippiReal Estate Broker and Owner at
Paula Azevedo
Paula AzevedoBusiness Development Lead at
Rob Barr
Rob BarrAssociate Broker at R New York
Casey Daneker
Casey DanekerReal Estate Specialist at Keller Williams Realty, Inc.

Resources for First-Time Renters

There are many resources available to help you find affordable renting properties and moving-related expenses or rental assistance. From tools that connect you to local rental agents and listings to programs that improve renter education and offer financial aid, these organizations and programs can help you succeed as a first-time apartment renter.

You can also include a few tools or apps to help with finding and renting an apartment, like the Trulia, or Zillow app or similar, for example.

  • Salvation Army: Salvation Army offers moving-related assistance for those who can show their low-income status and confirm what the aid is for (for example, a record of a security deposit or moving van rental confirmation). To apply, visit the Provide Shelter Page to find your local Salvation Army.
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: This government organization provides a grant program aimed at preventing homelessness by helping people who are at risk for homelessness get into housing quickly.
  • Emergency Solutions Grant: This grant program assists individuals and families to quickly regain stability in permanent housing after experiencing a housing crisis or homelessness.
  • Zillow: This real estate app provides up-to-date listings for rent. It also has tools to help you determine your budget and connect with local real estate agents or property managers.
  • HUD Resource Locator: This tool helps you find affordable housing opportunities near you.
  • National Low Income Housing Coalition: This government organization provides a comprehensive list of state and local COVID-19 emergency rental assistance programs.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: This organization's Find a Housing Counselor tool provides a list of counseling agencies and housing counselors throughout the country that can provide advice on buying a home, renting, defaults, foreclosures and credit issues.
  • 2-1-1: In several communities, you can dial 2-1-1 on your phone to get access to information regarding various services and programs, including housing, employment and education opportunities in your local area. Even if calling is not available in your area, you can visit the website to get the same information.
  • Modest Needs: This nonprofit provides short-term financial assistance to individuals and families with low incomes and are in temporary crises.

About Erin C. Perkins

Erin C. Perkins headshot

Erin C. Perkins is a finance writer at MoneyGeek, with 15 years of experience in the media industry. She has covered topics about money, including banking, insurance and budgeting for several publications over the years.

Perkins has a master's degree in magazine journalism from Kent State University and a bachelor's degree in mass communications from Winston-Salem State University.