How To Look For Your First Apartment (and what you need to know about hidden costs)

Updated: Jul 27

We have lots of friends who have recently started looking for their first apartment. It's made me think about ALL of the things we didn't know about what we were looking for our first apartment (we were such babies back then!). So, I thought I'd compile some of the things we tell our friends when they start looking so you can have a safe, fun, and successful apartment hunting adventure!

1. Someone has to pay Utilities

Sometimes this is the landlord, sometimes it's not. Make sure you know EXACTLY what you'll be responsible for paying. For example, a lot of places will advertise that they have cable or internet. This just means they have an agreement with a specific company that is familiar with setting up cable or internet in their apartments. You still have to set up an account and pay for that service, and you might not get to choose who your service provider is. So ask questions. Here's a short list of the possible utilities you may be responsible for:






-Internet (optional)

-Cable (optional)

-Laundry (not really a utility, but how you do your laundry will have an impact on where you live and how much laundry costs you)

PRO TIP: Ask where your heat comes from and what kind of stove they have in the unit. Electric stoves use electricity, and gas stoves use gas. This applies to your heat as well. These factors will greatly affect your utility bills.

2. Get A Good Landlord

The impression the individual/company gives you when you talk to them is important. The first apartment we rented was owned by a company, and they clearly ran it like a business. That's a good thing.

The second place we rented was a townhouse owned by an individual. She was a realtor and we didn't get a great business vibe from her when we met her. So many things were not taken care of there, mostly because the building was falling apart and she was just trying to get enough money out of it. She was an alright landlord, but she did some shady things to our neighbors. Not to us though, because we were good tenants (see my next point).

3. Be A Good Tenant

Being a good tenant pays well, believe me. Pay your rent on time, and don't be a jerk to your landlord. Then, when things fall apart, they want to fix it because they don't want to lose a good tenant. I'm serious about this. Be business-like, and be a good tenant.

4. Ask To See the Actual Unit, and Only Sign for THAT Unit

We didn't have this issue, but we know a lot of horror stories about people who were shown gorgeous showroom units, and then were rented horrible, infested, broken down units. Ask if you're seeing the actual unit. If they say it's not available to see yet (they're painting, etc.), ask to come back when it's done. Trust me. You want to see the actual unit.

5. Read Your Lease, and Ask to Edit It Where Need Be

You remember that townhouse I talked about? When we were given the lease, the landlord was out of town and her business partner met with us so we could sign. We noticed they mentioned a fee for water to be paid directly to the landlord every month as part of our rent, and an additional fee if we went over a certain amount of water. We had a few issues with this.

First, we had been told water would be included. Second, the amount of water required to owe the additional fee wasn't specified (probably because it was a string of six townhouses and she got one bill for the whole building, so basically she could ask for more money from everyone if only one tenant used way too much water).

We brought this up to the business partner, and he edited it right then and there and had us initial the edit. According to him, this was a change they were going to implement with new tenants soon, but they had not figured out the logistics yet. We didn't have to pay water, and the edited lease reflected that.

PRO TIP: Both the landlord and the tenants have to initial a change on the lease AND date the change; you can't just change the lease and sign. It won't hold up in a court of law.

6. You Will Probably Have to Pay Fees to the Electric/Gas/Etc. Companies if You've Never Had A Utility Bill Before

If you've never paid for electric, gas, water, etc., you may have to pay a deposit when you open your account. For us, we had to pay for electric and gas, and the deposit was around $90 for one and $60 for the other (this was over five years ago so those are estimates). The $90 one was actually applied to our bill over the next three months, so essentially we got that money back, but the $60 one was never returned; it wasn't just a deposit, but also a fee for opening the account.

7. Expect Credit/Background Checks

Depending on where you're looking at, the renters may require a credit and/or a background check. We had both checks run at both places. They just want to make sure you aren't a scam artist and they want to see whether you've paid your bills in the past. Some places also won't rent to felons and state that in their leases.

You should also expect the utility companies to run credit checks, especially when you're opening an account for the first time. They mostly just want to make sure you'll pay your bills.

8. Take Reviews With A Grain of Salt

Reviews are super important, because no one can tell you what a place is like better than someone who's lived there. There's just a few things to keep in mind:

-Terrible, Angry Tenants: Terrible tenants who were angry they didn't get what they wanted will leave bad reviews to punish their landlord. A good way to spot this is that the review is a rant: no punctuation, bad spelling (not like they can't spell, just like they were typing too quickly and didn't care), and an inability to list actual issues with the apartment. "Terrible landlord" is not a good indication that the place is unreliable. Go meet the landlord yourself.

-The Date of the Review: If the old one's are terrible and the new ones are great, ask yourself why. Have they made updates? Has the management changed? You can ask these questions directly to the landlord, just do it politely. Do the same if the reverse is the case.

-Anyone Claiming They Were Evicted: Let me make this simple; if you're a good tenant, you pay your rent on time, and you're not a jerk to your landlord, there's no reason why they would evict you. I'm skeptical of ANYONE who says they were unfairly evicted. Although that is sometimes the case, it's better to get a read on the landlord than judge them prematurely and miss out on a great apartment.

PRO TIP: The only reason I can logically think of for being unfairly evicted is if the apartment is "rent-controlled", which means you're paying less than market value for your apartment. To put this simply, evicting someone because their apartment is rent-controlled is illegal, and most landlords aren't dumb enough to try this for the difference of $50-$100 a month.

9. Take Any Specific Claims of Pests Seriously

I read a long review for an apartment where the guy told a story about roaches running across the countertops when they turned on the lights in the kitchen, and the management had people come in to spray once a month, but pest control only sprayed the cabinets. Not only that, but when pest control came, the tenants had to remove all of their belongings out of the cabinets, and they were typically only given a few days notice.

You can't make that up. The guy was calm, and matter-of-fact, and he was even kind to management saying, other than the pest issue, they were great landlords. Unless the above rules about reviews make the pest reviews seem shady, take them seriously.

10. Expect Additional Fees (Even If You Don't Choose To Live There)

Five fees I see a lot: Application fee, Administration fee, Pet fees, garage or parking fees, and the down-payment. Most everyone expects to pay a down-payment and it's typically one month's rent, so let's get that one out of the way and talk about some of these other fees:

-Application Fee: We've always paid an application fee. This is pretty normal. Remember they usually do credit checks so some of the fee may cover that.

-Administration Fee: We may have paid one for our first apartment, but other than that I don't see these a lot. I'm starting to see them more, and I especially see them when you're renting from a company.

-Pet Fees: If you have a pet, you'll likely have two pet fees. One fee you pay monthly: I usually see between $30-60 a month per pet. The other is a deposit you pay with your down-payment, which I normally see in the $200-$300 range. (These ranges are usually specific to the area so check with management for specific prices).

PRO TIP: Not all apartments allow pets! If you have a furry friend, make sure you discuss that up front. Also discuss what breeds and types of pets are allowed, as not all "pet-friendly" places are friendly to all pets.

-Parking/Garage Fees: I typically don't see any parking fees, but if you want a garage, you will likely have to pay a fee for one. I typically see these fees in the range of $50-$100 a month.

Compare these fees with the same fee from other nearby apartments to rent. Don't be afraid to ask management questions, especially if the fee seems incredibly high for the area.

The Bottom Line:

Ask questions.

Don't sign a lease if you still have questions about the place, and don't be afraid to ask questions (nicely). If they get offended about typical questions (like what is the area like at night or is this a family friendly apartment complex) then be cautious.

What have your apartment renting experiences been like? Share below in the comments!