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6 tips for finding your first apartment on a budget

tips for renting first apartment on budget
October 28, 2016

By Maggie Jenkins

Finding your first apartment is a rite of passage. It can be both incredibly exciting and overwhelming, but you’re not alone: 34.7 percent of renters in the U.S. are under 35, and thousands upon thousands of people make the leap to living on their own each year.

To help make that leap a little less overwhelming, follow these tips for finding your first apartment.

1. Set your budget. First things first: you need to figure out, “How much apartment can I afford?” As a rule of thumb, your rent should be about 25 percent of your income before taxes, though you’ll likely need to spend more in cities like New York or San Francisco. (Check out the handy rent calculator on Domu, a Chicago apartment finder site.) Be specific about what your budget entails. Some places will include utilities like water and electricity, and some won’t, so be sure to account for those expenses as well.

Once you know your price range, stick with it. Yes, that high-rise loft with a rooftop pool is gorgeous, but if it’s not in your budget, don’t torture yourself by looking at it. (maybe that can be your next apartment). Remember, you’ll also need enough money to cover your first month’s rent and a security deposit – usually one month’s rent – when you do finally sign a lease. Staying within your budget also might require you to find a roommate or two.

2. Location, location, location. Pinpointing where you want to live is perhaps the single most important decision you need to make when setting out to find your first apartment. Consider proximity to expressways and/or public transportation, the distance from your job and the neighborhood’s overall vibe. Location can make a big impact on cost, too. For example, the farther away from a city center you go, the more bang you can get for your buck, but that also could lead to a longer commute and more transportation expenses. Research the average price of each neighborhood you’re interested in so you can spot a good deal.

3. Make a list of must-haves and nice-to-haves. You know your budget and you know where you want to live, now what do you want in your apartment? Maybe in-unit washer and dryer would be nice to have, but you’ll settle for in-building laundry facilities. Do you own a cat? Then a pet-friendly building is a must-have. Also, discuss everything with your future roommate(s) to make sure you’re on the same page. Remaining flexible is key, but making these lists will really help you narrow your choices.

4. Know the rental climate. Are rent prices climbing? Are options limited in certain locations? Researching your city’s rental market before you utilize the many apartment-finding resources at your fingertips -- websites and apps like Apartments.com or Zillow, Craigslist, leasing agents, friends, family, co-workers – will help put you in the right frame of mind for your search. You might find dozens of potential places or you might find slim pickings. The most important thing is to go with the flow.

5. Ask questions. Things like number of bedrooms, included utilities and parking are usually listed up front, but there’s other important information that could be deal-breakers or tie-breakers in your final apartment choice. Don’t be afraid to ask your potential future landlord a lot of questions before signing a lease, such as:

* What is the average monthly cost for utilities that aren’t included in the rent?
* What security features are in place (i.e. cameras, locked outer door on building)?
* What is the process for renewing the lease?
* How quickly do repairs tend to take and who makes them?

6. Set realistic expectations. “The perfect apartment” can be hard to find, and odds are, your first time out, you’re not going to find the perfect apartment. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find an affordable place in a good location with most of your must-haves and some of your nice-to-haves. Also, know that these things take time, so be patient. It can be tempting to rush into something, so try to avoid that temptation and take enough time to make a wise decision you feel comfortable with.

In the end, the beauty of renting is that you aren’t tied down forever, so lower the pressure on yourself to find that “perfect” place. Because remember: when your lease is up, you can look for something else if you’re unhappy – and you’ll be an old pro the second time around.


Maggie Jenkins is the PR and Social Media Specialist at Alliant. She began her career as a sports journalist for newspapers in Utica, N.Y., Des Moines and Cincinnati before moving to Chicago in 2009. Maggie is a six-time Chicago Marathon finisher and a lifelong creative writer with a passion for comedy. Her mom instilled in her a great sense of fiscal responsibility, and her big sister told her to throw that responsibility out the window every once in a while in the name of life experience. So far, that combination of financial advice has worked out pretty well for her.