A Practical Renters Guide From a Lifelong Renter
For those of us who can’t afford to buy a home, just don’t want to buy a home, or who enjoy the freedom to move around as we please, renting can be a great option. According to Census Bureau data, 35% of U.S. households rent — including 61.5% of those living in apartments and 26.7% of those in houses.
This means that, for a huge portion of Americans, renting is a way of life. Nevertheless, whether you’re looking for your first rental or you’ve been a tenant for years, there may be some things you don’t know about renting an apartment, house, or other dwelling.
In this guide, we’ll look at each step of the rental process — from finding a place to living as a renter — and discuss what to consider, what to know ahead of time, and how to get the most for your money.
Searching for a rental
It goes without saying that, before you can move into your new rental, you’ll need to find one first. Luckily, these options can help with that process.
Finding a place to rent
Portals and search
If you’re looking for a place to rent, I’m willing to bet that typing just a word or two plus “.com” will get you to a portal that will help. Looking for an apartment? There’s Apartments.com. A different type of rental. Rentals.com. Even Rent.com is a search portal and not a fansite for the beloved 1996 Broadway musical.
Each of these sites may have its own quirks, pros, and cons — but they can usually help give you a taste of what’s available.
In addition to using these portals, I’d recommend also looking to see if the properties you’re interested in have their own site (or at least a site from the property management company). From my own experience, these sites often have clearer information than the aggregator sites. Also, when it’s time to contact a landlord or property manager, I’d recommend doing so directly rather than the messaging services on the portals.
On the whole, Craigslist may not have the best reputation — but it’s where I’ve managed to successfully find roommates and rentals in the past. That’s partially because the site is free to use whereas more “professional” outlets might charge a listing fee. At the same time, because just about anyone can post on the platform, there are a few precautions you’ll want to take when perusing Craigslist for rentals.
First, never send money to anyone before you’ve at least seen the place (including the inside!) and confirmed that the rental is legitimate. Second, as the old saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
With that in mind, pay close attention to both the listing itself and any correspondence you have with the person offering the rental. You may want to run a reverse image search on the photos used in the listing to confirm they’re not being used elsewhere — if they are, it’s a huge red flag. As for the correspondence, if the person seems to be dodging your questions, writing strangely, or pressuring you in any way, it’s probably best to move on.
It’s true that navigating Craigslist while avoiding scams can be frustrating. But, in some cases, it’s still a good tool for finding rentals that might not appear elsewhere.
Of course, if you’re looking for a place to live, it can’t hurt to see if your friends have any recommendations or leads. Whether this means sharing a new place together, renting from them, living near them, or perhaps searching alongside a mutual friend, this can often be among the easiest ways to start the rental-seeking process.
That said, while this option may be the best in many cases, it is worth considering the downsides of living with friends. No matter how well you know each other, living together can add a new level of stress. This isn’t to scare you off of the idea, but it is something to be aware of and consider ahead of time (which is a phrase you’ll be seeing many times throughout this guide).
Seeking out roommates
One of the best and easiest ways to save on a rental is to find roommates. Whether this means moving into an already-rented location or finding a new place together, the process of arranging a roommate situation isn’t that far removed from the tips I shared above.
As I mentioned, I’ve previously found roommates on Craigslist — in these instances, it was someone who had a room already for rent. In terms of portals, there are options such as Roommates.com that are built to help people pair (or group) up. And, of course, there’s also the option of finding friends or friends-of-friends who may also be looking for a place. In each case, all of the same advice as above applies.
Comparing the full costs of renting
One of the downsides of looking for rentals is that it’s difficult to easily compare apples to apples. That’s because some apartments or homes may not include the same amenities as others. On top of that, depending on your situation, you may be subject to certain fees at one property but not at another. To help you navigate these issues, here are some common expenses associated with rentals that you’ll want to take into account when deciding which options are best for you and your budget.
In most cases, in addition to rent, you’ll need to also concern yourself with the cost of utilities. To further confuse things, the term “utilities” can vary from place to place. For example, in some cases, tenants need only worry about covering electricity while, in other cases, they may also need to pay separately for water. Because of this, you’ll want to be clear on what exactly is included with each rental you’re looking at.
If you’re one of the dwindling number of people who enjoy watching linear television, then you may want to know how much it’ll cost to get cable or satellite TV for your rental. Once again, this is something that may be included with some rentals — but that is far from being the standard. In the event cable isn’t included, the unit will likely at least be equipped for it, although this is not a guarantee (especially in more rural areas). Similarly, if you prefer satellite, you will want to know where installation of a dish is allowed in your chosen rental.
These days, a solid Internet connection is often far more important than cable or satellite TV. That’s likely why many rentals feature Internet as an included amenity. But, once again, that’s not always the case.
Something else to note is that a lack of included Internet may, in some cases, be a good thing. Why? Well, the connections included with some rentals may not be the absolute best — and tenants might not have the option to upgrade. So, if you work from home and/or stream often, you may be better off self-selecting your Internet package. Either way, if a good Internet connection is important to you, know what to expect and what your options are.
This is one you might not think about but can also play a role in how much you pay for your rental. For apartments, trash hauling may be included as community dumpsters are utilized by all tenants. However, some properties may offer what’s called valet trash. This usually means that, on a regular basis, tenants are able to leave their trash in a designated bin outside their units and have it collected. It sounds great — but might have a cost associated with it. Plus, in my experience, apartments with valet trash don’t allow you to opt out (you don’t have to use the service but you’ll still pay for it).
If you plan on bringing a pet, such as a dog or cat, with you to your new place that may bring some additional costs to your rental. Some landlords may simply require a pet deposit while others may also charge monthly pet rent (likely in addition to the deposit). In either case, you’ll want to be upfront about what pets you have so you can understand the pricing. On that note, don’t try to hide your pets from your landlord to save money — chances are, that’s just going to end up biting you in the rear and could be grounds for eviction.
Finally, when comparing rental prices, it’s also important to consider practical amenities. While these benefits may not be directly tied to a cost, they may still have monetary value. A prime example of this is an in-unit washer and dryer. Not only is this convenient but also saves you money when compared to having to go to a laundromat or even an on-site laundry facility.
Similarly, if a complex features a well-equipped gym on property, then you may be able to cancel a current membership you have to another facility.
Again, the key word here is “practical,” so be honest with yourself about how much value you’ll really be getting from these features.
Other considerations when renting
In addition to those common expenses, there may be other factors that influence your decision to rent at a certain property. Here are a couple of examples.
Before deciding on a rental, you’ll want to ensure that your furry (or not-so-furry) friends can join you. Beyond the pet deposit and pet rent policies I mentioned above, there may be other pet rules in place. This could include weight limits, breed restrictions, etc. So, even if you don’t currently have a pet, it will behoove you to know these rules and make sure you stay on the right side of them.
Just as we talked about practical amenities earlier, your prospective rental may feature some amenities that just aren’t all that useful to you. That may be fine in some cases — however, keep in mind that you may still be paying a premium to have those luxuries you’re not taking advantage of. This is to say that, while they may not be a line item on your rent, you can bet that they at least play a role in how a landlord values their property and, in turn, their rental pricing.
How to save money on rent
Who wouldn’t want to pay less for rent? If you’re in search of the most bang for your buck, you may have a few options to at least try.
You’ve probably heard the cliche that the top three most important factors in real estate are location, location, and location. Punchline aside, it’s true that the location of your rental can have a huge impact on your rent. Therefore, if you want to save money, you may want to look for rentals on the outskirts of the city rather than downtown. Or, if you’re on the coast, rentals in walking distance of the beach are going to likely cost considerably more than inland properties. Basically, if you’re not finding options in your preferred area, consider widening your search geographically in order to better fit your budget.
When it comes to lease lengths, there are pros and cons to all options. On the one hand, those who want the freedom to move whenever they want may opt for a shorter lease. Meanwhile, those happy to stay put may want to lock their current rent rate for as long as possible by asking for lease terms of a year or more. What’s more, in some cases, landlords may be willing to offer a discount on rent to those willing to sign a long-term lease.
Why? Well, depending on the market, filling an apartment and finding a good tenant can be stressful and costly. Thus, if you can ensure that your unit will be filled for a year or more, the removed stress may be worth at least a few dollars a month.
This may not always be the case — or, instead of being presented as a discount with longer leases, it may be displayed as a penalty for choosing a shorter lease (especially a month-to-month one). Still, it can’t hurt to inquire whether a longer lease term could mean some savings on your rent.
Promotions and referrals
To be honest, I’m not sure how popular rental promotions are in the current market, but they’ve traditionally been a thing. Some examples I’ve seen are waived application or move-in fees, half-off rent for the first month or two, etc. Obviously, these offers are only extended when an apartment complex has plenty of vacancies, but they may be worth keeping an eye out for.
Similarly, once you do move in (and assuming you’d recommend the place), some rentals do offer referral programs. Under these promotions, if you refer a friend to your complex who is then approved and moves in, you may receive a discount on rent — in some cases, they may also get some sort of perk. Again, I can’t speak to how active these types of offers currently still are, but I’ve definitely encountered them in the past.
Yes, this one is obvious — and we already talked about finding roommates above — but I want to include it here anyway.
Ready to rent
Now that you’ve found a place to live, it’s time to get approved. Additionally, depending on the property, you may need to cover some upfront fees before you can qualify. With that, here’s what you should anticipate when it comes to rental deposits and applying to rent,
What’s required to rent
Unfortunately, moving into your new rental rarely just means paying your first month’s rent and getting situated. Instead, there are a few different deposits and fees that may be required depending on the rental. These may include:
- Security deposit
- First and last month’s rent
- Pet deposit
- Move-in fees
Not only should you be aware of the various required deposits and fees upfront but should also take note of which are and are not refundable. For example, those who pay first and last month’s rent upfront should see this applied to their balance. On the other hand, despite the “deposit” part of “pet deposit,” these are typically non-refundable.
Before applying for a place, it’s critical that you are aware of and understand all of these associated fees and have budgeted appropriately for them.
Applying to rent
So what are landlords looking for in a tenant? In short, they want to find someone who will pay their rent on time and be respectful of the property and neighbors. To help ensure they find such people, there are typically a few processes you’ll need to complete in order to be eligible to rent.
The most basic part of a rental application process is the application itself. Oftentimes, this will ask you for your personal info, including details on past addresses and your current employment as well the fundamentals like name, birthdate, etc.. Personal references may also be requested along with past landlord info.
Now is also a good time to mention that many rentals do charge an application fee. Furthermore, these fees are often non-refundable — so, even if you’re denied or don’t end up renting there, you’ll still be out that money. These fees are said to cover some of the cost and labor associated with other aspects we’ll discuss in a moment. Nevertheless, the costs can vary by rental.
As part of the application process, the landlord or management company may perform a credit check on you. The good news is that these should usually be soft inquiries, meaning that there will be no impact on your credit score. However, depending on the landlord, a hard pull may be performed, in which case the inquiry would show on your report. Therefore, you may want to ask and ensure that it’s only a soft pull that will be performed.
Background check and rental history
Another common practice for landlords is to run a background check on potential tenants. This will reveal any criminal convictions as well as any past evictions. Because of this, it’s best practice to be upfront and honest about any of these issues with the person you’re renting from as they’re likely to find out anyway — and trying to hide the information may just make things worse.
Reviewing your lease and unit
Should everything with your application go through, the next step is signing the lease — followed by moving into your rental. In each case, you’ll want to be diligent in order to protect your future self.
Understanding your lease
In the excitement of finding a new rental, you may want to rush through the process of signing your lease and move on to the fun of enjoying your new home. Don’t. Instead, be sure to take the time to read your entire lease and make sure you understand it.
There are a few reasons for this. First, you’ll want to make sure you don’t inadvertently break any rules. Second, you’ll want to be informed about your options such as what it takes to get out of your lease. Thirdly, if your landlord or management company isn’t keeping up their end of the deal, your lease can be cited to either put pressure on them or, god forbid, referenced in any lawsuit that may ensue.
Also, just because your lease is nicely typed up and is apparently ready to sign, don’t be afraid to point out any errors and have them fixed. If the lease says you’re receiving two keys and you’ve only been given one, tell them. If you have questions about a certain aspect of your lease, ask them. Ultimately, you should feel prepared to sign and agree to your lease — so if you feel overly pressured and don’t feel as though you’re questions are being answered, something fishy might be going on.
Finally, make sure you get a copy of your signed lease. This way, you can refer back to it if needed. While keeping a hard copy somewhere is likely a good idea, taking photos you can store digitally can also be useful.
Remember earlier when we discussed security deposits? Oftentimes, these deposits are meant to cover any damages tenants may cause to the rental. But, as we all know, not everything wrong with an apartment or home will be your fault. In fact, some issues may be observed at the time you move in.
That’s why it’s often a good idea to document any issues at the time you move in. Sometimes, the landlord may even provide you with a form to fill out and sign, acknowledging these flaws and filing the document away for your eventual move-out. While these forms can be a bit of a pain in the moment (especially as you’re trying to get settled), it’s critical that you’re as detailed and thorough as possible.
This is where I can speak from personal experience. While that intro may make it sound as though we managed to escape a huge charge by properly covering our butts, it was actually something much smaller and funnier than that. When we moved out of our last apartment, the manager was so overwhelmed by list of move-in notes, that they basically took a look around and decided we were good to go. We got our entire security deposit back despite living in the unit for six years — and, you know, things happen.
Day-to-day as a renter
Congrats on your new place! Now all that’s left is to cover a few things about living as a renter — including maintenance, renters insurance, and paying rent.
Maintenance while renting
One of the biggest advantages of renting over owning is that most general maintenance items will be handled for you. However, according to your lease (which you totally read and understood per our previous section, right?) and rental procedures, how you go about requesting this maintenance may vary.
In managed apartments, you may be able to open a maintenance ticket via an online portal, visit the leasing office, or call a number (there may also be an emergency maintenance number for that matter). Hopefully, doing so will resolve your issue quickly. But, just in case, be sure to document things such as when you informed them of the problem and who you spoke with so that you can escalate matters if needed.
As for other types of rentals, you may need to inform your landlord directly or notify a third-party vendor about issues. Once again, documentation is key.
Hopefully, most renters will see their maintenance issues resolved quickly. Unfortunately, we all know that isn’t always the case. Therefore, you may want to refer to your lease as well as look up the tenant laws in your city/state to see if your landlord may be in violation. If so, you may legally be able to get out of your lease. Obviously, I’m not an expert in this field, so you’ll want to do additional research on this topic and, if it comes to it, contact an attorney who can help you navigate these situations.
Have you heard about the existence of renters insurance and wondered what exactly it offers? If so, you’re not alone. After all, while most people grasp the concept of homeowners insurance — which protects you against damage to your house — why would you need to insure a building you don’t own?
As it turns out, renter’s insurance has little to do with the physical building you’re in and much more to do with what’s in it. This is to say that renter’s insurance covers your personal possessions, as well as shields you from liability for injuries or damages. What’s more, in many cases, renter’s insurance policies cover lost, stolen, or damaged items even if they weren’t in your rental at the time.
The good news is that renter’s insurance policies can be surprisingly affordable, costing as little as a few dollars per month. In many cases, they can also be bundled with your auto insurance, life insurance, or other policies. Because of this, you may want to see if your current auto insurer offers renter’s policies. If not, there are renter’s insurance-specific options or platforms like Lemonade.
By the way, for some rentals, renter’s insurance may actually be required by your landlord or management company. In these cases, make sure you know what levels of coverage you’ll need in order to comply.
Also, for more on renter’s insurance policies — including the difference between replacement value (RV) and actual cash value (ACV) policies — you can check my full guide on the topic.
As basic as it may seem, I felt the need to include this section because, as it turns out, your landlord may not be as up-to-date on technology as you. What I mean is, in some cases, they may still require a paper check or even a money order each month. If they’re not local, you may even have to mail this in (and account for transit time to ensure it arrives before the due date).
On the other hand, while I’m sure there are plenty of landlords that still have these requirements, others as well as management companies now largely offer more convenient options. These include online portals where you can pay your rent each month. Personally, I haven’t had to write a check in three years — and even that was a few years after my apartment complex introduced an electronic option I just failed to adopt.
Once again, this is an instance where it’s important to know what to expect ahead of time. In the event you do need a checking account, there are several online options that you can also order checking from. These include Discover, Ally, and SoFi among others. But, if you can use an online portal and it doesn’t cost you anything extra, that may be the way to go.
Can you pay rent with a credit card?
Something else you may have wondered is whether or not you can pay rent with a credit card. In most cases, the answer is “yes” — however, this may not always be a good idea. That’s because many properties will charge you a service fee for doing so. For example, when paying rent through my rental portal, it takes on a 3% fee for credit card transactions (whereas using a bank account is free and using a debit card is a flat $6.95 fee). This will likely mean that any rewards you’d earn from the transaction would be more than outdone by these fees. That said, if you’re trying to meet a minimum spending requirement in order to earn a large welcome bonus, then it may ultimately be worth taking on the fee.
In the event that your landlord doesn’t accept credit cards directly, there may also be third-party services that can help. One of the most popular options in Plastiq — although the service has pivoted toward small businesses rather than individuals. Of course, these services also come with similar fees, so they may also not be a great option.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one particular credit card that not only earns rewards on rent but also allows you to avoid the fees: The Bilt Mastercard. With Bilt, you’ll earn 1x points on rent payments (up to 100,000 points per year). Plus, cleverly, Bilt allows you to generate a routing and account number akin to a checking account, allowing you to pay rent via a rental portal without incurring the aforementioned fees.
Alternatively, they can send a check to your landlord on your behalf. As a Bilt Mastercard user myself, I’ve personally verified that this rental portal option works beautifully and have been able to earn rewards on my rent payments accordingly. So, if you’re in the market for a new credit card, then Bilt may be worth a closer look.
Contrary to popular belief, renting isn’t “throwing your money away” as there are many legitimate advantages to renting versus owning. At the same time, renters do face some unique challenges and considerations when it comes to finding a place and living it in. On the bright side, there are now more options than ever for prospective renters to find rentals, meet prospective roommates, get advice on landlord or management issues, and more. Heck, you can even earn credit card rewards on rent payments now — what a time to be alive!
With all of that, I hope this guide has helped to better prepare you for what to expect from your current or next rental. Good luck!