As you get ready to move out of Mom and Dad's, some legwork could save you many a headache. In many parts of the country, especially California, Florida and Arizona, it's a renter's market. Renters have more choices — from traditional apartments to single-family homes — and more bargaining power. Renters also should be prepared to deal with first-time landlords, who have decided to lease a property they can't sell in the current downturn. Here are five tips to get you started.
Set a budget. Look at your income and expenses and determine how much you can afford to pay for rent. A good rule of thumb is spending no more than 30 percent of your monthly take-home pay. And don't forget, some landlords include utilities in the rent, some don't. Some also charge extra for parking and pets. Once you have a limit, you can start looking.
Research your options. Check Web sites such as craigslist.com and apartments.com, rental magazines and newspaper listings. Drive around the neighborhood you want to live in, both during the day and at night. Ask family, friends and co-workers for recommendations. Once you have a few apartments in your sights, compare living spaces, amenities and prices.
Inspect the common areas of a property. If the hallways and elevators are dirty or the grounds overgrown, the landlord may also take a long time to make any repairs.
Talk to some of the residents. You might get details you wouldn't hear otherwise, like odors from the restaurant next door or the upstairs neighbor's dog that barks all day when the owner is away.
Keep a priorities list. What do you want most? A large kitchen, many windows, a balcony or a big master suite? And don't forget the small things that could become bigger deals if you have to live with it everyday.
"Check the water pressure. That can really drive some people nuts," says Jimmi Circosta, an associate broker at Citi Habitats in New York.
Stroll or drive around the neighborhood. Where's the nearest supermarket, dry cleaners and pharmacy? Is the neighborhood residential or in a bustling downtown? Go out to dinner in the area to help make sure it fits you. "Too many times I've heard people say I love the apartment, but not the neighborhood," Circosta says.
Background checks, yours and theirs. Once you've made your choice, go into the leasing office prepared. Landlords or property managers will likely require identification, your social security number to pull your credit report and criminal background check, and employment information. The landlord may also ask for a nonrefundable application fee.
If you're renting from an individual, you can check out his financial situation by sifting through district court records for any foreclosure actions, judgments or bankruptcy filings. You can also contact the local Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints filed against the landlord.
Before signing anything, ask about any manager specials that may not be advertised, suggests Richard Snyder, president of R.A. Snyder Properties in San Diego.
"In the current environment that is becoming increasingly a renter's market, you're starting to see concessions such as move-in bonuses or money off the rent," he says.
Or, some landlords might offer a lower rent if you sign a longer lease.
Beware of extra charges, penalties. Be aware of what's included in the rent, like utilities. Are there extra charges for parking, pool, gym or pets? Can you make changes to the apartment? What's the penalty for terminating early? In what cases can the landlord keep your security deposit? Is it a month-to-month or yearlong lease?
If the unit you want to rent has damage or needs repairs, make sure it is addressed in the lease. Double-check that the rent, start date and end date on the lease are correct.
The landlord will probably ask you for the first month's rent and security deposit, usually equal to at least one month's rent.
If you don't understand something, ask. It's better to look foolish before you sign than after.