Finding your first apartment is an exciting milestone. You finally have a space all your own to do whatever you want -- whether it's decorating your living room in leopard print or hosting a dinner party for all your friends. But as with many firsts, your first apartment hunt can be overwhelming and stressful. This step-by-step guide can help you navigate the search and find the perfect first place.
1. Establish your rental budget. The last thing you want to do is get stuck in an apartment you can't afford, so it's important to set a budget and stick to it. A general rule of thumb is that you should never pay more than 30 percent of your take-home pay on housing, including utilities, Internet and cable. If you have limited funds and are finding it difficult to find an apartment within your budget, you may want to consider getting a roommate to share expenses.
2. Determine which neighborhoods work for you. You should feel safe and happy in your neighborhood. Think about what you need (for example, grocery store, gym, public transportation) and how far you're willing to travel for it. If you're not working nearby, you'll also need to consider your commute to and from the office.
3. List your must-have apartment amenities. Before you start your apartment search, determine which amenities are must-haves and which are conveniences you can live without. Keep in mind that you may need to make some concessions to stay within your budget. Some common must-have apartment amenities include on-site or in-unit laundry, a dishwasher, parking spot (or two if you have a roommate), an outdoor space, air conditioning, fitness center or community pool.
4. Start your rental search. Once you know what you're looking for and how much you can afford, start searching for apartments. Contact properties that seem like a good fit to set up appointments for tours.
5. Tour apartments that meet your search criteria and budget. This is your potential home, so treat your first visit like an inspection. Turn on all the faucets to make sure the pressure is to your liking and gauge how long it takes for water to heat up. Check the locks on the doors and windows of the apartment to ensure they work properly. Bring along a phone charger so you can check that all the outlets are working. If there is laundry on-site, ask to see the facility to make sure it is conveniently located and you feel safe.
Remember you will be making a first impression on a potential landlord, so be sure you look presentable and show up to apartment tours on time.
6. Be prepared to fill out a rental application and pay a small fee. When you go to view apartments, you should be prepared to fill out a rental application, especially if you live in a city with a rental market where apartment shopping is competitive. Bring your checkbook for the application fee, a check stub to prove your income and a photo ID.
7. Read your apartment lease (and make sure you understand it) before you sign on the dotted line. When you find a great apartment, you may be tempted to just go ahead and sign, but not carefully reading your apartment lease can lead to trouble down the road. It's a legal document that shouldn't be taken lightly.
As you read through your apartment lease, make sure it answers the following questions:
-- Are pets allowed, and if so, is there a deposit or pet rent required?
-- Are there restrictions on the number of roommates?
-- What is the apartment maintenance process?
-- Are you allowed to make any customizations, like hanging shelves or painting walls?
-- Which utilities are you responsible for paying?
-- What are the consequences of breaking your lease before the term is up?
If any of these questions are unanswered, ask your new landlord to put the answers in writing before you sign the lease.
You should also make sure any pre-existing damage to the apartment is detailed in your lease so you aren't held responsible when you move out. Take time-stamped photos to document any damage as well. You don't want to be liable for the dents and dings and lose that security deposit!
Niccole Schreck is the rental experience expert for rent.com, a free rental site that helps you find an affordable apartment and provides tips on how to move.
More From US News & World Report