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There are times in life when renting is the best choice and while renting can be less troublesome than owning a home, there are some important considerations before signing the bottom line. Not every space is a good space, not every lease is a good lease, and no matter where you rent, there are some questions to ask and steps you should take to protect yourself.

Can you afford the apartment?

Affordability is key to sustainability. The U.S. Census categorizes households that spend more than 30% of their available income on housing to be “burdened” by housing costs. Numbers close to 30% abound in housing-related affordability topics. The Federal Housing Authority, for example, won’t insure home loans in most cases where the total housing costs exceed 31% of gross income.

The 30% Census figure refers to after-tax income and isn’t a fixed rule of the universe. After all, maybe you live in an area where you don’t need a car or can save on other expenses which can give you some flexibility. Housing costs, however, are something to watch closely because once you sign a lease, there’s no easy way to cut back on the expense.

Unpaid rent due to a lost job, choosing a space that was too expensive, or another hardship, can have consequences, ranging from eviction to judgments that linger on your credit report and can affect your ability to borrow, to buy a car or a house, or to rent another apartment.

A collection for an unpaid rent or for unpaid damages to the apartment, like paint, carpet, or drywall damage, can stay on your credit report for seven and a half years from the date of delinquency. A collection on your credit history can drop your credit score by up to 100 points.

Will the location add to your expenses?

Rents can be prohibitively high in some areas, forcing some people further away from their jobs or workplaces and adding commuting time. Some who work in high-rent areas like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and other major metro areas are sometimes commuting more than ninety minutes to work each day. While these “super commutes” are in the minority, where you choose to live has a cost effect on commuting cost (and time) and may also require additional travel for other services, like shopping, gyms, entertainment, etc.

If the cost of rent is lower in a given area but the commuting costs will be higher, you’ll need to adjust your budget and analyze the big picture for affordability. Saving $250 per month on rent but adding $200 per month in commuting costs may not be a savings significant enough to compensate the lost time. On the other hand, maybe you enjoy one area over another and when it comes to where we live, that’s an important quality-of-life consideration.

Is the space more than you need? Not enough?

The average college dorm is about 230 square feet and houses two people — but most people can’t wait to get out of the tight quarters and get a bit more elbow room. A studio apartment ranges between 250 square feet and 500 square feet. A one bedroom apartment ranges from the size of a large studio up to about 900 square feet.

Consider how you’ll use the space. If you spend most of your time outside of your home, working or engaged in other activities, maybe a smaller space is a better fit. A smaller space will require less time to clean and will be less expensive to furnish. As a society, we tend to fill up empty space with “stuff”, most of which costs money and much of which isn’t needed. A smaller space just might save you money not just on rent but also because there’s no room to fill it with consumer items.

If it’s available in your area, you might consider a smaller apartment that has a patio or veranda that opens up the space and gives you a chance to enjoy the sunshine.

If you have a pet, however, the smallest apartments can get cramped quickly. Experts suggest that most pets will require up to an additional 100 square feet over and above the space you’ll need for yourself.

Another consideration, particularly in the gig economy where many people earn all of or part of their income online, is home-office space. Often, it’s not strictly necessary to have a separate working area — but it can do wonders for your sanity to close the “office” door when it’s time for some well-earned downtime. There will always be some level of compromise. However, your apartment space should fit your lifestyle as closely as your budget allows.

Security concerns

In addition to the “security” deposit required by most landlords, you should also consider your personal security. Consult an online crime map like the ones commonly found on real estate websites but be aware that these maps often cover an entire zip code which may have good areas and areas that are less safe. Visit the neighborhood at various times of day to be sure you’ll feel safe in your home, parking area, and common areas.

Don’t rent it until you see it

Before you take possession of the apartment, you’ll want to tour the space with the landlord or leasing agent. You’re not just looking at whether the space is practical, you’ll also want to look for any damage that hasn’t been repaired. Once you take the space, any existing damage might be attributed to you and could result in extra expenses to repair the damage or lengthy battles with the landlord.

Take digital pictures of any damage and make a detailed list with dates. If possible, have the landlord or apartment representative initial each item in your list. Bring a pen and a legal pad or clipboard to make writing easier. Ask your landlord to repair the damage as soon as possible.

Read the fine print

A lease is a legal contract and some may not be in your best interest to sign. In other cases, leases might just contain typos or other mistakes that make them less-than-accurate. If possible, get a copy of the lease beforehand to review at a time that’s convenient for you.

Check the basics, like your name and the names of any other people who will be on the lease, including roommates. Also check the landlord’s name and the location for the property.

You’ll want to read and understand the entire lease. Paying particular attention to these areas:

  • Tenant rules: What’s allowed and what isn’t — are there any deal-breakers?
  • Term of the lease: Typically, a lease is for one year. Is there a month-to-month option?
  • Utilities: Who pays the utilities? Who is responsible for reporting problems or testing equipment?
  • Pets: If you have pets, are there limitations on types of pets or size, and is an additional security deposit required? Local ordinances may govern how much a landlord can charge for a pet deposit.
  • Security deposit: How do you get your security deposit back when the lease is over?
  • Rent amount (and future increases, if detailed): Some leases contain automatic increases and can automatically renew with a higher rent. Know the numbers before you sign the lease.

Understand your exit strategy options

Even if you’re the type of person who makes a deal and sticks to it, the rest of the world doesn’t always work that way. Jobs can change, relocate, or go away altogether, possibly forcing you to leave before the lease ends. Parents or family members might develop health issues that require you to be there or maybe your own health requires special care. Things change, so it’s important to understand how you can exit your lease before you enter the lease.

In many cases, you can be held responsible for the rent between the time you leave up until the time the lease expires — or until the landlord finds another tenant. Most landlords don’t want to leave the space empty for an extended period, so you may not be on the hook for the entire remaining term of the lease, but it is possible.

In some states, both you and the landlord are required to try to find a new tenant if you have to vacate early. Read your lease for language regarding “subletting”, “early release”, or “reletting” to better understand your options. Also, understand how much notice you have to give if you plan to leave at the end of the lease.

Roommate considerations

Having a roommate to split expenses can be another way to mitigate housing costs. Not everyone makes a great roommate, however. You might be able to come to an amicable agreement about housekeeping and not leaving your socks lying around but other considerations can affect you financially.

Is your prospective roommate a responsible person? Even if you’re great friends, someone who is often between jobs or who misses their share of the rent can create a problem. Can you afford to pay the rent on your own if your roommate can’t or doesn’t contribute?

Can you afford to pay the rent if your roommate leaves suddenly? Your roommate might decide to get married, move in with a significant other, join the traveling circus, or any of a number of life choices that can leave you on your own to cover rent and utilities. Choose your roommate carefully, but also establish an emergency fund so you can land on your feet if your roommate situation changes unexpectedly and your housing expenses increase as a result.

Prepare a renters resume

You’re familiar with job resumes. A renters resume is similar in that it summarizes your selling points, but as a tenant instead of as a job applicant. You can find several online guides and templates to get you started with formatting but your renters resume should include the following:

  • Contact information
  • Where you’ve lived before
  • A list of personal references
  • A list of previous landlords, if applicable
  • Current income and current employer
  • Job title and where you work
  • Pets, if applicable
  • Credit score

In a competitive rental market, your renters resume can help you stand out. In many markets like those offering leasing promotions, a renters resume may not be necessary but with the only cost being a bit a time, it can’t hurt to have a renters resume when you’re apartment hunting.

Ask for a deal

In some markets, you’ll find plenty of advertised deals for first month free or no security deposit required. These are more common for apartment complexes. Private landlords may not offer such enticements but there’s no harm in asking. If the security deposit is high but you like the space otherwise, ask for a lower security deposit. If you’re a strong candidate for the space, ask for a small decrease in the rent or for a free parking spot. Be polite and respectful. There are no guarantees that you’ll get a discount of any special consideration but if you look like you’d be a great tenant, maybe one with a strong renters resume, the landlord might be willing to make a concession or two.

Consider renters insurance

Some landlords require renters insurance for tenants but even when it’s not required, renters insurance can be an inexpensive way to protect your belongings and to provide you with some personal liability coverage.

The landlord’s insurance policy only covers the building structure, the landlord’s liability, and the landlord’s belongings that may be on the premises. Your belongings are not covered by the landlord’s policy. If a neighbor has a fire in their unit and some of your belongings are damaged, you may have trouble getting reimbursed without insurance. If you caused the damage accidentally, insurance can save the day.

It’s possible that your landlord has an insurance company or agent that they usually recommend. It’s fine to get a quote from that agent, but also explore your own options. If you already have auto insurance with another insurer, reach out to your own insurer for a renters insurance quote. It’s very common for insurers to offer a multi-policy discount for customers who purchase both auto and home insurance, the latter of which usually includes renters insurance. Better yet, this discount often applies to both policies. It isn’t unusual for the auto discount to offset all or most of the cost of the renters insurance policy, making renters insurance free or nearly free.

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