Real Estate

Renting an apartment or home? Here is what real estate experts say you need to know

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Looking for an apartment or house to rent can be stressful.

Rental prices have rebounded well above their pandemic lows and are now among the major inflation pain points for American consumers, along with food and gas prices. Several factors have contributed to the rising rents, including low housing inventories. It is a vicious cycle: less inventory drives up home prices and results in more potential homebuyers opting to rent, which in turn drives up rental prices.

Take New York City as an example. Data provided by StreetEasy shows a dramatic rise in its housing market. As of February, Manhattan rents are up 36% year over year, with rents up over 15% in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. But surging rent isn’t confined to metropolitan areas. Demand for single-family rental homes is soaring as rents gained a record 12.6% year over year in January, according to a recent report from CoreLogic.

The current real estate market dynamics make it all the more important to know your budget and have all your documents ready as the first steps when beginning a housing search.

Figuring out a housing budget

When it comes to deciding how much you want to pay for a new place, knowing what you can afford is crucial. People need to consider more than just the monthly rent when creating a budget, according to Sophia Bera, a certified financial planner and founder of Austin, Texas-based Gen Y Planning. “People need to tally up their current expenses,” Bera said. “Do they have any monthly expenses, like student loans, credit card debt or car payments?”

She recommends using a rent calculator, like the one available at rentcafe.com. People can enter the zip code they are searching for a rental within, their monthly income, preexisting debts, and the site will recommend a budget. A good rule of thumb for renters is to spend around 30% of monthly take-home income on rent, according to Bera. Paying up to 40% can begin to affect how much you can save and spend on other activities.

Rental application costs

Many landlords or property managers charge an application fee when you are interested in renting a property. This can be as low as $20 (where New York City caps the fee) but run as high as $50 in many places.

States, cities and apartment complexes can all have various requirements. Still, most rental applications require similar information for each applicant so they can verify your identity and your ability to pay rent. Information can include your personal contact information, Social Security number, current and previous addresses, employer information, and proof of income and credit reports. Having these documents ready can help get you approved faster.

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The fee should not be a deal breaker, but because the application process often includes a background check and credit report on a potential tenant, if there are multiple people being put on a lease the application fee may be assessed per individual. Any current credit reports you can offer in lieu of having a credit check done again could help to reduce the application fees.

“It’s always worth trying to negotiate with a landlord so you might be able to pull previous reports to avoid it,” says Jeff Andrews, a senior market analyst at Zumper, a rental listings platform. But he added, “It’s probably not worth getting into a huge battle over though because you have a bigger recurring expense to negotiate that would more impactful to whittle down. Rent.”

Real estate brokerage fee

There is a much bigger expense to factor into a rental budget when you are working with a real estate broker — a brokerage fee if you end up signing a lease. When beginning a rental search, you will want to make sure you have enough saved to cover this fee, which can be high.

A broker’s fee is like a finder’s fee, typically, around one month’s rent, or 10% to 15% of the annual lease. While you might be able to find an apartment without a broker, it gets tougher in bigger cities, Andrews said. Most online housing platforms allow you to filter a search for apartments that don’t require payment of a broker fee.

While a real estate market as hot as the current one gives less leverage to the renter, relying on personal networks, social media and online listing boards can be helpful if you want to avoid a fee (though be careful with online listing boards since brokers use them as well). In some smaller cities and towns, you can do your own searching, driving around neighborhoods you are targeting and looking for rental signs right out front of properties.

However you search for an apartment, make sure to ask any real estate professional you do end up working with if there is a broker fee involved, because unlike a security deposit, you won’t get this back.

Security deposits

Typically, landlords will ask new tenants for a security deposit, which is usually equivalent to a month’s rent, as well as the first month’s rent, before the tenant moves in. After a lease has ended, tenants should get their security deposit back, minus any costs to fix damage to the apartment. But there are a few basic steps to take at the time of rental to increase the chances that a security deposit is returned in full.

Documentation is your best friend, Andrews said. “First, make sure you are familiar with what the lease says about security deposits. If it’s not detailed, push the landlord for specifics to be put in the lease,” Andrews said. If a tenant owns a pet make sure that you are aware of the pet damages that you could be on the hook for.

Landlords often employ property managers or maintenance personnel to service anything that might break in the apartment. They do not want tenants attempting to make their own repairs. If something breaks, like a lighting fixture, refrigerator, or toilet it’s best to alert your landlord as soon as possible.

Andrews also recommends taking detailed photos of the condition of the apartment before and after moving in and out. “It’s also best to create a paper trail, so emailing the landlord or property manager with those pictures when you move will help you later if you’re having to prove that you did not damage the property,” he said.

Each lease will be different said Andrews so it is important to address any concerns with the landlord. If new a tenant owns pets make sure the terms are fleshed out as the landlord will probably want the tenant to convert any potential damages.

Your credit score and renting

Since many rental applications include a credit check, if you are concerned about your current credit score negatively impacting your rental chances and want to improve it, there are a few things you can do in advance. No. 1: pay off any debt you can to improve your score quickly.

“If [you] have a low interest or zero interest credit card, pay that off,” Bera says.

She also recommends calling your credit card company to see if they’ll increase your credit limit to lower your credit utilization. Say you have a limit of $5,000, but only use around $2,500 monthly. That is a utilization rate of 50%. But if you can increase your limit to $10,000, that $2,500 now becomes a 25% utilization rate. If you recently started earning a higher income, banks are likely to offer you a higher limit.

In addition, Bera says that while you are on the phone with a credit card company, ask if they’ll lower the interest rate on any outstanding debt. “In some cases, banks will offer 0% interest for 6 months,” she said.

First-time renter requirements

When someone is renting for the first time, landlords will often want a guarantor to sign the lease along with the tenant. A guarantor is an individual who guarantees a renter’s payment on a lease. If you are unable to find a guarantor, being able to prove ample savings and a strong credit score could convince the landlord to waive a guarantor. Renting from a smaller company or individual landlord may also work in your favor.

If you have been approved to move into a new building or home, the landlord or property manager will ask you to sign a lease. “Read your lease! It’s a legally binding document you are signing. Don’t be afraid of the legalise,” said Bera.

“Anything that looks shoddy, unprofessional, or incomplete is a huge red flag. The lease should be detailed and comprehensive,” Andrews said. He recommends reviewing every page within the lease. “I think it’s best to have a comprehensive understanding of the lease so you know what you’re getting into. Through that process, things that are fishy or disagreeable to you will come out,” he added.

Before you sign anything, read it at least twice. Penalties for late rent are common. There could be clauses in the lease that prevent you from subletting the apartment and specific time frames you must adhere to if you want to break the lease early. Some landlords will also include clauses about the number of guests tenants can have over and the duration of their stay. It can also help to have a friend reread the lease to make sure you didn’t miss anything. If you have a friend or family member who is a lawyer, even better.

Moving costs

If you are approved for a rental and have covered all the direct fees and expenses, don’t forget to factor in one more big-budget item: the cost of moving. Moving over state lines will be far more expensive than if you are just moving within a city. People should also decide how much service they will need. If you plan on doing the moving yourself or with roommates, it will be cheaper than hiring movers, but more physically demanding and time-consuming.

For people who plan on taking the do-it-yourself method, compare rates between different truck rental providers. Also, consider what supplies you will need — boxes, tape, moving blankets, pushcarts.

Sites like Moving.com can help your estimate how much it will cost you to move with a cost calculator. There are plenty of costs to consider, too, from fuel costs to the size of your move, moving supplies, and moving date. Weekend moves tend to be more expensive than mid-week moves. Moves that take place during peak moving season, typically April – September, can also be costlier.

If hiring movers, the weight of your belongings will affect the cost. For long-distance moves, it’s around $0.70 per pound of goods for every 1,000 miles, according to Joshua Green from My Moving Reviews. For shorter, local moves, he estimates it’s around $60 per hour.

When you hire movers, don’t forget to budget in a tip of around 15% to 20%.

Renters insurance

Finally, renters insurance is a must-have, according to Bera. Not only is this insurance affordable, but some policies include additional protection for pets or expensive electronics. Online insurance platforms like Lemonade.com offer insurance rates starting as low as $5 per month. Insurance customers can often get better rates when they consolidate policies with a provider, so if you already have car insurance, for example, it is worth asking your current insurance company what renters insurance options they offer.

Andrews says renters should definitely get insurance if they have anything valuable in the house that could be lost or damaged in a fire.

Also check with your local government, as some cities require renters to purchase insurance.

Finding somewhere to rent can be stressful, especially if it’s your first time searching and it is during a booming real estate market. Knowing how much you can spend from your monthly income, budgeting for rental search and moving expenses, and having your essential documents ready in advance can prepare you to act fast when you find your new place.

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