Moving into your first apartment is exciting stuff. I was 22 at the time, a recent college graduate with a lucrative English major under my belt. It was a beautiful season of life, right before I realized the crushing cost of avocados and the impossibility of meeting a boyfriend “in the wild,” such as at the Barnes & Noble magazine rack.
Most of these life lessons are best learned from experience — the exceptions being cutting your roommate’s bangs with poultry shears and blindly signing your first apartment lease. The former should never be attempted; the latter requires a bit of preparation and forethought.
Following are 11 things you should know before getting the keys to your first place. The rest you’ll learn as you go.
1. Narrow your search by price and location.
According to Doug Culkin, President and CEO of the National Apartment Association, those are the two biggest factors you should consider when selecting an apartment.
We’d all love to live in an apartment straight out of Friends, but I’m going to drop a truth bomb: Monica and Rachel never could have afforded their place in Greenwich Village. If you settle on a place that’s above your means and fall behind on rent payments, pulling a Ross and claiming you were “on a break” isn’t going to fly with your apartment owner. Choose wisely.
(And for the record, Rachel and Ross were so not on a break.)
2. Find a community with a reputable management company or owner that meets your price and location criteria, and also offers the specific amenities you’re looking for.
The National Apartment Association (NAA) has a network of affiliated member companies that provide quality, affordable rental housing and follow NAA’s suggested best practices.
Once you’ve called your local apartment association and verified that the management company is a member of NAA, consider which amenities mean the most to you and narrow your results accordingly.
A fire pit, billiards room, state-of-the-art fitness center and poolside cabanas may all seem like “must haves,” but you have to ask yourself which amenities you’ll actually use. I’m a charitable individual, but I resent my monthly donations to Gold’s Gym. Be honest with yourself.
3. Confirm that the terms in the lease match what you’ve been told.
Culkin suggests asking for clarification regarding anything you don’t understand. Leasing agents and community managers are happy to answer your questions. Don’t know what submetering means? Just ask.
Maybe don’t ask me, though…
4. Note additional fees.
Pay attention to whether utilities are included in the base rent or billed separately. The trend is moving toward the latter, which may come as a surprise to first-time renters who’ve never thought twice about cranking the A/C or running the hot water at Mom and Dad’s house.
Unfortunately, utility bills are similar to suspicious moles and secretly wishing someone would turn down the music at the bar; all are filed under “harsh realities of adulthood.” Better to know on the front-end and budget accordingly.
In addition to utility bills, ask about application or amenities fees. Think of it as paying to apply to college, minus having to write an essay about how your participation in Varsity tennis shaped you into the person you are today.
5. Be aware of community rules.
Wait, you thought adulthood meant fewer rules to follow? Oh you sweet, naïve cherubs.
In reality, apartments do offer a great deal of freedom — you just have to make sure you’re up to speed on potential policies regarding quiet hours, visitors and pet restrictions. All creeds are welcome, but not all breeds.
6. Understand any lease termination policies.
Some leases automatically renew — others require residents to notify the property manager of their intent to either renew their lease or move. Culkin says some leases also require residents to provide a certain amount of notice if they plan to vacate after their initial lease has expired. Failure to comply could result in a fee.
Check the policy for breaking the lease, too, so you’ll know what to expect if unforeseen circumstances arise that require you to leave before your lease is up. However, it’s best to avoid this scenario, if possible. You’re not making a lifetime commitment to marry someone. You’ll be lucky if you wash your comforter by the end of the calendar year, let alone think about moving again.
7. Inquire about rules regarding painting the walls, hanging artwork, copying keys, etc.
Many apartment communities will allow you to paint the walls, so long as you return them to their pearly white status when you move out. Keep this in mind when you’re selecting colors like Tangerine Tango — or, as I like to call it, “Color You Begged Your Former Roommate Not To Pick and Then Tweaked Your Back Trying To Paint Over When She Moved Out.”
You’ll find it listed under the former at Home Depot.
8. If you’re interested in subletting for part of your lease, or adding an additional roommate later on, make sure it’s allowed.
Making some extra cash while you’re on a two-week summer vacation may sound appealing now, but there’s nothing lucrative about ending up in small claims court for illegally subletting your studio apartment. If Orange is the New Black has taught us anything, it’s that it’s always best to avoid any situation that could lead to an extended prison sentence with a woman named Crazy Eyes.
It may seem obvious, but read the entire lease. It’s not going to make any “Best American Non-required Reading” lists, but you can’t use the excuse that you weren’t aware of something that’s clearly stated in the lease.
As NBC taught us, The More You Know.
10. After you’ve signed the lease, check your apartment for pre-existing damage on move-in day.
Before bringing in your belongings — or, more accurately, making your 60-year-old father do so — look for scratched floors, walls or appliances. If you notice any damage, Culkin suggests taking pictures and asking the property manager to put it in writing. Otherwise, you could be charged for the damage or lose your security deposit when you move out.
Take it from someone who’s still trying to backdate a Proactiv stain on the carpet.
11. Try not to break anything.
One of the best parts about renting versus owning is that you have a team of trusty maintenance professionals to handle apartment repairs. However, use a little common sense once you’ve moved into your new apartment. Wear and tear is normal, but shoving an uneaten tray of lasagna down the garbage disposal is not.
On behalf of my former roommate, I apologize for this indiscretion. She knows not what she damaged.