One of the ways I was able to pay off $80,000 of debt in just a few years was by cutting back on the biggest expenses in my life—including my rent. I didn’t move back in with mom and dad, but I did swap living in a $1,000 a month apartment on my own for a $425 room in a house with a few roommates.
Whether you’re looking for your first apartment with roommates or are ready to venture out and find your own place, there are a few things to keep in mind when you go apartment hunting that can save you serious money in the long-run. Because like a mortgage, rent on an apartment is one expense that will never go down; at least until you move. That’s why it’s so important to find the right apartment with rent (and utilities) you can afford, lest you get stuck paying way more than you should until the lease runs out.
Note: These tips are basic, and if you’ve been through an apartment search or two they may not surprise you. I know, however, that most of my friends could have saved big bucks by knowing some of these things before getting their first apartment, so I trust many people will still find them useful.
Here are a few money-saving tips to keep in mind the next time you go apartment hunting.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Leave plenty of time to find an apartment before you have to move. Start looking at least two months before your moving date. You’ll be able to see and apply for more apartments that way, and you’ll have the upper hand in any potential negotiations with the landlord because you aren’t desperate for a new place.
DO NOT PAY A FEE
Realtors and brokers often post apartment listings on the Web and elsewhere, show you one or more units, and don’t explain that if you take the pad, they’ll hit you with a finder’s fee of up to a month’s rent. No thanks.
Renting an apartment isn’t nearly as complicated as buying a home, so there’s usually no need for an intermediary between tenant and landlord. Ask if the person showing you the apartment is the owner. If not, make sure you won’t be charged a fee before you sign the lease.
Although sites like Craigslist require advertisers to disclose if they are the landlord or a broker, double-check when you call them up…unscrupulous agents have been known to post ads in “no-fee” classifieds and pull a bait-and-switch.
Everything is negotiable, including your rent. That is, it’s negotiable until you sign the lease. When you’re interested in taking an apartment, call the landlord and offer to move-in for less rent than asked. If he or she balks, point out anything in the unit in need of repairs (outdated appliances, old tile in bathrooms, etc.). If you’re looking at apartment complexes, shop around for any that have move-in specials. Many will give you a month’s free rent with a year lease if you move-in during a slow month (February-April and October-November are the best months for apartment deals).
GET COPIES OF UTILITY BILLS BEFORE YOU MOVE
Landing a cheap apartment will do you no good if the unit is so poorly insulated it costs a fortune to heat it. Ask your landlord for copies of the previous few months’ electric, water, and oil or gas bills to get an idea what your additional monthly expenses will be.
LOOK FOR UTILITIES-INCLUDED
Although unusual at apartments that are professionally managed, some independent landlords will include some or all of the utilities in the rent. This may be an incentive to attract tenants, or perhaps because the building isn’t set up for individual unit billing. Either way, you’ll usually score a good deal when the utilities are included, because you’ll pay the same monthly fee regardless of how much heat or electricity you use. This is also helpful for budgeting, because you won’t get stuck with a surprisingly high electric bill because you really cranked the AC in July.
READ YOUR LEASE CAREFULLY
Leases are designed to protect both tenants and landlords, so read yours carefully. Pay attention to any costs you may incur above and beyond your rent. What is the penalty for moving-out early? How much notice do you have to give to avoid such a penalty? The landlord should be responsible for any repairs, appliances, and maintenance. Sometimes, however, landlords will specify that they will not provide certain services like snow removal.
Ask prospective landlords if they would consider a tenant-at-will or month-to-month lease. Rather than requiring you to pay a year or more of rent or face penalties, a tenant-at-will agreement will give you the right to move out anytime (with proper notice) without being responsible for fees or legal fees.
PROTECT YOUR DEPOSIT
When you move in, many landlords collect a security deposit of between one half and a full month’s rent. Landlords can use this money to cover any damage you cause to their property. If you move out and everything is still in top shape, however, that money belongs to you, plus any earned interest. Be sure your lease clearly outlines the terms under which your landlord may take your deposit and when and how you’ll get your money back.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Finally, it’s imperative that you understand basic tenant’s rights before renting an apartment. Contrary to what many believe, the law actual favors tenants in many situations, and it’s important to understand what responsibilities your landlord has and what he can’t do both before and after you move in.
Do you have any tricks for saving money on your rent when you’re shopping for a new apartment? Let me know!
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