Apartment Search | Complete Guide to Finding an Apartment | Roost
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Complete guide to finding an apartment

Finding a new apartment can drum up a whole range of feelings: excitement, optimism, dread, relief, or simply a sense of meh. No matter where you’re at, this handy apartment-hunting guide will help make exploring new apartments, neighborhoods, or cities feel totally manageable—and maybe even a little fun.

Explore our guide to learn how to find an apartment that suits your budget and give yourself the best chance to get the place you want. (Even if you are a first-time renter and have marginal credit, you can find a good apartment.) Read on to map out your budget, search for an apartment, learn about renters insurance, and gather the information you need to apply for an apartment.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, gratitude is always possible, and feeling good starts at home.” – Emma Wright, author

Apartment statistics 2020-2021

While you don’t necessarily need to dig into all the data, you might want to get a quick sense of the market, so you understand how much competition there is for apartments and other housing. 

In 2020, housing market trends were all over the place. Some people moved back home. Others decided to move out of large cities. Housing prices soared. Some areas faced housing shortages. 

Here’re a few examples:

  • HCOL areas are opening up. For example, in August of 2020, there were 15,000 empty apartments in Manhattan.
  • HCOL apartments are getting cheaper. The average rent in San Francisco declined by over 20 percent!
  • LCOL areas are raising rent. Previously affordable cities such as Boise, Idaho experienced a whopping 23 percent increase in rent.
  • Over 50 percent of young adults lived with a parent in 2020. Three hundred thousand leaving NY alone.
  • Inland cities experienced the highest rent increases. Cities such as Durham NC, Chattanooga TN, Cleveland OH, and Spokane WA had notable average rent increases.

While the housing market experienced some unique trends in 2020, those who watch the market believe that many high-rent areas will rebound. Zillow, for example, anticipates “a rental market resurgence in 2021, with rents increasing, concessions offered by landlords fading, and demand for rental housing strengthening.”  So, you may want to try to lock in good rates and terms now.

Maybe you moved “home” in 2020 and are ready to find your own apartment. Good news, now is the perfect time to start looking. Many areas are aggressively seeking new residents.

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How to find an apartment 

You picked a good time to find a new apartment. LCOL areas are offering incentives for people to relocate. HCOL areas are seeking renters to fill vacant apartments. Growing cities are adding brand-new apartment communities. Apartment renters have a lot of choices. 

Even if you have less than perfect credit or no rental history, you can still find a nice apartment in a trendy area in your chosen town. Explore our finding apartment topics to help you find the best rental that suits your lifestyle. Moving to a new city? Have a dog? Looking for a cheap apartment? We have answers for you.

How to find an apartment topics:

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What to know before you sign a new lease

Eight things every renter should know

Set a realistic rental budget

First thing first. You need to figure out how much rent you can afford. Experts recommend that renters spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. For example, if you make $4,000 per month, you should set a $1,200 or less rent budget. 

While many people choose to pay more, it puts them at greater risk. Spending more than 30 percent means you may not have enough to consistently cover your rent, pay for other living expenses or build savings. If something goes wrong—illness, job loss, car repair—you could be in a really tough spot.

Rent Budget Examples

You make per hourMonthly IncomeMax Rent (30 percent of income)
$7.25$1,257$377
$15$2,600$780
$30$5,200$1,560
$60$10,400$3,120

What is a cleaning deposit?

A cleaning deposit is usually a non-refundable payment you make upfront. While it’s often called a “cleaning deposit,” it’s not part of your refundable “security deposit.” Technically, it’s a fee. The cleaning deposit is intended to cover routine cleaning tasks after you move out, so the next renters move into a neat and tidy apartment (which is hopefully the condition you found it in at move-in!).

How much the landlord can change may vary by your local housing laws. However, it’s usually just a few hundred dollars. Quite often, the cleaning deposit is for expenses such as professional carpet cleaning. 

However, they cannot charge you for normal “wear and tear.” Standard “wear and tear” includes things such as,

  • Normal carpet wear
  • Faded paint
  • Aged appliances
  • Faded window coverings
  • Broken or missing light bulbs
  • Replacement of smoke detector batteries

To better understand what the cleaning deposit covers, review the lease agreement.

Best apartment search apps

Most property managers and landlords post available apartment vacancies online. Popular high-volume apartment search sites provide apartment information for locations in all areas. The best offer unique search filters so you can find an apartment that suits your needs, such as apartments with gyms, pet-friendly units, apartments close to transportation, or apartment units with fiber optic internet available. Some even provide video “walkthroughs.”

Nationwide apartment search sites

  • Zillow and Trulia: These are two large apartment search sites. Zillow owns Trulia.
  • Apartments.com: This is a nationwide search site endorsed by Jeff Goldblum, so it has to be good, right?
  • Zumper: Using Zumper, you can apply for apartments online and get real-time alerts if an apartment with your preferences opens up.
  • Realtor: This website makes it easy to filter properties. You can look for pet-friendly places, units with washers and dryers, apartments with gyms, and more.
  • Apartment List: Using this service, you can easily sort search results to match your needs. It sorts based on your most sought-after features first.

Locally listed apartment search sites

  • Facebook marketplace: Here, you find local apartment listings. Since it is free to post, you may be able to find rent-by-owner units.
  • Craigslist: This online classifieds site posts rentals from many areas. You can sort by state and city.
  • Local online classified ads: Your area may have a local online “classified” section that posts local rentals.

Check out our apartment listing sites reviews. Here, you can find more information about popular apartment search sites.

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Apartment search checklist

To increase your chances of snagging a place you love, create an apartment search timeline and follow this checklist so you don’t miss a step.

Finding an apartment checklist:

  • Set your budget
  • Create a needs and wants list
  • Start saving money for moving
  • Define your move date
  • Find a roommate if needed
  • Decide when you want to start looking for an apartment
  • Research suitable neighborhoods
  • Create an apartment research document
  • Start searching
  • Gather application documents
  • Schedule and attend apartment tours
  • Notify the current landlord according to your lease agreement

You might find it helpful to create a spreadsheet for organizing and planning your apartment search. When you start touring apartments, you can store images and videos with the document to help you make your final apartment choice. Include details like the apartment address, link to vacancy post, rent, deposit, possible move-in date, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, landlord contact information, commute time and distance, and covered utilities.

You’ll also want to include information specific to your living situation. For example pet requirements (Fido needs some green grass!), amenities (pooltime!), internet options (fast, please), accessibility features (welcome everyone!), security (well-lit), and floor (unit must be on ground floor: strollers and stairs don’t mix).

Before moving in, review our apartment move-in checklist.

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What is renters insurance?

Renters insurance covers your personal property, liability, and loss-of-use expenses—and most landlords require you to have it. If renters insurance is required, it will be stated in your lease agreement. Renters insurance tends to be pretty low-cost and is super helpful if you suffer damages from incidents such as fire, theft or personal injury.

Imagine your upstairs neighbor floods their apartment and destroys your bed with water damage. Renters insurance helps with these types of crappy situations.

Renters insurance plans can often be dialed up or down in terms of the amount of coverage, but most tend to offer protection for:

  • Personal property. If your belongings are stolen or damaged, the insurance may provide financial compensation for covered items.
  • Liability. This type of coverage helps protect you should the landlord’s property be damaged (and it’s your fault), someone gets hurt on the property, or if your pet injures someone.
  • Loss-of-use. This term refers to additional expenses should you not be able to inhabit the property after an incident. Reimbursable expenses may include hotel and meal costs.

What kind of apartment are you looking for?

Before searching for a new apartment, ask yourself: What kind of apartment do I want? Do I want to live in the middle of downtown, close to shops and restaurants? Do I want to be able to ride my bike to work? Or, do I need an apartment with an elevator? 

Answering these types of questions can help you narrow your search. Looking at everything you want can also help you identify what to prioritize or where to compromise. 

Before moving, ask yourself a few questions so you can save time looking for the perfect apartment. 

  • How long of a commute am I comfortable with? Or do I plan to work from home?
  • How much can I realistically and safely afford?
  • How many bedrooms and bathrooms do I need?
  • How much in moving costs can I afford?
  • Do I need a roommate? 
  • How good is my credit? Do I need a cosigner?
  • Do I need special accommodations? Such as ADA or support animals. 
  • What kind of parking do I need, if any.
  • Would I feel safer with advanced security options?
  • Do I want a balcony or personal outdoor space?
  • How much storage do I need?
  • How long do I need to rent?
  • Do I want (or need) a washer and drying in the unit?
  • How close are daycare or schools, if needed.
  • Do I want to live in a bustling downtown area or a quiet neighborhood?
  • How much privacy do I require?
  • Do I need a smoking or vape okay unit?
  • Do I need extra storage space or a safe place to store my bike?
  • Would I benefit from a business center or community space?
  • Could I benefit from an onsite gym? Or a playground?

There are many questions you can ask yourself. Once you figure out what you want, you can quickly find a suitable apartment. It may help to sort your answers into must-haves and like-to-haves.

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Tips for finding an affordable apartment

If you cannot easily afford an apartment in the area where you’d like to live, you might have to get creative. 

To find a cheap apartment, try a couple of the following:

  • Look outside your chosen area. Consider commute times or whether finding a job in the new location is a good idea.
  • Consider finding a roommate. Getting a roommate can cut your housing expenses in half. 
  • Search for a “cheap” or “low income” apartment using a rental app.
  • See if you qualify for a housing assistance program.
  • Consider a tiny home, studio, or small apartment. 
  • Give up some frills. If you do not need an onsite gym or pool, look for an apartment without extra amenities.
  • Consult your network. Ask your friends and co-workers for apartment or roommate leads.
  • Trade work for rent. You may be able to find a landlord that will offer your lower rent if you provide services they have to pay for (i.e., lawn care).
  • Look for “rent by owner” apartments in your local classifieds.
  • Consider a live-in job such as being a nanny or hostel manager.

To help you obtain better lease terms in the future, work to improve your credit rating, establish a rental history, and increase your income.

How to find a pet friendly apartment

Luckily for you, many property managers are now allowing pets. Though additional deposits or pet rent may be required, there are more options than there used to be. (To be clear: When referring to “pets,” we mean pets and not service animals. The allowance of service animals is guided by federal law; the allowance of “pets” is up to the property owner.) 

To find a pet-friendly property, simply select the pet-, cat-, or dog-friendly sort feature in the apartment search app. However, if you’re not seeing many apartment options, talk to the property manager or leasing agent. Many landlords may allow pets if you directly negotiate with them. 

If you have an indoor cat, it will likely be happy almost anywhere. However, suppose you have a dog(s). In that case, you’ll want to consider things such as proximity to dog parks, dog walking routes, breed and weight restrictions (if legal in your area), provided pet washing stations, onsite “potty” areas, and insurance requirements.

Other types of “exotic” pets like fish, amphibians, reptiles, or other mammals, may also have restrictions. For example, many landlords limit tank sizes for fish and may not support different types of animals like ferrets, potbelly pigs, or “wild” animals (like raccoons or foxes). 

Quick hint: Don’t try to keep an animal in your apartment without approval being noted in your lease. If your pet piranha, Pearl, is discovered, you’ll both probably need to relocate. 

If you are seeking accommodation for your emotional support animal, see our Complete Guide to Renting with an Emotional Support Animal.

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Apartment move-in checklist

Everything you need to outfit your new place

What do I need to apply for an apartment?

Applying and getting approval for an apartment can happen pretty quickly if you’ve gathered all the required information in advance. In general, your potential landlord will be looking for you to prove who you are, your income, and where you have lived.

  1. Identification. Most valid IDs are accepted, such as a driver’s license, passport, green card, or military ID. A social security number may be needed to obtain your credit report.
  2. Proof of income. You can prove your income with bank statements, W2s, or pay stubs. They will also ask for your employer’s information.
  3. Rental history. Most landlords will ask for your last few addresses. Or, they may ask for a few years of rental history.
  4. References. You’ll need to supply your potential landlord with your previous landlord’s contact information.
  5. Before you move in, you will also likely be asked about your vehicle and pets.

Be prepared to pay an application fee when you submit your application. In most cases, you will apply online or using an app. Some, especially rent-from-owner landlords, may ask you to submit information by paper or email.

Need moving help?

How to find an apartment in a different city

If you’re looking to relocate, you may not have the opportunity to visit and inspect your potential new home and neighborhood before moving in. But thanks to technology, research, and a bit of patience, you can find a great apartment in your new city.

When researching a new location,

  • Research your new city. Visit city pages, Facebook and Twitter city pages, local news sites, and more to discover the neighborhoods you may want to move into.
  • Use Google street view. Virtually walk through neighborhoods. Consider possible commute times, or if you work from home, research available internet services.
  • Look for desired amenities. Consider proximity to outdoor spaces, gyms, shopping, schools, venues, or public transportation.
  • Ask around. Post questions online or ask new coworkers about the city and neighborhoods.
  • Attend a virtual tour. Watch the online apartment tours available and ask potential property managers for a guided tour. 
  • Consider getting a roommate. Even if it is just short-term, a roommate can help you learn about your new city and give you time to test neighborhoods.
  • Estimate your rental budget. Figuring out how much you can afford will dictate what areas you may be able to live in.

Once you know what you’re looking for, use local rental sites to find a list of apartments to consider. Also, consider a short-term lease in case you end up not liking the new apartment or neighborhood as much as you thought you would.

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Finding an Apartment: FAQs

What is the rental application fee for?

In most cases, the rental application fee is for processing the background check and verifying the applicants information. Usually, the fee is about $35 to $50 per applicant. Everyone over aged 18 who intends to live in the apartment has to submit an application and pay the fee.

What if I cannot afford the security deposit?

In some cases, your new landlord may allow you to pay your deposit in installments. Or, a security deposit alternative company may be able to help you.

When should I start looking for an apartment?

In a hot housing market, it may take months to find a suitable apartment. In this case, you’ll want to start looking for a new apartment about three months before your move date. In an area with many vacancies, you may only need a month or two to find a new apartment. Either way, make sure you notify your current landlord (check your lease about how much of a heads-up they need, though it’s usually 30 days).

What credit score do I need to get an apartment?

The required credit score to rent a specific apartment can vary by quite a bit. Most landlords prefer a higher score, but some may accept lower scores in the 600 range. However, you’ll find a better apartment with good terms if your credit score is over 700 accompanied by a suitable income. If your credit score is in the 500s range, you may be denied the most desirable apartments.

What is a virtual apartment tour?

A virtual apartment tour is an online tour of an apartment. It may include video, images, and audio. Often you can control the view and explore aspects of the apartment on demand. If you find an apartment you are interested in, you may be able to schedule a real-time tour with the property manager using an online meeting app.

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How do I find an apartment with bad credit?

Don’t let no credit history or bad credit keep you from renting  

If your credit score is under 600 and you’ve had applications rejected, you may need to consider a new strategy. A few ideas:

  • Choose to take time to improve your credit. 
  • Consider a less desirable neighborhood with looser requirements. 
  • Get a landlord to accept you by agreeing to pay more upfront.
  • Agree to automatic payments. 
  • Find a cosigner or use a cosigner service. 

Know what you need to know as a renter and save money along the way! Check out these additional resources to help you meet your renting goals.

Finding an apartment | Can living with a roommate save you money? 

A roommate can help you save money, but how much? Explore the financial benefits of having a roommate as well as the social benefits.

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Finding an apartment | Ultimate guide to security deposits

Learn everything about security deposits including what you can do to get a larger portion of your deposit returned after you move out.

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Finding an apartment | How much rent can you afford?

Knowing how much your rent can help you find an affordable apartment and decide whether you need a roommate to help you comfortably reach your financial goals.

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Finding an apartment | 25 top mistakes new renters make

Review the biggest mistakes new renters make to ensure that you avoid suffering from the same common bad decisions.

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Finding an apartment | Roommate survival guide

Learn everything you need to know about living with a roommate successfully to save money and find the best roommate.

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