10 Tips For Becoming A Knowledgeable Renter

Moving into a new apartment can be exciting. The opportunity for a fresh start or next step, and exploring a new area or living with new people can lead to different experiences and personal growth.

Renting an apartment can also be challenging. Whether it's a roommate who's late with their portion of the rent, or a landlord who charges extra fees that you can't figure out, renting an apartment can present unexpected difficulties that you may not always know how to handle.

Luckily, if you're a renter, you're not alone in dealing with these challenges. According to a report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, the 2010s are on track to be the strongest decade for renter growth in America's history. The flip side of this surge in rentals means increased competition and higher prices, which can make it difficult to find an affordable rental that you like. However, with a few tricks of the trade you can set your rental application apart from the rest and manage your apartment like a pro once you lease it.

When looking for your ideal apartment (or one as close to ideal as you can find and afford), consider these ten tips to ensure you get the best deal, find your perfect neighborhood, and manage your rights and responsibilities as a renter.

1. Talk to Other Tenants. Get a sense for what the building and landlord are like by speaking with current or past renters. Ask about the neighborhood, noise within the building, timeliness with repairs, and any other questions you may have. Consider doing some online research on how your landlord rates with previous tenants.

2. Upgrade Your Application. When you're competing for an apartment, go beyond the basic application requirements and include pictures and short bios of each applicant. You could even attach recommendations from previous landlords. You want to catch the landlord's eye and show that you'll take care of the property. Make sure to include a current copy of your credit report with the application. You can order a copy from one of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

3. Understand Your Lease. The lease may list the rent amount, the terms of the security deposit, whether or not you can have guests or sublet the space, what happens if you want to move out early and many more crucial details. It's important to read the lease carefully and ask questions if you don't understand a term or section. State laws regarding rent control or other regulations can have an impact on your situation as well. It can be a good idea to have a lawyer review and even explain the lease if you have the budget to hire one.

4. Negotiate the Terms. You can't always negotiate lower rent (although it's worth a shot), but there may be flexibility when it comes to the security deposit, parking spaces, administrative fees, or the lease's length.

5. Learn Your Rights as a Renter. Depending on where you live, there may be different laws regarding what the landlord can and can't do. Protect yourself by learning about your rights before becoming a tenant. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a directory with links to tenants' rights websites for each state.

6. Do a Walkthrough. Before moving in, walk through the apartment with the landlord and look for any damages. If you find something, take a picture and try to list it on the lease. You'll thank yourself later when you move out and ask for your full security deposit back.

7. Consider Renters Insurance. Renters insurance typically costs about $15 to $30 a month for a $50,000 policy that covers loss and could be a worthwhile investment. Often, it's even less when bundled with an auto policy from the same provider. Renters insurance reimburses you if your belongings are stolen, damaged, or destroyed by a covered cause, such as a fire or smoke damage. Even if you don't have many valuable possessions, renters insurance may help pay for legal fees if, for instance, someone sues after getting injured at your home. Some policies also offer off-premises theft protection - which is helpful if you're out of the house and your phone or laptop is stolen.

8. Make Your Own Repairs. Taking on some of the maintenance responsibilities involved in renting an apartment could help you reduce your rent if you negotiate with your landlord prior to signing the lease. Consider handling your own apartment maintenance and paying for basic upkeep that the landlord would typically be responsible for, such as replacing lights, painting, replacing smoke detectors and making any other necessary repairs.

9. Pay Attention to Utilities. Carefully evaluate which utilities are included in the rent, such as gas, heat, water, electricity, trash, Wi-Fi and parking. Sometimes a more expensive apartment rental that includes these utilities can save you money when you add all of the costs together. It can also take the stress off managing those bills on your own.

10. Communicate with Your Landlord. If you're having trouble making a rent payment, hiding helps no one. Talk to your landlord and ask for an extension. Good tenants can be hard to come by, and your landlord will likely prefer open communication and a late check to being left in the dark about your financial situation. Try to get an agreement in writing, offer to make a partial payment if that's possible, and set a date for when you'll pay the remainder.

Bottom Line:
Being an informed renter is especially important in today's competitive rental market. By taking simple steps to improve your knowledge - whether you're making sure you completely understand your lease, or researching the neighborhood before you move in - you're forming smart habits and money management skills now that can pay off for years to come.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.