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How to win at the apartment-hunting game

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Whether you’re looking for your first place, a more affordable place, a bigger place, or simply a new-to-you place, finding the right apartment isn’t always easy. From noisy neighbors and faulty appliances to drafty windows and lousy water pressure, there are a lot of things to watch out for.

That being said, finding a good apartment is a lot like playing Monopoly®. To win, you’ve just got to make a few smart moves.

What can you afford?

So, you’ve got "Park Place" tastes, but a "Baltic Avenue" budget.

Don't be afraid to kick the tires

Don’t sign on the dotted line until you’re sure everything in the apartment works—the heat, the stove, the refrigerator, and the hot water. Check the water pressure and be sure to document any preexisting damage, like scratched floors or holes in the wall, so that they don’t get held against you when it’s time to retrieve your security deposit.

It might seem okay to stretch for that swanky apartment—after all, you live there. But once the reality of paying a high rent sinks in and you find yourself eating at home every night to save money, you might be kicking yourself for overspending.

To maintain sound financial health, experts suggest that you keep your rent expense to about one-third of your monthly income. So, before you start getting too excited about places you can’t afford, figure out how much you can spend. Want more than you can afford on your own? Get a roommate—preferably one with a steady income and similar priorities.

SMART MOVE #1: Figure out how much you can afford to spend before you start looking.

What's your target location?

Even if the rent is great at "Marvin Gardens," do you really want to live right around the corner from "Jail?"

It’s easy to fall in love with a great-looking apartment, but if it’s far from friends, work, or in an undesirable neighborhood, you may soon find yourself wishing you’d heeded the age-old advice: “Location, location, location.”

Instead, hone in on a couple of neighborhoods that are convenient to work, restaurants, grocery stores and facilities you use regularly—like the yoga studio or coffee shop—so you can spend less time and money in transit. No wheels? Then be sure to assess each apartment’s proximity to public transportation.

SMART MOVE #2: Identify a safe neighborhood that’s close to many of the places you visit often.

Questions for your prospective landlord

  • Which utilities are included in the rent?
  • Where are the fire exits?
  • Does the building provide janitorial services for common areas?
  • Do all the appliances work?
  • How do I shut off the water or electricity in the event of an emergency?
  • Whom do I call if I have a question or lock myself out of my apartment?
  • Whom do I call after regular business hours if I have an emergency?
  • When were the locks last changed? Beside the tenants, who has a key to this apartment?
  • Do all the windows open?
  • Where are the nearest laundry facilities?

Are you a good negotiator?

Take a "Chance" simply by asking.

Want to negotiate a discount in rent? First position yourself as a desirable tenant—have your references and checkbook in hand—and then tell your prospective landlord you're very interested but hadn't planned to spend as much as he or she is asking. Think about it—the worst he can say is, “No.” In the “asking” mood? Then keep going! Ask utility companies to waive connection fees or transfer fees—they may offer a discount if you suggest that you're considering signing with a competitor. Bundling services like internet and cable with the same provider can also yield savings. If you primarily use your cell phone, then consider skipping the landline altogether.

SMART MOVE #3: Don’t be afraid to ask for discounts.

Are you ready to review the fine print?

This isn't a game. Make sure you know the rules.

When agreeing to rent an apartment, don’t rely on a handshake alone. Before you seal the deal, make sure your contract indicates how long you must stay, how much notice you must give before you move out, which repairs the landlord is obligated to perform, and any rules regarding subletting. If the landlord promises an upgrade before you move in—such as painting or replacing a dated appliance—be sure to get it in writing.

SMART MOVE #4: Ready the fine print—all of it.

Did you factor in all your costs?

We're talking real money here, so get a handle on all the costs that you'll be responsible for paying.

Often, the cost of rent is just the beginning of your potential living expenses. Ask if utilities such as heat, air conditioning, water, trash removal and electricity are included in the rental price. Does your apartment come with parking? Be sure to factor in extra costs like laundry, cable and phone service, too. And remember that once you move in you'll still have to eat!

SMART MOVE #5: Make sure you understand all the costs you’ll need to cover.

How to score

It’s important to most people that they love where they live. By making a few smart moves, and possibly a few compromises, you’ll be well positioned to land an apartment that works for both your lifestyle and your budget.

Learn more and take action

  • In addition to searching for an apartment through online listings, get the word out that you are looking and network among family, friends and colleagues.
  • Want to get a better handle on budgeting? Check out BetterMoneyHabits.com.
 
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