Even if you rented an apartment in college, doing so in the real world is vastly different. Take it from me: I lived in three different apartments in my college town and have lived in one in the big city.

I made every mistake in the book– signing too quickly, paying too much, not checking the place for basic amenities– and I’m here to help make sure you’re … well, smarter than me.

Many of us young folks have two primary financial goals in our 20s: get out of debt and start saving. That means that finding a good first apartment you can afford is crucial, which can seem a bit like a catch-22. It’s totally possible to find a place you’re in love with that fits your current lifestyle, though. Here’s what I’ve learned in the past year:

Stick to Your Budget

How To Find Your Very First Apartment - Stick to Your Budget

Most people have a general idea of how much rent costs in an area and which side of that range they’re willing to pay. While that’s not a poor strategy, it can still end with a much higher monthly invoice than you can viably afford.

Calculating a specific budget that fits your salary, student loans, car payments, and other monthly expenses might be the single most important tip I can give you. Experts recommend paying somewhere between 25% and 30% of your take-home pay in rent.

If you’re new to the adult-job world, take-home pay is simply what your monthly income looks like after health insurance and taxes. For most new renters who are in entry level positions, the amount of rent you can afford might be shockingly low. I know it was for me! That’s OK.

There’s plenty you can do, from finding roommates to seeking assistance from a third party. You’d be surprised by how many nice places you can find within your price range if you really hunt them down.

Ask About Utilities

How To Find Your Very First Apartment - Ask About Utilities

The price tag on that apartment may not be entirely accurate. Some buildings include utilities, such as heating, water, and electricity costs into your monthly bill, while some leave them for you to handle on your own.

When you add them all up, utilities are a huge expense– sometimes amounting to more than $200 per month. That makes a pretty hefty difference in your monthly budget, so make sure you know what’s up before you sign your lease.

This is especially important if you live in cold areas, where you use so much heat that your monthly bill will leave you wondering if your radiator runs on diamonds.

Double-Check Health and Safety Features

How To Find Your Very First Apartment - Double Check Health and Safety Features

There are things about a home you’ll never even think of until you don’t have them. My current apartment is a very cute but very old building that doesn’t have any ventilation. This means that I have to have the windows open when I cook or shower, no matter what– end of story.

Had I thought to look for good ventilation, I would have chosen to live elsewhere (mold is gross, people). Other things to look for: range hoods or fans over your stovetop, fire exits, insulated walls, evenly dispersed radiators or heating vents, and an oven (no, really– some apartments don’t come with ovens).

They might seem trivial, but first and foremost, an apartment should meet adequate health and safety codes for you to live there.

Look For Laundry

How To Find Your Very First Apartment - Look for Laundry

Another amenity many buildings don’t come with: laundry machines. Once you’ve established where (and if) there is laundry on the premises, there are a few questions you should ask.

Is laundry free? If they cost money, are they coin operated or can you use a preloaded card? Last, but not certainly not least, is the laundry area safe and secure?

Think About Your Furry Friends

How To Find Your Very First Apartment - Think About Your Furry Friends

Do you have any pets or want them in the near future? Double-check your lease for pet regulations. Slipping a pet in under your landlord’s nose is never a good– he or she will find out and fine you.

Many apartments are pet friendly, so if you tour one that’s not, don’t sweat it– you’ll find one eventually!

Factor in Your Commute

How To Find Your Very First Apartment - Factor in Your Commute.jpg

You’ve likely already done your research on neighborhoods, but there’s something else you should consider when choosing a location: proximity to work. Anything longer than an hour (after factoring in traffic and train schedules) can get really draining. If you can keep your commute somewhere around 30 or 45 minutes, you’ll be much happier in the long run.

Ask About Air Conditioning

How To Find Your Very First Apartment - Ask About Air Conditioning

“Oh, it won’t be that bad to just use a fan,” I said. “I’ll just leave the windows open,” I said. I lived in one apartment without an air conditioner, melted into a puddle and vowed to never again make the same mistake.

I cannot stress this enough, my friends. Make sure you have cold air flow in your apartment. Do it for me.

Check For Preexisting Problems

How To Find Your Very First Apartment - Check for Preexisting Problems

Before filling out your application, check out every nook and cranny of your apartment for problems. Holes in the baseboards can mean bugs and mice, while cracks in the window will render your apartment relatively uninsulated. Make sure all the burners on the stove are working and that there are no water stains (indicating past leaks) on the ceiling.

Take Deep Breaths

How To Find Your Very First Apartment - Take Deep Breaths

When you’re moving to a new, exciting city, it’s easy to jump the gun and sign up for the first thing that seems like it will work. Apartments go fast in popular areas, after all! It’s important to remember that you really have to live here, though.

Going through all these steps may seem tedious, but they help make sure that your first year out on your own is comfortable and fun.

Getting started in a new city is already difficult– finding yourself struggling to pay rent and battling mold (true story), makes it even harder. Be patient while you’re on the hunt for you first apartment– you’ll be glad you were!

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How To Find Your Very First Apartment