What Every Renter Should Know
By Stacy Gilliam, Special to washingtonpost.com  |  Oct. 3, 2008

It's time to go on the hunt for a new apartment. While it might not seem as dire a decision as purchasing your first house, it's not far behind. After all, it's your space, right? It should fit your style, your social life, your work life and provide you with all the comforts and basic needs you deserve. For your part, that requires a little thought, patience, investigative work -- and a pair of comfortable shoes.

Before you lock down the first attractive apartment you fall in love with, we asked experts Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, interior designer and founder of apartmenttherapy.com, and real estate columnist Ed Sacks, author of "The Savvy Renters' Kit," to share their best advice.

Know what you can afford.

That means for everything connected with renting -- rent, utilities, parking, rental insurance, transportation, and the cost of the move itself, Sacks says. Balance that with your other financial responsibilities.

Shop around.

Don't settle on the first spot you see, unless you're certain you can't do better. See other apartments to compare amenities, space, rent and other deals, experts say.

Dig the location.

"Your quality of life is really far more about who you live next to, then how much square footage you have in your apartment," Gillingham-Ryan says. "Find a place near friends, near family." Sacks says to make sure you're close to work, entertainment, shopping, schools, community activities and churches.

Make sure it's safe.

Don't go by appearances. Get familiar with the neighborhood. "Look at the streets, look for derelicts, boarded-up houses, empty lots, activities on corners," says Sacks, adding that you should do this during the morning, late afternoon and night. Check with the local police precinct about crime activity in the area. You may learn about a neighborhood watch, which is a plus.

Really inspect the apartment.

With a sharp eye, check for such details such as cleanliness in hallways, peep holes in entryway doors, water pressure in the bath and kitchen, adequate number of circuit breakers (eight is safe, according to Sacks), dysfunctional toilets, leak-related water stains on ceilings -- anything you'll be complaining about later. "Do the windows open and close? How many locks are on the doors, and do they really close?" Sacks says.

Talk to potential neighbors.

"Find out what kind of service they get from the management company," Sacks says. A good neighbor will share problems they've experienced in the building.

Apply with attention.

You've decided to move forward and fill out a rental application. Pay attention to non-refundable fees. While most leases are standard, note what you as a tenant are responsible for. Do you pay utilities or are they included in the rent? Who covers repairs? Is there a penalty for terminating your lease early? Will they check your credit report? Can the landlord or management company cancel or make changes to your lease after you've signed it?

Move smart.

As you're packing, take the opportunity to "de-clutter and edit" your belongings, Gillingham-Ryan says. "People pack everything they have in boxes, then sort it out after they move. Huge mistake. Lighten the load by moving only what you want."

Consider the rental your home.

Even if you're renting to save for a house, don't treat it as a transitional space, Gillingham-Ryan says. "Make a commitment to treat it as your home to the extent that your landlord will allow you to," he says. "Do all the things you can to personalize it - paint it, invest in furniture you really love, and start to build your collection. The sooner you start to experiment with making a home, the better you'll get at it."


Ed Sacks, a certified mediator and arbitrator who has conducted more than 1,250 hearings resolving landlord-tenant disputes and property damage concerns, answers your questions.

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