Q I'm new to renting. I just graduated from college, and a friend and I are looking at places. What are some top things we should look for or warning signs regarding the apartment and the lease? I've never signed a lease before, and a few basic tips would help. -- Fairfax

A There's so much to figure out when you begin looking at places to live, especially as a first-time renter. As an unseasoned apartment-hunter, you should practice vigilance in looking for your first apartment so you form good habits.

This means you need to do tons of research and soul-searching to figure out your ideal situation. Once you have some idea of the basics, then you can pursue your apartment goals. Those basics include:

* How much can you spend on rent? Financial advisers generally say to spend no more than a third of your take-home income on rent.

* Do you want roommates?

* What neighborhoods should you consider? You can brainstorm this based on a variety of factors, including your preference on city vs. suburbs, commuting time, safety, parking or public transportation options, accessibility, or convenience to your usual stomping grounds.

* How important is it to you to have extra amenities, such as a controlled access within a building, a gated community, a front-desk clerk, an open pet policy, in-unit washers and dryers, balconies, fireplaces, a fitness center, or pool?

Because you don't rent yet, you may not know whether you prefer a garden-style apartment building to a high-rise or that you want to live on the top floor of a big complex instead of a basement apartment in somebody's rowhouse. Without experience, you will not know if you prefer renting from a private owner or a big management company.

Try to find friends or acquaintances who have insight on these matters. Although someone else's apartment-living pet peeves may not be yours, knowing the issues will make you better informed when you look at potential rentals. Your contacts also may have good suggestions about neighborhoods and specific buildings or even inside information on available apartments.

Some Web research about neighborhoods and apartment buildings may also help you if you do not know a lot of local renters. Neighborhood groups often have Internet message boards. On such sites, prospective renters can ask specific questions about parking, public transportation, conveniences, tree-to-person ratio, nightlife, statistics on residents, taxes or safety, or anything else. Once you have outlined your criteria, or at least discovered what you don't want in an apartment, start visiting buildings in the neighborhoods you have identified. Even though your perfect place may not exist, you will get a better idea about what's most important to you.

When you have found buildings and units that look good to you and seem to fit your criteria, delve a little deeper. Make sure you have a good feeling about the management company or landlord. If people are dismissive or unresponsive while you are trying to secure an apartment, read that as a red flag and know that they will probably act the same way should you ever have maintenance problems or need other help. Look at the upkeep of common areas of the property; if they are not well-maintained, that's another sign of poor management.

If you still like what you see, then interview some residents when the landlord is not around. Ask these tenants about management, maintenance practices, safety in the building, rent increases, noise problems, their likes and dislikes, etc. The more information you gather about buildings and their neighborhoods, the better.

Contact the local police department and get crime statistics for the areas around your top apartment picks. Stop by the properties at different hours and make sure you would feel comfortable going about your daily life.

When you finally get to the part where you are ready to move into a unit, read the lease carefully before you sign.

One of the biggest problems renters have is remorse over signing a 12-month lease in a building that doesn't live up to their expectations, so read and understand your lease termination clause so that you know the penalty for leaving. With luck, if you have done a good job searching for an apartment, you won't find yourself stuck in a bad situation or deplete your savings to pay the penalties for breaking the lease.

Once signed by both parties, the lease is a legal agreement between you and your landlord. It will cover the basic duties of a landlord to make sure your place is safe and habitable. It should also tell you what the fee is for late rent, the rules for paying utilities, how much notice you have to give before moving out, whether you can sublet the place, etc. If anything written in the lease seems strange to you, ask the landlord for clarification. When you fully understand and are comfortable with the terms of the agreement, then sign the lease.

No matter how much effort you put into your apartment hunt, the fact remains that multifamily housing brings together people who wouldn't otherwise choose to be neighbors or to work together for common causes. That means disputes among neighbors or between landlords and tenants may arise.

Here's my apartment hunter's checklist; use it to record details about the properties you consider.

* General. Monthly rent, number of bedrooms, square footage, number of occupants allowed, guest policy, utilities included.

* Lease details. Date available, lease term, penalty for breaking lease, security deposit, late rent policies, rules for changing unit appearance (e.g. repainting).

* Fees. Parking availability and fees, pet policy and fees, amenity fees and other miscellaneous charges.

* Building amenities. Lobby, pool, workout facility, roof deck, computer access, package delivery system.

* Unit amenities. Central air conditioning or window unit, central heat or radiator, laundry system, kitchen appliances, closet space, water pressure, type of flooring, windows and sunlight, patio, balcony, fireplace, cathedral ceilings, crown molding, cable-ready.

* Unit location. Distance from stairs, elevator, garbage area.

* Neighborhood. Access to roads and public transportation, nearest grocery store, pharmacy, parks, schools, hospital and police station.

* Safety. Crime statistics, building and unit security features, building fire safety.

* Maintenance. On-site landlord, on-site maintenance, building age, planned upgrades or construction.

Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at gebhardts@washpost.com or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.