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What you need to know to start a rental housing search.

So, you have decided to start looking for a new place to live. Whether you’re a first time house hunter or a seasoned veteran that needs a refresher, this Article – the first in a two to three part series – focuses on what you need in order to start your rental housing search.

First of all, sit down and create a financial picture of where you are at currently. Include all of your income sources and get a tally so you know how much you have to work with each month. Then, write down all of the anticipated expenses you will have in a month. Make sure you include a cushion of some sort to allow for those unexpected expenses – Car gets a flat and you need to pay $100 for a new one – Best friend decides to get married and you want to buy them a wedding gift, etc. Do not put your rent amount into your expenses until you have everything else added in. Here is a sample scenario:

Income from Job: $2750 per month take home
Child Support $150 per month (can you count on this EVERY Month?) If not, don’t include it.
Total income $2900 per month

Expenses: Water, Sewer Garbage:    $100
Telephone                        $50
Cable TV or Satellite:       $100
Insurance for Car:            $75
Internet Service:              $35
Cell Phone Contract:       $30
Gas bill for heat:              $85
Electric Bill:                     $85
Food:                              $800
Cushion:                         $75
Gas & Oil for Car:   ____$225____________
Total Expenses:       $1660

Using the sample figures above, the most you will have for your rent will be $1200. While it seems like a good number, and will be close to where our range is, it isn’t a good figure to use. So, what is a good amount to figure into our budget for rent?

Most agencies and landlords have a rule of thumb which is anywhere from 30-40% of your income allowed toward rent. If this is the case – Your rent range would be $870 – $1160 per month. This is a pretty good range to to work with and will still allow you a buffer – just in case.

Make sure you have a pretty good amount of savings set aside as most landlords and property management companies will require 1st, Last & Deposit. The State of Washington does not have any limitations set on what a landlord can charge for a deposit but a typical amount is equal to one month’s rent. It is sometimes higher or lower depending on the landlord. Some will also require additional fees like Background/Screening which I have seen as high as $40 per adult, Cleaning Fees and your pet fees and deposits, if you have one. With all of that taken into account, you would need to set aside approximately $2,700 – $3,500 using our sample scenario before you start your house hunt. work with and will still allow you a buffer – just in case. You will also have some added expenses to start your new utility services when you first move. Keep this in mind as well.

Now, it’s time to decide what you want in your next home. Do I want a single family house, or will a duplex or apartment suit my needs just fine? Do I have a pet that I need to take into consideration for additional pet fees and deposits? Fenced yards? What features are important to me? Washer and Dryer Hookups or do I need the appliances provided – Will an on-site laundry facility work for me? Carpets vs. hardwood floors/tile/linoleum. What kind of parking am I hoping for? Make a list of all of the things you hope for in your new home – in order of importance. While it is nice to be able to find a home with everything you want on your list, chances are you’ll end up sacrificing some of them. Make sure you at least get your most important features met or you won’t be happy.

Ok, we now have our budget, savings for the new home and housing wish list ready to go. We are ready to start looking for our new home. But, where do we look? There are many sources available whether you are looking close to where you are currently living or relocating quite a distance away. First off, use the local papers for the area you will be moving to. Not sure what the local newspaper is? Do an internet search. Many newspapers offer their classified listings online now. Some other sources – Craigslist – select the state and region that is most closely located to where you will want to move to. Property Management companies – Use www.dexonline.com and do a search of businesses that provide property management services for the area of your search. Lastly, if you’ll be moving to a fairly large metropolitan area- Try the generic websites like rent.com or apartments.com or any other rental website that offers free listings. Stay away from companies that charge a fee for rental lists. Usually they are a scam and there are too many others out there offering listings for free.

Using the sources listed above, start gathering a list of “potential” new homes. Get out your pad, pencil and get prepared to make lots of phone calls and send many e-mails. You are now on a fact finding mission. It is highly unlikely that every ad you see will list every feature of the home they are trying to find. Look for ads that have a few of the MUST have features and put these on your “call list”. Try to steer clear of ads that look fishy – Don’t ever pay money up front without a signed contract! There are many scams out there and you need to be cautious. If it sounds too good to be true – it probably is.

If you are fairly close to the area, or even decide to make a trip to the new area of relocation to check it out, make sure you allow yourself some time to drive around. You would be surprised to find how many old time landlords still stick a sign in the front yard or front window and hope someone drives by and sees it. They are still quite successful at renting out their vacancies this way and there is almost no advertising cost involved. While it is definitely not high tech or up to date, it is still effective. By driving around, you will also be able to see the actual neighborhoods to determine the areas that are better suited to your needs – parks, shops, schools, etc.

You have now made your contacts and probably have whittled down your list to 5 or 6 of your top selections from a pool of many. If you are searching long distance, try to get the owner/manager to email you photos – especially of the features that are important to you. Otherwise, try to get a day or two set aside and make some appointments to view the rentals in person. Allow at least an hour to thoroughly view the property, inside and out. Try the faucets, toilet, fans, Air conditioner, heater and any other item that has an on/off to it. Make sure they all work. Most likely everything will function fine. A rental with many flaws is a sure sign that the landlord doesn’t maintain the property very well and will probably not make repairs if something breaks during your tenancy. Make sure you check out the outside carefully – does the neighbor have a yapping dog that will ruin your peaceful enjoyment? Are there teenagers that will have a lot of traffic coming and going at all hours? You’re making a commitment for at least 6 months to stay in this home – make sure it will be enjoyable.
When you go on your appointments, be prepared to take all of the information you will need for filling out a rental application in case you decide to take the big step and give it a go. You will need: Your driver’s license and your social security card. You will also need your current and prior residence information up to 2 years in most cases. Make sure you have your prior manager/landlords contact info handy. You will need your current employment and possibly prior employment information, including contacts to verify income and job stability. Be prepared for them to pull a copy of your credit report and check for evictions and criminal records. If you know ahead of time that there are negative things that they may find – BE UP FRONT! It will save everyone some time and embarrassment later. Also, the potential landlord won’t uncover a “surprise” that brings up red flags and causes them to disqualify you. Remember, in many cases the screening fee is non-refundable. At up to $40 a pop you don’t want to forfeit that cost.

If I have never rented or I have a bad credit report will it disqualify me from getting a rental? In most cases no. Most landlords understand that there are situations that arise that cause people to have some negatives. Most are willing to work with a renter as long as there is a good housing history, stable employment and income to pay them for the rent. In some cases, the landlord may require a co-signer or more money up front for a deposit. They want to make sure that if you are unable to pay rent that their costs will be covered. Take this into consideration and plan ahead. Try to line up a co-signer ahead of time or make sure you have a good savings pool to draw from in case the landlord requires additional deposit fees. Remember, if you get a co-signer they are sticking their neck out on the line to cover your expenses for you in case you cannot. Make sure you have someone reliable and willing.

You have now gone through the whole process – budgeting, planning your home, making calls, viewing new places, and the application process. Guess what – You were approved! Get ready to read and sign rental agreements, deposit agreements, lead based paint disclosures, smoke detector agreements and many more. There is a lot of contractual paperwork involved and it is necessary that you read it as you sign so there are no surprises when you decide to move on. Make sure you designate the actual people that will reside in the unit as many landlords do not allow subleasing without new background checks. Some require additional deposits if you move someone into the unit to reside with you. Make sure you are knowledgeable in all of that – before you sign on the dotted line.

I cannot say this last piece loud enough – Make sure you do a Move-in inspection prior to moving in and notate all flaws and take photos if possible. You would be surprised at how much your excitement will fog your vision. If you are able, bring a friend with you as they will be less likely to overlook the flaws.  Even if the landlord says “Oh that will be taken care of” – NOTATE IT! It is possible that it will be forgotten and you don’t want to be stuck with fixing something that was a problem before you moved in. It is always better to have the problem written down so that everyone is aware of it from the start.

Once all your paperwork is finished and you’ve gotten the keys – Congratulations! Moving boxes and trucks are next on your agenda! Happy Moving day!