Apartment-hunting guide (© Corbis)

Hunting for an apartment is akin to a scavenger hunt: It can seem as if every place you see falls a few pieces short of your wish list. If your budget is low or the market is tight, don't be too discouraged if you have to settle for less than perfection. You can always move up — maybe even in the same building.

If this is your first apartment you'll be renting on your own, consider the apartment hunt a rite of passage. It may you remind you more of getting your driver's license than a first kiss, but once you've mastered the mechanics it can be a liberating, even life-changing, event.

Apartment hunter's checklist
Whether you go for fun and funky, a spare "designer" look, or big complexes with Friday happy hours, start your search by listing your top priorities. What can you not live without, and what are you willing to sacrifice? Take copies of this checklist with you as you look — or steal some ideas and make a list of your own.

  • Location of building (safety, proximity to places you visit often)
  • Location in building (bottom floors may be less safe; upper floors are harder to move into)
  • Emergency exits
  • Smoke detectors/fire extinguisher
  • Elevator or stairs (ease of moving or evacuation)
  • Hallways (well-maintained, well-lit)
  • Lead-based paint (important for the very young and those with weakened immune systems)
  • Number of bedrooms and bathrooms
  • Furnished or unfurnished
  • Room for a desk or home office
  • Natural light
  • Hardwood floors
  • Fireplace
  • Separate dining room
  • Kitchen space (meal area, counter space, storage for cookware and small appliances)
  • Kitchen drawers and cupboards (storage and ease of opening)
  • Appliances included (and condition of refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave, washer and dryer)
  • Gas or electric heat
  • Gas or electric oven
  • Air conditioning
  • Closet space and other storage
  • Garden, yard, balcony, patio or rooftop access
  • Outlets in all rooms (plentiful, safe, well-located)
  • Phone jacks for phones and modems
  • Television reception (cable required or provided)
  • Door locks (locks on all doors; deadbolt and security chain on entry door)
  • Windows (ease of opening, locks, screens)
  • Soundproofed walls (neighborhood and building noise)
  • Privacy of unit and bedrooms
  • Curtains or blinds
  • Water heater (large enough to keep showers hot)
  • Faucets and shower heads (condition and water flow)
  • Tap water (odd color and taste might indicate a problem)
  • View
  • Laundry facilities (hours of access, adequate lighting)
  • Parking (paid building parking or off-street)
  • Bike storage (security and lighting)
  • Mailboxes (security and lighting)
  • Swimming pool
  • Common areas
  • Workout facilities
  • Wheelchair access
  • Neighborhood flavor
  • Onsite landlord

5 interview tips

Get a headstart. Save time — and stand out in a crowd of applicants — by bringing a copy of your credit report and a completed rental application to your interviews. (See http://www.nolo.com/encyclopedia/faqs/dc/dc21.html and http://www.ilrg.com/forms/rentlapp.html.)

Don't miss the bus.It's better to arrive early than to be late for an interview appointment. As with job interviews, first impressions are often lasting.

Let there be light. Visit prospective apartments in the daytime so you'll know how much natural light to expect and any problems will be easier to see. Drive through the neighborhood at night to see outdoor lighting and street culture.

What's your home worth?

Measure up. Record the sizes of your big-ticket furniture, and bring a tape measure with you to measure apartment doors. If you find a great apartment but it's too small for all of your stuff, decide in advance what you'd be willing to sell, store or get rid of so you aren't held back by indecision.

Sell yourself. Apartment searches aren't really the best time for club-kid duds, dark-angel Goth or bedhead casual. You'll be meeting prospective landlords, so however you dress, you want to give the impression that you'll be on time with your rent and you'll be a good caretaker of the apartment.

15 questions to potential landlords
Be sure that the answers to questions 1-12 are covered in or added to your rental agreement. And don't leave without a copy of any amendments — it's worth a detour to the local copy center.

  1. When is the unit available? If the move-in date is impractical for you, ask if it's negotiable so that you don't pay for unoccupied time. Is the apartment currently occupied? Will the landlord arrange for you to talk with the current occupant or other tenants?
  2. Is the lease agreement month-to-month or year-to-year? Most leases are the latter, but in college or military neighborhoods, or upon request, you may be able to negotiate for a month-to-month lease.
  3. How much are rent and deposit fees, and when is rent due? A typical deposit includes "first, last and security": You pay the first and last month's rent up front, as well as a security (damage) deposit that's partially or fully refundable after you move out. If there's a nonrefundable screening fee, is it negotiable if you bring your own credit report?
  4. Is there a grace period after the monthly rental due date? When is a payment considered late, and is there a penalty charge for late payment?
  5. What are the terms for renewing the lease? Can you move into an apartment you like better if one becomes vacant? What are the conditions if you have to move before the lease expires?
  6. Are pets allowed? If a landlord is skeptical about pets, offer to pay a nonrefundable pet deposit or discuss other compromises to help him or her feel comfortable. If a pet-deposit policy is in place, is it refundable if there's no pet damage when you move out?
  7. Are any utilities included in your agreement? What are typical bill amounts in different seasons? Do you need to make your own arrangements for hookups? It's preferable to have your own utility accounts rather than making payments to your landlord — you'll avoid "trust issues," and on-time payments will help your credit rating.
  8. Are you allowed to have roommates? What is the policy on subletting?
  9. Can you paint the walls or make other decorating changes?
  10. Are you allowed to run a home business from your apartment?
  11. Will you be responsible for any property maintenance? Is there an office onsite or a 24-hour phone number in case of emergency?
  12. How is garbage removal handled? Is recycling available?
  13. Who are the other building residents, especially those who share your walls or live above and below you?
  14. How does the landlord handle noise violations? Does the building tend to be quiet, or is it Party Central? How about the neighborhood traffic, noise level and crime rate?
  15. How close are the nearest public transportation, post office, grocery stores, banks and restaurants?