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Questions every graduate should ask before getting their first apartment

Soumaya El Filali / WFAE

Charlotte ranked as one of the10 best cities for college graduates to start their careers in 2023, according to a data analysis by Stacker. However, from filling up lengthy application forms to meeting the financial requirements, finding an apartment right after graduation can be difficult.

This is especially true for graduates who are moving from college towns to major cities, like Brian Rosenzweig who is relocating from Chapel Hill to uptown Charlotte this summer.

For Rosenzweig, the standard application fee for apartments was unexpected. “Virtually every application has an application fee, which is a little tough for a recent grad,” Rosenzweig said. “I just wish I knew how kind of universal application fees were … maybe [I would have] saved up more money specifically for that.”

But Rosenzweig is not alone in this. Confusion about application fees, utility costs and which documents to provide are common among young renters, according to Jonas Bordo, CEO of the residential rental marketplace Dwellsy.

“There's a lot of confusion and frustration and, frankly, inconsistency about how the actual application process works,” said Bordo, who recently co-authored a book called “Everything You Need to Know About Renting But Didn’t Know to Ask: All the Insider Dirt to Help You Get the Best Deal and Avoid Disaster.”

According to Bordo, asking the right questions, and as a result learning as much information as possible about the process, is the key to finding the right apartment and avoiding fraudsters. Here is a list of questions young renters should ask themselves, their potential landlords and current residents before committing to an apartment.

What documents are needed/required?
Proof of income (such as W-2, bank statements, or pay stubs), ID, (driver’s license or passport), Social Security number, job history and an offer letter for those who have not started their new positions are all common documents that you will be asked to provide in your application. Oftentimes, you will be asked for a second form of identification, which can be your passport or your birth certificate. Landlords may also ask to see your vehicle registration, pet registration or/and renters insurance.

“It's important to remember that they should be asking for them [documents] in the right order,” Bordo said. “If they want those things in order to show you the place, that's a red flag. If you've seen the place already and you want to submit an application, that's when they should be asking for those things.”

How much to spend on application fees?
According to Bordo, the average renter submits three to five applications in the process. In North Carolina, an application fee can cost anything from $25 to $100. To go about this intelligently, Bordo says that the best question to ask your landlord is where you are in the queue. “If you're going to be the 11th application, that is not your apartment, that's somebody else's apartment.”

What amenities do you really need? 
Amenities are the apartment industry's little dirty secret, says Bordo. Because while they look great and help sell the apartment, nobody ever uses them. “The reality is most people can do without most amenities. Focus on the things you really need. Like if you've got a car, you need a place to put your car. If you've got a pet, that pet is going to need somewhere to relieve itself. You know, things like that tend to be really important.”

How can you vet a landlord? 
If the prospective landlord is a company, you can check their website, social media presence and search for reviews on them online. They might also belong to a local trade association or have a Better Business Bureau rating. If the potential landlord is an individual, look for their LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram account and make sure these profiles match up.

“The other thing is to find a phone number or an email address for that person other than the one that's been provided for you,” Bordo said. “Do your own research to find out how to get in contact with that person and then use that. If you've been talking to somebody via email and you can find their phone number on LinkedIn, give them a call and say, ‘Hey, this is Jonas, I'm interested in your apartment. We were chatting via email,’ and if they say ‘what?’ You know, at that point, you find out if it's legitimate or not.”

Will you need a guarantor or cosigner?
Many young renters do not make enough income to meet the "three times the rent" requirement many landlords ask for when applying for an apartment. If that is the case for you, looking for a guarantor or cosigner upfront can help you move quickly once you find the right apartment.

Do you feel safe in the neighborhood? 
Bordo recommends taking a walk during different times of the day in your new neighborhood. “Safety is such a personal thing. You know, I might feel perfectly safe in a neighborhood that you might feel unsafe in,” Bordo said. “There's no substitute for going there and experiencing it. You're on your own, particularly at night, or at a time where you feel like you might be more worried.”

How can you make yourself more desirable as a young tenant? 
Being first, says Bordo, is the best advantage for a young tenant who might not have an extensive employment or income history. Understanding how the application process works can help with that.

“It's not like the college application process where, you know, a landlord takes a whole bunch of applications and picks the most appealing ones. Instead, the best way that most managers have found … is to take all of the inquiries [and] applications in the order in which they're received. So the most important thing in the search has to be first, move as quickly as you can … You want to have all of your documents ready to go, know what you want and really be together.”

What can you do to avoid getting scammed?
In a survey done by Dweslly in 2022, 22% of searching renters surveyed have been defrauded and the average loss was almost $3,000. Here are some tips to try to avoid being a victim of fraud:

  • Start by sourcing your rental properties from legitimate and reputable sites and steer clear from platforms like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace that are riddled with fraud.
  • Tour the inside of the place in person before making any deposits. If you cannot tour in person, take a live video tour and not a prerecorded one. 
  • Meet and speak with the landlord directly and know that you are dealing with a real human being. 
  • Exchange first month’s rent for keys: Wait until the property is vacant and the landlord is ready to hand over the keys before paying first month’s rent. This will not only help you avoid fraud but also any hassle if the agreement on a legitimate listing falls through.
  • Avoid paying via Venmo or Zelle as these are one-way payment tools that do not allow reversing or stopping payments. Use your credit card or check instead.

Questions to ask a potential landlord: 

What will utilities and other monthly expenses look like? 
Different residential areas have different utilities the tenant is responsible for, and you might be surprised to learn, after you had already signed your lease, that there are additional costs beyond energy and water bills. Trash pickup, move-in and move-out fees, pet fees, renters insurance, parking and internet fees are just some of them. Your landlord should be able to provide a breakdown of the kind of utilities and any additional monthly expenses that a tenant is expected to pay.

Who is responsible for maintenance and how does a tenant report it? 
It is always good to understand who is responsible for what when it comes to maintenance. Landlords will usually take care of general repairs but you might be in charge of minor ones.

Ask your landlord if any of the maintenance responsibilities fall on you and what is the best way to report a maintenance issue. Some places have an online portal while others prefer a direct call.

Are there any special rules for living in this residence? 
From quiet hours to pet restrictions, some residential buildings enforce unique rules that young renters might not be accustomed to. “They might have really weird hours or party rules or things about having people over or things about the usage of the parking spaces or use of a grill,” Bordo said.

What fines might a tenant be responsible for?
Fines or fees for late payments, breaking a rule or damaging a property are quite common. Make sure you know beforehand about these costly mishaps to avoid them.

Is the rent negotiable? 
A lease is not set in stone until signed, says Bordo. “You might be able to negotiate a free parking space, a waived gym fee, paid utilities, or even a lower rent rate,” if you can figure out what your landlord wants or needs. “If you ask about who's mowing the lawn and it's like, 'Oh, it's me and I hate doing it', you know, that's an opportunity to offer,” Bordo said. “Or if the apartment comes with two parking spaces and you only need one. [Ask if] any of the other tenants in the building need an extra parking space.”

You can also start negotiations by researching and finding comparable rentals in the area that offer what you are looking for or offer to move in immediately in exchange for concessions.

Questions to ask current residents: 

How is the maintenance?
“If you can buttonhole somebody in an elevator, in a hallway, that's a great way to find out about the community,” Bordo said. “I would ask them, first and foremost, about maintenance and how good the maintenance team is, because that's kind of a bellwether for how well-managed the apartment is.”

Do you feel safe walking from the parking lot? 
If you just ask them, is it safe to live here, they're probably going to say yes,” Bordo said. “But you start asking kind of the next level of questions, like, have you ever seen anybody get arrested outside your house? Ever felt threatened walking from the parking lot? And you start to get more specific answers that might help you make your own decision about the place.”

Would you renew?
This question might help you figure out if there are issues with the area or home that make residents hesitant to renew, such as loud noise. The willingness of a resident to renew their lease can be a good sign that you are making a good decision by moving into your new apartment.

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Soumaya El Filali is a multimedia journalist and storyteller with bylines in English and Arabic. El Filali has reported on multiple beats including labor, crime and justice and women-centered issues. During her time at the Columbia Journalism School, she specialized in video production and documentary filmmaking.