Renting an apartment: What to expect from the rental application process
You’ve defined your monthly rent budget, succeeded in the apartment hunt and found your dream apartment, and have your credit score ready to go. Now, it’s time to complete the apartment application process and sign the lease. Having a strong apartment application can seem overwhelming, but we’re here to walk you through it. While it requires a bit of work, we promise it isn’t as bad as it seems!
- Fill out an apartment application
Once you’ve found your dream apartment, reach out to the property manager of the rental unit to begin the apartment application process. If you have a cosigner (see Step 5 to understand if you need a cosigner) for an apartment, or roommates, they’ll also need to fill out an application. While most properties will offer an online rental application process, some may require you to submit it in-person - check to see what kind of application you’ll need to fill out.
While every rental application is different, they generally ask you to provide the same information:
This is a lot of information, so we’d recommend compiling as much as you can before applying and thinking about who your references will be so you can complete your application as quickly as possible.
We’d also suggest asking about the expected upfront costs of the apartment - things like the application fee, a security deposit, first and last month's rent - to make sure you have enough funds saved to cover these costs.
While the rental application process time differs amongst landlords, you can typically expect a response from within to a few hours to (usually) a max of three days.
Common causes of a rental application rejection
The most common causes of an application relate to having an inconsistent monthly income, having little to no credit or bad credit, having an issue with a background check, having a pet (if you do have a pet, make sure to apply to pet-only apartments to save yourself headache in the long run), or having an incomplete or inaccurate rental application.
In the paragraphs ahead, we'll go over these common pitfalls and how to avoid any potential issues that could cause a rejection.
- Pay the renter's application fee
Almost every rental application has an application fee - usually between $35 and $75 per person - which is used to fund the background and credit checks on renters. Make sure to ask about the application fee before applying to know up front what it is.
- Expect credit and background checks
When going through the rental application process, you should also expect credit and background checks from the property manager.
A credit check is a demonstration to the landlord of a tenant's financial responsibility, essentially confirming that you are a reliable tenant who will make rent payments on time. If you expect your credit check to show a credit report with bad credit, you may want to consider having a co-signer or guarantor on the lease, which we'll get into later.
A background check can go as far back as a landlord thinks is necessary and typically check for criminal history. If you think a background check may provide a landlord with information about things like previous arrests, it is always better to be honest and provide them with the relevant information upfront; essentially, you don't want any surprises to your potential landlord,
- Prove you can pay rent
In addition to credit checks and background checks, landlords also may want proof that you can afford your monthly rent. Landlords will ask for copies of tax returns, recent pay stubs proving monthly income from your employer, recent bank statements, or W-2 statements as proof. If you have non-traditional sources of income, think of ways to provide this proof of income before applying and ask the property manager early on what types of proof they will accept.
- Decide if you need a co-signer
If you have issues with a background check, have bad credit or an insufficient credit history, or if this is your first apartment or you don’t have a way to account for your previous rental history, you may need a co-signer. A co-signer is a person with good credit who acts as a guarantor - someone who takes the legal responsibility of paying your rent in case you stop paying.
A co-signer likely increases your chances of approval for the apartment. If you think you may have a problem getting approved individually, we’d recommend thinking of who a good cosigner might be. Because this is a big request - they'll be financially and legally responsible should you be unable to pay rent - we recommend asking them well before you begin applying for the apartment.
- Have good landlord references as well as professional and personal references
You’ll have already listed your references on your rental application, but having good references can both expedite the application process and put you ahead of other applicants for the same apartment. Essentially, references demonstrate to your new landlord what kind of tenant you will be.
Landlord references from both current and previous landlords often in the form of a letter, are one of the best references you can have and hopefully describe how great of a tenant you were throughout your rental history.
Other references come professional references like your employer and manager and from personal references like friends and family. While you may not need a letter of recommendation from professional or personal references, most landlords may call them to understand what you’re like, so we would suggest picking close references who can account for your character and trustworthiness.
- Think about getting renter's insurance.
Sometimes referred to as tenant insurance, renter's insurance is designed to protect you -the renter - from unexpected events like theft and other natural disasters. Typically, there are three coverage types: personal property, liability, and additional living expenses, which are laid out below.
Some landlords may require that you have renter's insurance in the rental agreement, so we'd recommend researching a few options and deciding upon the desired amount of property coverage needed so there are no surprises later on in terms of cost.
- Prepare your finances
Upon move-in, most landlords require first month's rent, last month's rent, and a security deposit, which normally amounts to one month's rent - that's three month's rent in total. That doesn't take into account additional costs like renters' insurance and other move-in fees so we'd recommend making sure that you have enough money set aside before signing the lease agreement to cover these costs.
- Review the lease in detail - and sign!
You've gone through the apartment application process and been approved - congrats! Before you sign the lease, you’ll need to discuss a few important things with your landlord.
Make sure you fully understand the upfront costs - like the security deposit and any additional fees - that you may incur beyond rent. As discussed, many landlords may ask for first month's rent AND last months’ rent - make sure you bring a bank check and ask for a receipt upon payment.
Read the rental agreement carefully - understand key points like your move-in date, what happens if you have to break the lease in the case of unexpected circumstances, if you can sublease your apartment, and more.
Finally, we’d recommend making a list of all of the things that still aren’t clear (maybe things like utilities and maintenance requests) and ask your landlord before signing.
Up until this point, you’ve done all of the hard work and understand your rights and responsibilities as a renter - now it’s just time to sign on the dotted line!
- Understand your rights and responsibilities as a renter
While very important, the lease likely won't cover everything - namely, all of your rights and responsibilities as a renter. These vary by state, and in addition to reviewing tenants' rights and responsibilities below, we also recommend reviewing these by the specific state you're living in.
While tenant rights vary by state, they typically include the following: fair housing, habitable dwelling, proper eviction notice, a right to privacy, and a right to your security deposit.
To ensure continued access to your rights, maintain a good relationship with your landlord, and get your full security deposit back, you must also meet your obligations as a tenant. These obligations include: maintaining communication with your landlord, meeting cleanliness standards, making rent payments, not inflicting damage, not updating the space without landlord consent.
- Plan your move!
Now the fun (and the real work) really begins! It’s time to move in. Read our guide to make sure you’re well-prepared for the process.