Renters' Guide: The Rental Process
Finding the ideal rental property can be time consuming. Knowing what to expect can help ensure a smooth process.
While there are times when people must rent a property sight-unseen – such as when they’re relocating for a new job – it’s usually preferable to view the property ahead of time to make sure it meets your needs and expectations. You can contact the landlord, real estate agent, property manager or apartment complex office (depending on the type of property) to make an appointment to view the unit.
When you visit, pay attention to the individual unit as well as the overall property. Does the property seem clean, well maintained and in good repair? Are many of the units occupied? Is there a well-lit parking area? Are common areas tidy and well lit? Is the unit free from any defects? Can you look at more than one unit in the property to compare features? Are the amenities as advertised? Is the functionality of the unit and property acceptable? Is the appearance of the unit and property acceptable?
While it is easy to be in a hurry to sign a lease, it can be beneficial (if it’s at all possible) to view different properties to find one that meets or exceeds your expectations. This is particularly true if you expect to live there for a while. (For related reading, see 6 Tips for Renting an Apartment.)
Once you’ve decided on a unit, you’ll probably be asked to fill out a rental application. Each person who is renting has to fill out a separate rental application. This helps the landlord determine each person's credibility as a potential renter. You may have to submit a processing fee, application fee and security deposit along with the rental application. If your application is denied, the security deposit will be returned within a specified time frame, usually one month. The rental application typically asks for your:
- current address
- phone numbers
- email address
- driver's license number
- previous address
- pets, if applicable
- employment and income information
- emergency contacts
- personal references
- background information, including questions about criminal charges or previous bankruptcies
- vehicle information
Credit and Background Check
You may have to give consent (by signing and dating the application) to the landlord and its agents to obtain a consumer credit report, landlord/tenant credit record search, criminal records search and registered sex offender search. The credit and background checks help landlords determine if applicants would make suitable tenants, in terms of character, income and financial responsibility. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for a landlord to deny housing to a tenant on the grounds of race, color, gender, religion, disability, familial status or national origin.
If you lack sufficient personal credit, you may designate a willing person as a guarantor. By consigning a lease, that person agrees to share legal and financial responsibility for the terms of the lease. The cosigner, who is often a close friend or family member, will have to submit a cosigner application, sometimes called a guarantor application, and a cosigner agreement. The landlord typically requires the latter to be legally notarized. (For related reading, see What are Cosigners Liable & Responsible For?)
Once the landlord has the rental application(s) and has approved, the landlord will prepare a lease or rental agreement. Typically, the tenant(s) must sign and date the lease, and return it to the landlord with one full month's rent or with the first and last month's rent.
A lease is a legal contract between the landlord and tenant(s). Typically, a lease includes basics such as:
- the names of the landlord and tenant(s)
- the starting date and duration or end date of the agreement
- the address of the property being leased
- options for lease renewal, if any
The lease will also include specific terms for:
- rent payments, including amounts and due dates
- security deposits
- applicable late charges
- number of occupants and guests
- right of entry and inspection
- noise and any "quiet" hours
- property maintenance
- attorney fees (in case of a dispute)
- lead notification requirement (for structures built prior to 1978)
- assignment (and if it is acceptable for tenant to sublet the premises)
- joint and several liability
The terms of the lease will specify which utilities are your responsibility and which are covered by the landlord. You may have to apply independently for utilities through the appropriate company to receive electricity, cable, phone, water, internet, etc. The utility company may require a deposit that will be returned once the utility has been turned off if there are no outstanding payments due. Utility companies often provide estimates of service charges if requested – which can be helpful to renters who want to figure out what their total monthly expenses might be.
Paying the Rent
In a co-tenant situation, the lease terms will indicate whether tenants must submit one check each month or if multiple checks are acceptable. Typically, landlords want to keep the process simple and specify that rent must come from one check only. It is up to the co-tenants to decide who writes the check each month.
Certain landlords let you pay rent online using a credit card, debit card or electronic check. A valuable feature of this convenient service is that tenants can sign up for automatically recurring payments, ensuring that rent is paid on time each month – a benefit to both the tenants and the landlord. (For more, see Do You Need a Rent Receipt?)