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Renting an apartment can be daunting, not to mention anxiety-inducing. So start with the most fundamental apartment-hunting question: What should I be looking for?

Friends, family, and coworkers all have opinions. But the key to apartment hunting is finding a space that you like and feel safe in. Here are some practical tips to help you locate your home sweet home.

1. Set a price range. Browsing through Craigslist might be entertaining, but knowing what you can afford will save you lots of time and energy. More importantly, being realistic will stave off disappointment.

The first step in apartment hunting is determining how much your life costs each month (think entertainment, food, medical expenses, savings, clothes, fitness, etc.). Subtract that total from your monthly income and whatever remains can go towards rent. Remember to figure in an average cost for utilities (if they're not included) and amenities such as parking.

2. Consider what's most important to you. Everyone has a different list of requirements when apartment hunting. What matters to you?

  • Onsite laundry
  • Onsite maintenance and repairs
  • Pest Control
  • Parking
  • Pet-friendly
  • Storage space
  • Stabilized rent
  • Near public transportation
  • Easy commute to work
  • Good shopping
  • Good school district

Compare the apartments you visit by making a list of pros and cons. If you're moving in with a roommate(s), ask about his/her must-haves and be willing to compromise.

3. Tour the neighborhood. Walk around for a day while apartment hunting to get a sense whether the area will feel like home. Go to a local coffee shop or family-owned store and ask about the neighborhood.

  • Is it safe?
  • Is it a family area or loaded with 20-somethings?
  • Is it quiet or known for its nightlife?
  • Is it close to services like dry cleaners and restaurants, or are the options limited?

4. Learn the story behind your apartment. Serious apartment hunting requires that you ask potential landlords the tough questions. It's your right to know about the space before making a commitment.

How long has the apartment been on the market? The rental market is very competitive so a long vacancy might be a red flag. The same holds for a short-term tenant or one who was evicted. If the landlord tries to brush off your questions, that's another red flag.

Is the building/apartment up-to-date? Knowing when the complex was built may yield clues about maintenance problems. If the building has been around for a while, ask if major renovations have been performed (e.g., floors, ceilings, windows, plumbing). Ask if any major repairs are scheduled within the next year or if any need to be made before moving in.

Ask the age of the wiring and check the fuse box with your own eyes -- it's easy to tell the difference between an outdated box and a new one. Old wiring often struggles to keep up with all the modern electrical conveniences.

Ask if all of the appliances work properly and check them yourself (e.g., working burners on the stove, a cold fridge, good water pressure, toilet flushes properly).

Which utilities are included in the rent? Even if this information appeared in the ad, verify and clarify the terms. If heat and air-conditioning are not covered, inquire about the apartment's insulation.

Get the dirt from the building's residents. Maybe the building is a dream or maybe it's a nightmare, but you won't know unless you ask current tenants. Speaking to residents while apartment hunting has the potential to alter the course of your search. Do they enjoy living there? What's their opinion of the building, community, landlord, and management company? What are some major gripes?

Look for commonalities in the answers. Is the complaint something you could handle or overlook? For instance, if the landlord takes his sweet time addressing maintenance problems, would you be able to get by or would you be extremely irritated? There's often a world of difference between what the landlord claims to do and what he actually does.

5. Do your homework before signing the lease and take the time to read what you're signing. Read up on your state's housing laws even before apartment hunting begins. Visit the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website for local details.

Some landlords summarize each page of a lease, but ask to review the original on your own before signing, preferably away from the rental office. Familiarize yourself with the building's rules and fees to avoid surprises, and ask for clarification about anything you don't understand.

A critical rule in apartment hunting: Be assertive and ask.

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