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Adulting 101: Your First Apartment Search

"Adulting 101" is a six-week series to assist with your transition from college to the real world. This week's topic: finding your first apartment.

“Adulting 101” is a series of six blogs to help make your transition from college to the real world a little easier! In our first installment, you learned all about the job search. Next up: finding your first apartment.

You’re moving out! You’ve saved up, cleaned out all your stuff, and started browsing for furniture online. Looking for your first apartment can be a strenuous process. Whether you’re moving off campus, moving in with a partner, or just getting out of your parents’ house, now is a time to celebrate but also focus. There are a lot of variables to get straight before you sign a lease, so here are some important things to keep in mind throughout the process of finding your new home sweet home.

Finding an apartment

Depending on where you’re moving to, you can look on websites like Apartments.com, Zillow, ApartmentFinder, or HotPads. You can also browse your local classified ads, check Facebook, or ask friends who rent in the area for recommendations. I found my first apartment by looking through Google maps for apartment buildings and calling the phone numbers on the signs outside, so that might work for you too.

Know what you want

When looking through listings or talking to potential landlords, narrow down your search by figuring out what you want out of your new home. Variable amenities include a dishwasher, in-unit washer and dryer (or in the building), available parking, whether utilities are included, and whether you have to get your own internet. You should also narrow your search by location: Is it near work? Your friends? The bus stop? If you’re overwhelmed with choices, pare down your options not only based on rent price but factors that are important to you.

It’s all about timing

A word on timing: it’s tricky. I’m one of those people who likes to get out in front of things, planning everything to a “t.” So when I started calling landlords four months or more before I planned to move, they had no idea if they would have any openings.

Most places only require a month’s or so notice from current tenants who are leaving or not resigning a lease, and if there are places open, they probably won’t still be open several months from now.

But if you’re like me, there’s nothing wrong with doing some research and reaching out early. You can at least get an idea of rent prices and amenities to help your search, and there could be a landlord who knows a longtime tenant is moving out soon. But most of the time, you’ll have to be a little flexible to work around availability dates for the places you really want.

Related: Budgeting Basics for College Students, Plus Example Spreadsheet

Look at the apartment

After you’ve found a few places that appeal to you, you’ll likely set up a time or go online to fill out an application. Outside of basic information about yourself, these may ask for former landlords or references, your driver’s license number, or your social security number (these last two are just to make sure you are who you say you are).

Once you’ve filled out an application (though that isn’t always part of the process), you go to a viewing. This is a big part of your decision of where to make your new home. There’s a lot to keep in mind: Do you feel comfortable in the neighborhood? How’s the security of the building?

Don’t be afraid to take a good look around, look at storage space, and try to imagine your belongings in the rooms: Will everything fit? What’s the view like out the windows, and are there blinds installed? Are there enough outlets or permanent light fixtures? Do you have good cell reception, and can you hear the neighbors? Is there a peephole, smoke detector, dead bolt, and fire extinguisher?

Side note: Always take someone with you to a viewing. It may seem paranoid, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Whether it’s your partner or roommate(s), a sibling, parent, grandparent, family friend, or your dog walker, having someone with you is a good safety measure. Plus, it always helps to have a second opinion on a place, whether they’re actually involved in the final decision or not.

Ask questions

In addition to what you can see on the surface, there are plenty of questions to ask the landlord. This is a big decision, so don’t be afraid to speak up. How do repairs work? Are you allowed to put nails in the walls? What parking is available for tenants and guests? What are your options for paying rent (cash/check/card)? Where’s your mailbox? Are there any changes the landlord plans to make before you move in, and do you get a say in those changes?

Related: 7 Ways to Boost the Mood of Your College Apartment

Read the lease

After a viewing, you may be able to sign a lease right away, or there might be a wait. When it comes time to sign a lease, be sure to read it thoroughly before signing or paying anything. Look especially at clauses about pets, damage policies, subletting, when rent needs to be payed and late fees, what utilities are included, and any changes the landlord will make before you move in.

Always make sure to get a copy of the lease as well. If you can, have someone else with you to help read it over. And ask the landlord any questions you have about wording or language before you sign.

Time to pay for some stuff

When you sign a lease, you’ll likely have to a pay a security deposit and/or first and last month’s rent. A security deposit is pretty much what it sounds like—it’s a deposit usually equal to one month’s rent that the landlord holds on to until you move out in case of damages, and if you leave the apartment in good condition, you’ll get it back. You may also pay first and last month’s rent at this time, or you may not pay that until you move in.

On top of rent, utilities, and other expenses, you may also consider purchasing renters insurance. Like home insurance, renters insurance typically covers costs in the event of a break-in, fire, or flood. Your apartment may be covered under a policy the landlord has for the building, only some things may be covered, or nothing at all. You’ll have to check with your landlord to see. While it’s an additional expense, it often isn’t much and provides you with peace of mind in case of an emergency.

Furnishing your apartment

Once you have your apartment, one of the biggest steps before move-in is finding furniture for your new place. As much as you may be tempted to start decorating from the vast catalogues of big-box department stores, there are cheaper options out there if you need them.

Try searching for inexpensive items at secondhand, charity, and consignment stores. Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and apps like Letgo are great options as well, but the internet-age-old advice applies: meet in a populated, public place and bring someone with you when picking things up.

Antique and peddlers’ malls might carry furniture, or  you can browse the newspaper and internet for yard sales. You can even ask older relatives if they have anything they want to get rid of or contribute to the cause. When it comes to basics like kitchen tools and smaller items, try consignment stores but also dollar stores and places like Walmart. If you’re on a budget, regular and spray paint can liven up secondhand furniture, and there are lots of DIY ideas on Pinterest to help you decorate your new space.

Related: 5 Ways to Decorate Your College Apartment on a Budget


You’re all moved in, unpacked, and ready to start your new adventure. But if you’re not living on your own, there’s one more step. Living with other people can be awesome, but it comes with challenges too.

Before you move in, be sure to have an open, honest discussion with your roommates, partner, dog, or whoever about boundaries, divvying up rent, and keeping each other sane. When you’re looking at apartments, talk about each of your priorities. Once you’ve settled on a place, figure out what each of you is bringing possessions-wise, and draw out a diagram of what will go where so you don’t have to argue while moving heavy furniture.

Once you’re moved in, create a system for having time alone or having the place to yourself, what you will and won’t share, who does the dishes when, and how comfortable you are with guests. Even if you’ve known each other for years, living together can bring to light new things—good and bad—that you’ve never dealt with before, so it’s worth getting out in front of it. Also keep in mind that it will probably take more than just whoever’s living there to get moved in, so bribe family and friends with pizza to get help hauling that couch up the stairs.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Living With Roommates vs. Living Alone

Enjoy your new abode

Now all that’s left to do is throw a housewarming party! You’ve found your new place and made a lot of difficult decisions along the way. Hopefully this guide will help you figure out your way through this hallmark of adulting.

Next up in Adulting 101: eating right and staying healthy. And for more college living advice, check out our Student Life section.

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About Emily Rogan

Emily Rogan is a student at Morehead State University, where she's studying Communications and Theater. When she's not in school, she is an actor, musician, singer, and writer.


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