Until you are able to purchase your own house or condominium, you will generally need to rent an apartment in the USA. You can get information about apartments online at places like Move. Ask friends and relatives or people at your job if they know of places to rent. Look for “Apartment Available” or “For Rent” signs on buildings. You can also call a local real estate agent.
People who rent out apartments or homes are called “landlords.” They are typically large rental companies. A landlord may ask you to fill out a rental application form to check to see if you have the money to pay the rent. The application form may ask for a Social Security Number and proof that you are working. You can use your green card (or other visa such as an H1, L1) if you do not yet have a Social Security Number. You can also show a pay stub from your job to prove you are working and making money. You may also be asked to pay a small application fee, especially in a hot rental market or in a large complex. If you are not yet working or don’t have sufficient income, you may need someone to sign the rental agreement with you. This person is called a “co-signer”. If you cannot pay the rent, the co-signer will have to pay the rent for you.
Apartments are generally unfurnished. In other words, they will not come with a bed, mattress, sofa, dining table, etc. If you are going to be in a particular place for a short duration, like a few months on a company project, it may be a good idea to explore the option of a furnished apartment.
Apartment vs. Condominium
In an apartment complex, all the buildings are owned by one company and all the tenants pay rent.
Condominiums are places where every housing unit is owned by individuals, similar to flats in India. In a condominium complex, the people living there could be house owners or people who rent from their owners. If you rent a condominium, you pay rent to that individual owner and deal with any issues through them. You would also have to pay a homeowner’s association fee that takes care of trash removal, lawn maintenance, snow removal, etc.
Before renting an apartment, check out the neighborhood. Are there any safety issues? If you see iron bars on windows of private homes or apartments, that may be a warning sign. If you see graffiti (spray painted words or pictures) on neighborhood walls, alleys, or apartment buildings, that may not be a good neighborhood. If you see trash lying around the area, take note. Within the apartment building itself, if common areas like the laundry room, stairs, elevators, hallways, lobby, or parking lots are dirty and filled with trash, it may be possible that the landlord is not taking care of the apartments properly. It also speaks to the quality of people living there.
Also consider factors like street noise, privacy, lack of view, and natural light. Apartments near public transport (a bus station or train station) are in higher demand and more expensive.
Most children go to public schools, which are run by the city or county. Children will need to go to their specific school according to the area of their residence. Before moving in, if you have kids who are of school age, find out how good the schools are for that apartment building. This may be the single most important decision you make in selecting an apartment as it indirectly plays a large role on your child’s education.
An apartment can usually be leased for a term of 1 year or 6 months. By signing a long-term lease, both you and the landlord are agreeing to your long-term occupancy. It is also possible to get a month-to-month rental, but your rent will most likely be higher. In addition, the landlord may decide not to renew your rental and force you to vacate the apartment.
You should carefully review the apartment lease agreement. It is a legally binding document. Also, it is your only proof of residency in a particular place. Your landlord is required to give you a copy of the agreement.
Apartment rental agreements may include the following:
- Rental amounts and terms.
- Amount of deposit (usually one month’s rent). Ask whether they can put your deposit in an interest-bearing account so you can make some money on it. There may be different state laws regarding how the security deposit is treated.
- Damage deposit (usually $200 to $250).
When you move out, if your apartment is in the same condition (except normal wear and tear) as when you rented it, you will get your deposit back. The agreement should also specify when they will return your deposit.
- Key deposits for several things like the main door, locked gates, mailbox, or parking lot entryways. It may vary from $10 to $50 and more.
- Whether pets are allowed (if so, the amount of extra deposit, if any).
- Length of occupancy such as 12 months, 6 months, etc.
- Rules of conduct while living in the apartment.
- Guest policy.
- Parking policy. You may need to park in a designated parking space or anywhere you choose. If anywhere, you may be given stickers to put on your car so that they can recognize that they are your cars. There may be restrictions on how many cars you can park in the lot.
- Amount of rent to be paid and its monthly due date.
- Termination requirements.
- Whether any subletting is allowed, and, if so, the subletting rules.
- What utilities are included in the rent.
- If there are any repairs to be completed by the landlord before you move in, and the due dates for them.
- A statement that the landlord has a right to enter at reasonable times to inspect, for maintenance (like AC filter change), and to make repairs. However, the landlord can’t enter without your prior permission.
Breaking a Lease
Before you sign the lease, understand the terms for lease breaking (or termination) very clearly. You may have to give a 1 or 2 months advance notice (or pay rent for 1 or 2 months) and/or you may lose your security deposit. Also, sometimes the landlord may charge you one month extra rent (or for each month until your lease is over) if they can’t find someone else to rent your apartment during the 1 or 2 months’ notice you give. You must have everything clarified in advance. It is even more important in a slow housing market, lacking economy, or in an area where there is more housing available than demand.
In a booming economy or where there is a housing shortage or just simply too much demand for particular apartments, the landlord may be able to waive some or all of your charges or notice period if they can quickly find someone else to rent your apartment. Of course, you can’t rely on this expectation.
Depending on your need and budget, you will have to look at various rental options and decide accordingly. Depending on your family size, you may require a certain size apartment. If you have a one bedroom apartment, only two people can live there. If you have a child, you can’t stay in a one bedroom apartment. You’ll need to get either a two bedroom apartment or a one bedroom apartment with a den (a den is a smaller room without closets). You can keep up to two children in one bedroom. Therefore, if you have more than two children, you will need a three bedroom apartment.
Rent is usually less for basement apartments (below ground level) compared to apartments on the first or second floor. People generally prefer to avoid basement apartments because there is more outside noise, a lack of privacy, and a lack of daylight. Therefore, a landlord should tell you if only basement apartments are available. Inquire further to find out whether there are other apartments available. If you are not comfortable with that, look somewhere else. If you decide to move in anyway, it is possible that you may find out later that other apartments were available.
You should generally not spend more than 30 percent of your take home salary on rent. This, of course, can vary based on your needs and circumstances.
In order to cut costs, you may want to share an apartment with someone else within the occupancy limits described above. You can search on various classifieds websites like Craigslist, or for Indian-centric, check out Sulekha.
If you are sharing an apartment with two other people, all occupants must be listed on the lease. If one person wants to leave before the end of the lease period, he/she must give a letter to the other two that authorizes you to take care of the paperwork and responsibility until the lease is over. In the absence of such a letter, one or two people can’t break the lease later if the signatures of all people who originally signed the letter are not there.
Landlords can not refuse to rent to you due to certain things. It is against the law to reject you because of:
- your race or color
- the country you came from
- your religion
- your sex
- a physical disability
- marital status
If you feel you have been refused housing for any of these reasons, you can contact the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) by phone at (800) 669-9777. Information is given in English and Spanish.
You will need to consider which utilities are already included in the rent. Various utilities to think of are gas, heat, water, electricity, trash removal, cable connection for TV, and high-speed internet. The more utilities that are included, the less you may have to spend, but the apartment rent may be higher. All the utilities that are included must be listed in the rental agreement (lease agreement).
Usually air-conditioners run on electricity while heaters do so on gas. Therefore, if not already included in your apartment rent, your electricity bill will be higher in the summer and the gas bill will be higher in the winter.
Your landlord will most likely be able to give you the names of the utility companies and their contact information for the utilities that are not included in your rental. You need to call those utility companies to get the utilities in your name.
Electricity is always available. However, you need to call them and let them know that you have moved in on a given date and that they should send the bill to you.
You should call a local phone company to get a phone connection. More details. You can get most of the utilities connected over the phone; you shouldn’t need to visit an office in person.
Cooking stoves usually come in two varieties: gas and electrical. Depending upon the kind of food you cook, this may or may not matter. Therefore, make sure to ask what kind of stove your apartment will have.
For example, people from Gujarat, India would find it difficult to make ‘fulka roti’ on an electrical stove as it gets too hot quickly and the ‘roti’ burns fast. If you must stay in that apartment and you must make ‘fulka roti,’ there is the option to place a stand on the range so that direct contact with the electrical coil is eliminated. Check in some local Indian grocery stores for more information and for the availability of such products.
Maintaining an Apartment
Most apartments already have a cooking range, oven, dishwasher, refrigerator, etc. It may not have a microwave oven, but you can purchase a nice one for around $100 to $150.
You can use aluminum foil (available at stores like Wal-Mart, Target etc.) to cover part of the cooking range, but not the coils, so that it remains clean and you don’t have to spend too much time cleaning it.
Dish soap is available both in powder and liquid form. Liquid form generally works better and is more effective. If the inner surface of the stove starts darkening after some time, you can use the liquid to clean it. You can do that maybe once a month.
You should clean your oven and microwave once a month using a cleaning liquid.
You will have to buy a small trash can from the store. Before dumping any trash in the trash can, put a plastic bag in it so that you can just take the bag itself and trash can will remain relatively clean. Depending on the size of your trash can, you can either buy trash bags from the store or you can use grocery bags. You can dump the trash bags in the central trash container, which is usually provided at several places throughout the apartment complex. A trash collector truck comes to collect the trash nearly every day in most apartment complexes.
When you sign a lease, you agree to keep the apartment clean and in good shape. You may be charged extra if you damage the place you are renting. After renting an apartment, carefully observe if there is any damage to the apartment. If you see any, you must ask the property manager to note it promptly. Otherwise, the landlord may deduct some or all of your security deposit when you move out. Talk to your landlord before you move out to find out what you need to fix in order to receive your fully refunded security deposit.
If you have damages in your apartment that you did not cause:
- Talk to your landlord (usually they have a rental office in the apartment complex itself) and tell them what is wrong and what needs to be fixed.
- Next, write a letter to them explaining what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. Keep a copy for yourself.
- Finally, call your local housing office. Most city or local governments have people who inspect houses for problems. Ask the inspector to visit and show him/her all the problems.
If your landlord does not fix the problems, you may be able to make a legal charge against them.
Please note that the washer and dryer are usually two separate units.
Some apartments have the washer and dryer in the apartment itself. If so, you can use them as many times as you want.
Some apartments have washers and dryers in a common laundry room. Those machines are usually coin operated. You will need to enter 4 to 6 quarters to use the washer once and the same number of quarters to use the dryer once. You need to use your own detergent powder or liquid. If you need lot of quarters, you can get them at your bank. They can provide quarters usually in multiples of $10.
Upgrading or Downgrading
Different apartment complexes have different rules for downgrading or upgrading the apartment.
Some apartments may not allow downgrading at all, e.g., moving from a two bedroom apartment to a one bedroom apartment is not allowed at all.
Most apartments will allow you to upgrade the apartment. However, they may charge you extra for that. You may need to upgrade if you recently had a baby or if your relatives are coming to visit for a long period of time.
All of these rules will be specified in the rental agreement. If you are unsure, clarify everything up front. Also clarify whether your lease would be transferred to your new apartment or if you will have to break your current lease and sign a new one, which may have negative financial consequences.
Change of Address
You should change your address with the U.S. Postal Service so they can forward your mail to your new address. You can change your address online at https://www.usps.com/ or visit your local post office and request a “Moving Guide.”
Additionally, if you are not a U.S. citizen, whenever you move, you are required to change your address with USCIS. Change of address.
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