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Check out the details when searching for an apartment

Apartment hunting can be tedious when you move to a new city or state. You don't get the same level of care and feeding that house hunters get. But apartment dwellers need to take some of the same steps as prospective homeowners when trying to find the best place to live.

Patricia Curran, director of consumer education at MetLife in New York, says that too often people who rent don't do enough research.

"They need to make a list of what attributes they want in an apartment and what resources they want near them. How close do they want to be to their job, recreational facilities, church or synagogue? Is parking an issue? If they have a car, do they have to pay extra?"

Do research on the Internet
People relocating from another state should use the Internet or classified ads to check out apartment complexes in their new city, says Curran.

"The Internet is a good way to do research, but you need to see a place. Pictures online don't tell the entire story. Don't sign a lease based on a picture."

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As for classifieds, Curran says to be sure to read between the lines -- what you read may not be what you get -- " 'Cute' may mean tiny."

Once you arrive in your new location, talk to co-workers about areas to live. They can generally tip you off to safe and desirable neighborhoods.

Take pictures
Curran advises taking a camera or videocam along when visiting a complex. If the apartment meets your criteria but there's minor damage, make a record of it. That way the landlord won't be able to withhold your security deposit when you leave.

While you're there, see if you're comfortable with the landlord -- if you're not, it could make for a tense relationship in the months to come.

Check for smoke detectors; find out who replaces the batteries. If the laundry facilities are in the basement, go there, check the machines and make sure you'd feel comfortable going into the basement by yourself. Make sure there's adequate outdoor lighting, that locks on all doors and windows are in good shape, check for fire extinguishers and that emergency exit signs are lit.

Consider a locator service
If you're not comfortable handling all this by yourself, or you just don't have the time for the legwork, consider an apartment locator service. They're usually free and the reps can do a good job of giving clients the "lay of the land," says Liz Cole of Dallas Apartment Locators in Dallas.

"We save the client time, money and energy. Our list is personalized -- only the properties that meet their criteria, are within their budget and are available," says Cole. "With us, the client isn't aimlessly driving to some property that doesn't have the tennis courts they want, listening to a property agent telling them about all the other amenities they have."

Cole also says her company makes the complex managers aware the client has other choices so they have an opportunity to match an offer rather than lose the customer.

Limit rent to 25 percent of income
MetLife's Curran says a good rule of thumb when considering how much rent you can afford is no more than 25 percent of your monthly gross income.

"If you spend more than the recommended 25 percent, you'll cut into entertainment and lifestyle," Curran says. "It's a personal decision people have to weigh."

As for security deposits, Curran says they generally range from one to three months' rent. If it's three months, Curran suggests trying to negotiate it down to two months.

"Also, you want the money held in an escrow account that earns interest. You want it held separately from other people's money and separately from the landlord's money."

Buy renters insurance
Curran also suggests renters' insurance as an inexpensive way to make sure you're covered should disaster strike.

"There's a misconception that the landlord's insurance covers people's belongings," she says. "It doesn't -- it covers the structure."

-- Posted: July 7, 2004

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