Whether you’re looking for your first apartment in Los Angeles, CA, or starting fresh in a new city like Chicago, IL, the quest to land the perfect pad is an exciting journey that may involve a few unexpected twists and turns. Gather the necessary paperwork you need to quickly complete the apartment application process and pay the required fees to secure your new apartment. Regardless of the rental market, it’s good to understand how to rent an apartment and be ready to hit the ground running when you find your perfect place.
What is an apartment application?
Reputable landlords and property managers will require you to fill out an apartment application to rent an apartment. This application helps them screen prospective tenants to determine an applicant’s creditworthiness, track record, the financial capacity to pay their bills, job stability, and general responsibility level. If you’re new to the rental process, you may not have completed an apartment application. However, if a property manager doesn’t require a rental application, this may be a red flag or a rental scam.
If you plan to rent an apartment with roommates, each potential tenant over 18 will likely need to complete a rental application.
How much are apartment application fees?
As an applicant, you’ll be required to pay a non-refundable application fee. The application fee covers your credit check, background check, and processing time to call any personal references and verify employment. The apartment application fee can range from $25 to $100 on average, and each applicant and co-signer will be expected to pay.
In California, Delaware, Minnesota, New York, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, application fee costs are regulated. In these states, it can’t exceed the actual cost of the credit and background check or is limited to a specific dollar amount. In some states like Massachusetts and Vermont, landlords and property managers aren’t allowed to collect application fees.
How to complete your application and get approved for an apartment
Getting approved for an apartment comes down to properly completing a rental application process and having other pieces in place to help you stand out to a potential property manager. When the landlord reviews applications, they look for ideal tenants who:
- Pay their bills on time.
- Earn a steady income.
- Have good communication skills.
- Are respectful of neighbors.
- Are you likely to care for the property responsibly.
These characteristics, a reasonable overall credit score, and a good background check will help the landlord approve your application for an apartment.
What documents do I need to rent an apartment?
Your landlord-to-be will ask for documentation you’ll need to rent an apartment. This includes information about your income, potential reliability, and track record of responsibility to determine whether you will be a good tenant. Below is a more detailed list.
Your pay stubs verify that you’re currently employed and earn enough to qualify for the apartment. Typically, a landlord likes to see a potential tenant’s monthly gross income before taxes be 3x more than the monthly rent. They want to be sure you won’t spend more than 30% of your income on rent. As a renter, the 30% rule is a good rule of thumb to ensure you can consistently pay your rent and other expenses and still stay within your budget.
The landlord will often ask for your two most recent pay stubs or your last two direct deposits. If you’re not a regular W-2 employee because you’re an independent contractor or something, you’ll likely need to prove your earnings by providing a copy of your tax returns, 1099s, or client contracts.
Your bank statements can substitute for a pay stub. Your bank statement will show whether or not you have money saved to pay the rent, security deposit, and any other deposits (i.e., pet deposit). You can help your landlord by highlighting any income deposited into your account from your employer. The landlord may require you to provide your two most recent bank statements.
Proof of identification
You’ll need to provide your driver’s license or other government-issued photo ID to prove to the landlord that you are who you say you are. If you don’t have a driver’s license or photo ID, your passport or green card will also prove your identity.
The landlord might have specific conditions for tenancy, but they cannot violate The Fair Housing Act. You can rent an apartment if you’re not a U.S. citizen but may need to provide other forms of documentation, such as a 1040-NR or nonresident alien income tax return. It’s always best to consult an attorney if a potential landlord denies your application in violation of The Fair Housing Act.
Your previous landlord or property manager can help show you were a good tenant by giving a recommendation. If you can get a recommendation letter from your previous landlord, that can boost your case. Most landlords require contact information from your last place of residence so they can call to verify the information you provide.
Vehicle registration and proof of insurance
If you have a vehicle, you might need to provide the landlord with a copy of the registration and proof of insurance. Some buildings assign parking spaces on a per-unit basis, so the landlord might want to ensure that all vehicles in the lot belong to residents.
Social Security number
Landlords and property managers use your social security number to perform a background check and credit check to help determine whether you’ll be a good tenant. To protect your information, you can verbally provide the number and should not be required to provide a copy of your card.
Your credit history and credit score are important factors when renting an apartment. Both indicate your track record of paying bills on time. An acceptable range for a credit score is 620 or higher. If your score is below 620, you can still work on getting approved for the apartment – you could show your payment plan developed with a credit repair specialist, have a co-signer, or offer to pay rent in advance. If you’re unsure where your credit sits currently, request your report from the three credit reporting agencies – TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian – before you go apartment-hunting.
Landlords and property managers use your social security number to run a background check to protect their property and the other tenants. Background checks give landlords a record of any criminal history and payments that could interfere with paying rent. This type of activity could disqualify a potential tenant from an approved application.
A landlord often requires a complete rental history before they approve your application and listing addresses for all of the rental properties you’ve lived in, including your rent amount, how long you lived there, and why you left. The landlord will typically request phone numbers for the property managers at previous locations. You can save time by compiling this information ahead of time and having it readily accessible.
Personal or professional references are typically someone other than your previous landlord. It’s ideal to ask well-established individuals to serve as references, such as co-workers, your boss, or other people who know you well enough to provide a credible and positive reference. Get permission from your references and give them a heads up that they may receive a call from your potential landlord.
Landlords usually want to see your job history. If you can hold a job for a reasonable time, more than likely, you’re responsible enough to pay rent. Even if you’ve had a history of moving jobs quickly, but you’ve been at your current job for two years or more, you’ll come across as someone likely to stay employed during your year-long lease and thus be able to pay rent.
There are pets that insurance companies don’t accept for insured properties. This means if you’re renting with pets, your landlord may lose their property insurance if they lease to you. If the apartment allows pets, fill out the pet information for the landlord honestly. Most applications will outline rules regarding the number and type of pets allowed, including their weight and size. You may also need to provide proof of vaccinations.
Application fee payment
You may have to pay a fee as part of your application process and a reservation fee for the landlord to take the unit off the market until you sign the lease. Rental application fees typically run from $25–$100 per applicant to cover the credit and background checks.
How long does it take to approve an apartment application?
Once you’ve completed all of the application requirements, the approval process typically takes a few business days. A couple of steps can hold up the process. If you’re moving from out of state, it may take additional time for the landlord to verify your current and past employment, and your background check may also take longer, in some cases up to a week.
Landlords typically contract with vendors specializing in performing credit and background checks and verifying rental and employment history. You can help speed things up by providing copies of your credit report and rental reference letters from your previous landlords or employer. Be sure the information you provide is accurate and up to date and that anyone you’ve listed to contact is aware and able to help.
What do landlords like to see on your apartment application?
Landlords want to see that the potential tenant pays their bills on time and has the income and reliability to pay rent. They can determine this to some degree via the applicant’s credit score. It helps if you’re honest with the landlord about any negative information that might show up on a background check, provide accurate information about your income, and apply for units priced in an affordable range.
A landlord cannot legally deny housing to anyone based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. Some states and cities provide protection for additional characteristics. For example, they cannot deny applicants with a criminal record.
Should you include a cover letter with your application?
If any incidents in your past are likely to show up negatively on a background check or in your credit history, get ahead of the curve and share that information upfront with your prospective landlord. One way to manage this sensitive situation is to provide a cover letter with your explanation of any negative information, along with steps you’ve taken to resolve the issues, so they don’t affect your tenancy. When you make an effort to write such a letter, it can also help the landlord see your character and reliability.
When you might need a co-signer on your apartment application
Evidence of legal or other problems in your background – or poor credit – makes it more challenging for a landlord to approve your application, even when you include a thoughtful and thorough cover letter. If that’s the case, the landlord may require you to bring in a co-signer for your application and lease.
Ideally, your co-signer is well-established, with a good credit history and clean background check. Most importantly, your co-signer will indicate willingness and capacity to pay rent on your behalf if, for any reason, you do not pay.
You might need a cosigner to help you meet requirements if you have:
- No credit or a poor credit score or history.
- No landlord references or have a prior eviction.
- No chance of qualifying on your own.
- No rental history because you are a first-time renter.
What additional fees should you expect to pay if your apartment application is approved?
If you’re approved, you’ll likely need to pay one or more standard deposits before you move in. Standard fees would include:
- Security deposit: As a new tenant, this is a payment to the landlord or property management company to pay for any damages to the apartment or failure to pay rent in a given month. You’ll receive this deposit back at the end of your tenancy, provided you are current on rent, you’ve met the requirements in your lease to have it refunded, and you leave the unit in good condition. The landlord must itemize any amounts deducted from the security deposit in a letter to the tenant.
- Pet deposit: Your pet deposit is a payment to cover any wear and tear your approved pet might cause to flooring, walls, window sills, doors, or other fixtures while you live in the apartment.
- Renters insurance: Most apartments will need proof of renters insurance once approved for the unit. Renters insurance protects you and your belongings from unexpected circumstances such as theft, fires, flooding, etc.
- Last month’s rent: Many landlords require that you pay your last month’s rent up front in case you leave before your lease term ends. This is not a requirement in every city, and some locations allow tenants to make payments in installments to ease the burden of this added fee.
- First month’s rent: You’ll need to pay your first month’s rent upon application approval and before moving in.
Whether you’re considering moving to a new apartment with roommates or venturing out on your own as a solo tenant for the first time, knowing apartment application requirements can be crucial to your search. Assemble all your financial documents and details about your rental history, line up a co-signer if needed, and sail through the approval process without a hitch to land the perfect pad.
Redfin does not provide legal, financial, or tax advice. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice from a licensed attorney, financial advisor, or tax professional.