19 Min to Read

What Financial Info Landlords Look From College Students

Augustine Reyes Chan

Augustine Reyes Chan

Find out what information you need to qualify for a rental apartment and how to cut costs with the rent and your monthly expenses like a pro.
moses-vega-ylS_hhSsKWM-unsplash.jpg

In New York City alone, there are more than 1.2 million college students all looking for an affordable place in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

While there may be dormitory housing available for college students, it tends to be very expensive with very little space, which drives many students to go out on their own.

The key question to start with is how much you need to shell out for your first rental apartment.

You also need to make a budget to balance your bills and your student loans when rent is due every month.

There’s a ton of legwork you have to accomplish before deciding on your dream apartment.

We’ll give you the lowdown on how to find your first apartment

From all the questions you need to ask your prospective landlord or management company to the perks of having a roommate, here are the steps to take.

How to Determine How Much Rent You Can Afford

Consider your budget, or how much money you have or how much you are making at your first job.

For example, if you want to live in New York City, know that rents are astronomically high, especially in Manhattan.

At first, you may not want to compromise, but if you start looking at apartments and can’t afford any of them, you should consider living near in more affordable neighborhoods across the five boroughs.

PropertyNest compiled a list of New York City neighborhoods with the best rental deals.

It includes neighborhood gems such as Queens, the Bronx, and Washington Heights in Manhattan, Kew Gardens in Queens and Riverdale in the Bronx, for example.

If you're unsure how much income you need to make on average for a particular neighborhood you can use the PropertyNest Income-Rent Calculator.

Figure out how much you can afford to rent an apartment and keep in mind that you need money upfront when signing a lease, such as a security deposit or a broker if you use one.

Here are some questions you need to ask yourself to come up with the maximum amount of money you can spend on a rental.

See also: PropertyNest's Rent Affordability Calculator

Will Your Salary Be Enough to Cover Your Rent?

If your salary can cover the costs of your rental, then it should be smooth sailing. But you also need to consider other costs, such as utility bills and food.

Careful budgeting and saving, and looking at rental prices in different neighborhoods will help you budget getting your first apartment.

Do you have enough savings or enough money in your savings account to cover your rent if you, for example, lose your job?

How much debt do you have? Do you have student loans? Do you have credit cards that you use and which have a high balance?

Can you afford to pay off some of your credit card debt to look more responsible to a landlord?

What Amount Should You Pay for a Rental?

It's said that you should spend no more than 30% of your income on rent.

But that is very hard to achieve in cities like New York and especially as a young professional.

A PropertyNest study concluded that 45.4% of New York renters are spending more than 30% of their income to pay rent; for some of them over 75% of their income is going towards rent.

This includes young professionals like you with entry-level jobs that don’t pay much.

Most cities have built new high-rise apartment buildings that have high rent costs and which have resulted in gentrifying some neighborhoods. Because of this, you may be priced out.

You can look at existing units, but even these have increased their prices now that the market is competitive.

As such, it may be that you need to spend closer to 50% of your income on rent, according to many real estate brokers.

How Do Get Your Apartment Application Approved?

Let's take a look at the factors landlords and property management companies consider when they get an application.

Your FICO Score Counts

First-time renters may not know what a credit score is and how much it can affect you.

credit score is a three-digit number based on your credit history that banks, credit card issuers, auto loan issuers, insurance companies, and landlords use when making lending or leasing decisions. 

Credit reports use your financial information to determine your overall score.

These include payment history, amounts owed, the age of credit, and your credit mix.

In addition, credit reports shine a light on every new account you open, as well as any inquiries made.

An example is when there’s a hard pull of your credit for the car you just rented to get to work, and which, unbeknownst to some, will end up significantly reducing your score.

A landlord uses your credit score because it’s an easy way to see how you’ve managed your debts, bills, and general finances over the years.

FICO Score Ranges
Score RangeStatus
300-579Poor
580-669Fair
670-739Good
740-799Very Good
800-850Excellent

There are three nationwide credit reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.

You should look at your credit report to see if there are any errors.

It’s possible. You may have paid off a credit card, but in your report, it may say you have a high balance on that card, which lowers your creditworthiness.

The best thing to do to correct an error is to email one of the agencies and provide backup information that can clear up your report.

You're entitled to one free copy of your credit report every twelve months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies.

What Credit Score Should You Have to Rent an Apartment?

You should have good (670-739) to excellent credit (800-850).

The general rule is that the higher your score, the less risk you pose to existing or future lenders, and thus the more attractive your lending options will be.

So, if you have an excellent credit score, it should automatically put you in good standing with the landlord.

However, most property managers and landlords should be okay with a score above 670.

Excellent Credit Doesn't Always Guarantee an Apartment

You might think with your credit score of 800, you'd be approved right off the bat. However, there are three circumstances where you might be turned away.

First, if you don't make enough money, all the credit in the world won't qualify you. Income is one of the other factors a landlord looks at.

Second, if your credit history is relatively new the high score doesn't seem as reliable.

Say you've only had credit for about a year, it may not be long enough for a landlord to be able to trust you and your payment habits.

In a manner of speaking, you haven't really been battle-tested when it comes to money management.

The last situation might be some "red flags" on your credit report such as recent bankruptcy or lots of large loans.

Bankruptcy can still appear on your credit report even after a judge has closed your debt, so you might need a letter explaining the situation.

Large loans may make a landlord nervous. If you have to pay back large sums of money it might affect your ability to pay your rent in the future.

How to Increase Your Credit Score Before Getting Your First Apartment

If your credit isn't that great or even bad, you may need to wait a while before you start searching for a rental because you'll need to give yourself some time to improve your score.

Your first step should be checking your credit report. You can do this for free either by going to freecreditreport.com or checking a soft score on your online credit card account.

You can also open up free accounts on sites like CreditSesame or CreditKarma which will allow you to look at each account and where the problem areas are.

Find out if what's hurting you is your balance amount or your payment history, as these are usually the 2 biggest factors influencing your credit score.

If you have high balances, pay them down as much as possible. If you have any collections open, make sure you pay them off first. Once, you've paid them off your score should improve fairly quickly.

If late payments are the issue, you may need a lot more time to improve your credit as your score can only improve with corrected payment behavior over time. In this case, you might need a guarantor or co-signer.

Read How to Improve Your Credit Score to Get Approved for an Apartment for more tips on improving your credit.

Landlords Also Look At Your Income

Having good credit is just one part of the equation when you apply for an apartment.

When renting, the landlord will require you to have an annual income that’s a certain percentage above the cost of a monthly rental.

For example, in New York City, the most competitive place to rent, a landlord will always require you to have at least 40 times the monthly rent in your bank account, as well as a good to great credit score.

So, if your monthly rent is, say $1,000, then you must earn at least $40,000 a year.

They'll do this by evaluating your earnings and/or assets such as savings.

What You Should Always Keep On-Hand While Rental Shopping

If you like an apartment and want to rent it out but don’t have all your documents ready, you may lose the pad if another person shows up and has the required paperwork.

That’s because, in most states, the first qualified applicant gets the apartment.

So the lesson to be learned here is that, while shopping, always keep your documents on you, including your application information on hand if you need to fill out all lease forms on the spot.

And if you find your dream apartment, be ready to fill out the application and cut a check right then and there.

Essential Documents to Have On-Hand to Apply for a Rental
Letter of employmentShould be on letterhead stating your length of employment, your position, and your salary.
Recent pay stubsHave the last 2-3 most recent pay stubs handy. If you get direct deposit you can show this on a bank statement or a deposit statement from your job.
Recent bank statementsUsually the last 2 statements and sometimes just the balance page is fine. Include savings accounts statements to strengthen your standing.
Recent tax returnsIf you haven't filed taxes or worked before you might be required to get a guarantor.
Official photo IDCan be a passport, state ID, permanent resident or work visa ID, or drivers license.
Funds for fees and rentHaving a credit card, debit card, or checkbook handy for application fees or deposit earnest money, security deposit, and first month's rent or more.

Many applications are done completely online so having these all in a file or online is super helpful.

Furthermore, more and more property managers are taking credit cards or debit cards.

Cash is usually no good (and not secure for you) and personal checks are only good for some payments such as the application fee.

Can Professional References Increase Your Chances in Getting an Apartment?

As first-time renters, try to get written references that highlight you being responsible, trustworthy, and respectful.

Some references can be from your professors at school.

But if you lived in a dorm for most of your college life, a reference from an RA (resident assistant) will carry more weight. That’s because your former RA can attest to your reputation as a good neighbor.

Having these references might help you especially if you are a freelancer or are self-employed. Keep in mind you might be asked for additional documentation in this case as well.

What is a Security Deposit?

To protect them from building damage in common areas such as the halls, the lobby, or the elevators, or even in your unit, landlords will require you to submit a security deposit.

The security deposit also protects landlords from missed payments.

So How Much Does a Security Deposit Cost?

Security deposits vary by state, but most often it’s one month to two month’s rent that needs to be paid upfront with your first rental payment. Sometimes, it can be even less.

However, if you have no credit history then your landlord may require a deposit somewhere from three to six month’s rent.

That’s often impossible to afford for first-time renters.

And even coming up with a deposit and first month’s rent and paying that upfront can be challenging.

Similar to saving for college, saving for your first apartment is a long process and should start years before your first rental.

Students who started saving in college, and even in high school, will be at an advantage.

It's important to note that in New York City, there are protections for renters and a landlord cannot request more than one month's worth of rent for a security deposit.

However, these protections may not be in place in other states or cities where rentals are also common.

Extra Money You'll Need to Rent the Apartment

Besides the security deposit, you'll also need at least first month's rent.

Depending on the landlord or city you're in, you might be asked for additional rent money.

It's not uncommon to expect to pay not just the first month but also the last month's rent upfront and in some cases more.

In San Francisco and Los Angeles, you'll need another month on top of that to rent a furnished apartment.

Whereas in New York City, a renter cannot be asked for more money besides the security deposit (which can't exceed one month's rent) and the first month.

In some cases, however, a property manager or landlord who wants to attract more tenants may offer you free rent and you might only be asked for a security deposit.

What is a Guarantor and Do I Need One?

Many young professionals and students that rent for the first time have limited income, poor or no credit, or a short rental history, or a short employment history the landlord by default will most likely require you to have a guarantor on the lease.

A lease guarantor is someone who guarantees payment on the lease if the apartment can’t be paid for some reason, such as you losing your job.

Usually, that will be your parents.

A guarantor also can be your relative, sibling, or friend.

This guarantor is going to be legally responsible for the rental apartment in case something catastrophic happens.

However, the guarantor must have a consistent and sizable income--enough to cover their rent and yours and great or excellent credit.

If you can't find a guarantor among your close network, you can also pay for "guarantor insurance", which is an independent company that can provide a guarantee on your lease.

You will need to undergo their assessment of your risk profile and your landlord should be willing to take this "insurance".

Read on: 4 Best Guarantor Insurance to Rent Apartments in New York

Is a Studio Apartment a Viable Option?

Can you live in a 500 square feet studio apartment?

That’s pretty small, and there are many studios even under 500 square feet.

If the studio feels too small or if you’re claustrophobic, you should find a larger one, but only if it’s in your price range.

Those who may be willing to live in a small studio the most are students still in college or have just finished college. That’s because they’ve been accustomed to notoriously small dorm rooms.

The good thing about a studio is that it costs significantly less than a one-bedroom.

What Should You Cut Out of Your Budget That Can Help You Save in the Long Run?

Importantly, every person has to consider daily living expenses.

The cost of living can be more affordable if you have some ways to save.

Consider transportation. To cut the cost, use public transit. You should never use a cab or an Uber, which will help you stay within your budget.

You should also not buy or rent a car while planning to rent an apartment

That will be a hard pull and your credit will go down.

A five-dollar espresso from Starbucks may seem minuscule to you, but if you spend that much every day, that will cost you nearly $2,000 yearly.

You can make coffee at home or use the coffee at your job. Doing so will save you a lot of money.

The same goes with that ten-dollar salad takeout you have for lunch. Again, it would be better for you financially to make your lunch at home.

If you can’t do that, go outside for your lunch break to find something considerably cheaper to eat.

And even if you have a lot on your plate at work, don’t succumb to delivery as you have to pay a tip.

All these expenses and more can add up if you don’t budget.

And remember you need renters insurance, which we’ll discuss later.

Can You Figure Out What You Can Live Without?

What can you afford to give up to afford a rental?

If you can’t afford to live near public transportation to get to work, maybe the rental you like should be nixed to find something closer to the public train or bus.

Newish apartments come with a load of amenities like a fitness center, a pool, and a rooftop terrace. But do you need these things when just starting out?

Keep in mind that while amenities look free, instead they are often absorbed in the price of your rent.

That’s why apartment buildings can charge a higher rent price because they have such good amenities.

In addition to shared amenities, consider what you need inside of the rental.

An updated kitchen, outdoor space like a balcony, an oversized bathroom, and closet space are all worthwhile amenities to consider.

If you can take off outdoor space or luxurious closets from your list, you’re one step closer to knowing how much you can truly afford on a rental.

Can You Find an Apartment Without a Broker?

Yes, you can, but finding an apartment on your own can feel like a second job.

There are many areas in a neighborhood to choose from, and you have to narrow down the one that most suits your need.

But this takes a lot of time.

As such, it’s recommended that you hire a rental real estate broker.

Do You Really Need to Use a Rental Agent to Find an Apartment?

No, but it can be extremely helpful especially if you don't have a lot of time or are moving from another city or state.

Since a rental broker knows everything about real estate listings and knows all the neighborhoods, it’s more likely you’ll find a rental in the particular area you like if you work with an agent.

A good broker knows the ins and outs of the city.

Thus, they will be able to let you on about what a neighborhood has to offer, such as the pros and cons, or such as if the area is safe.

As a result, the broker will give you several options based on your needs.

And, depending on where you look, most times brokers have access to a slew of apartments that are available to rent but have yet to hit the market and which you couldn’t approach alone.

Therefore, working with a broker means you have access to more apartments than the typical buyer who does not use a broker.

Also handy, a broker will also assess your finances so that the broker won’t waste your time looking for rentals you can’t afford.

And the broker provides you convenience as they are there to help you. You can ask as many questions as you like.

Do You Really Have to Pay Broker Fees?

Remember, they are getting a commission, so make sure you use the broker as much as you can until the broker finds you the perfect apartment.

However, brokers come with broker fees. Depending on your city, a broker fee can run you between 8% and 15% of the annual rent.

Here’s an example.

In San Francisco and New York, the broker fee is between 10% and up to 15% of the annual lease amount. You pay the broker directly, even if the broker didn’t find the rental and it was you who did.

So, if a rental apartment costs $2,500 a month, for example, your broker’s fee may be as high as $4,500.

This results in young prospective tenants being priced out from the real estate market because they can’t afford the fee on top of the security deposit.

Weren't Broker Fees Recently Banned in New York City?

Yes, new protections were passed for a few months and implemented last year but the real estate industry rallied back a filed an appeal and pause on the new law.

The courts have officially found broker fees to be legal so we are back to paying listing brokers their commissions.

However, the good news is that many landlords and property management companies have seen the benefits of paying agents and brokers directly and attracting tenants through fee-free listings.

So, there are many opportunities to find an apartment without paying the broker fees.

However, if you directly utilizing the services of an agent you will be expected to pay them.

Best Practices When Using an Agent's Services

Not all listing and rental agents are upfront about the broker fees so make sure you ask before you get too excited.

Depending on the situation and the agent you might be able to negotiate the fee down.

A fee worth about one month's rent is not at all unreasonable and should be okay with most rental agents.

A smart agent should be open to reducing the fee by at least a couple of percentage points down from 15%, even if they're the listing agent.

The only situations where this would be probably be non-negotiable would be one, where a listing agent is collecting the fee from your rental agent, and second, where there is fierce competition for a particular apartment.

That being said, some brokers will just flat-out refuse to negotiate the amount.

If an apartment has been sitting around for a while, it's easier to negotiate this fee down or even ask if the landlord is willing to partially pay the fee.

Is There a Way Around Paying a Broker’s Fee?

If you don’t want to pay for a broker’s fee, the best way to do that is to rent an apartment directly from a tenant who is already under a lease or the landlord or property manager.

However, as mentioned above, many landlords and property management companies do pay broker fees, particularly in larger buildings.

You're also more likely to find no-fee apartments in more expensive buildings or new developments.

What Should You Look Out For in an Apartment Showing?

There are many things that you should pay attention to when being shown an apartment. Here are a few:

Do the kitchen, bathroom, and shower faucet work? Try all and see if they have both cold and hot water.

Do the windows open?

What’s the noise level like?

Can you hear traffic below, on the street?

Are there smoke alarms in the apartment?

Is the apartment cable ready? Is it internet ready?

And here are the most important questions:

Are utilities included?

Some rentals come free with hot and cold water, but be ready to pay for electricity, which apartments rarely cover.

Is there a communal laundry room in the building?

This makes all the difference. You don’t want to be walking around your neighborhood with a heavy basket full of clothes in your hands to get to the nearest laundromat.

Getting a Roommate to Help with Finances

Having a roommate can change your finances.

If you are struggling to pay your rent each month, finding a roommate may make your rental more affordable.

Since the roommate will be splitting the rental cost with you, you can save a ton of money each month.

How Do You Find a Roommate?

If your inner circle doesn’t need a pad to crash, you can always find a roommate on Craigslist and Roommates.com, to name a few.

The ideal roommate is someone who shares your interests. For example, you have the same musical tastes or you like the same books.

But if you can’t find the exact match, then find a roommate under other important terms.

The roommate, for example, should be respectful, responsible, clean, and pays half of the rent on time.

At the end of the day you need to do your due diligence as you will need to live with this person.

Some of the questions you can ask the roommate may seem minor.

But if the roommate always fails to take out the trash, for example, this can lead to tension between you and the roommate.

Will the roommate take care of his dishes?

Does she help you buy essentials like toilet tissue and rolls of paper towels?

Questions You Should Ask Yourself When Considering a Roommate

Now ask yourself the following questions:

Do you need to live with someone excessively clean?

If your prospective roommate comes with a pet, will you tolerate that?

Is it okay for the roommate to have guests?

Do you think it’s okay if your roommate’s friends sleep over?

Whose name will be on the utilities, internet, and cable bills?

Will you split the cost of buying furniture?

If you tend towards traditional furniture, will a roommate who wants a streamlined, modern look will be a deal breaker?

Will your new roommate have a lot of parties?

What Are the Benefits of Having a Roommate?

The ideal roommate will split the utilities without asking, pay half for internet service, cable, and any streaming devices you like, such as Netflix or HBO Max.

And if the both of you click, then you’ve just made a friend.

With a roommate, you might be able to bypass having a guarantor if they have great credit and an income that can contribute the household total.

Find the roommate first and together you can look at rentals.

When you find the right apartment, apply for the lease together.

You’ll have a better chance of getting a rental if you combine both your sources of income.

Then the both of you can split the cost of the security deposit, first month’s rent, and any broker’s fee if you’ve used a broker.

That way, you’ll both save money.

As a first-time apartment renter, a roommate can be a big win.

You can end up as lifelong friends, keep your costs down, and enjoy the support and comfort of having someone around.

The Roommate Agreement

However, don’t just trust your roommate. You may be friends, but you need to have to put everything in writing. Draw up an agreement (and possibly getting it notarized), so there’s no trouble down the road. In the agreement, include who’s responsible for what and when all the bills (i.e. electricity, Wi-Fi) need to be paid.

Also, when the both of you join forces, you can find a larger apartment, an apartment in a better or more desirable location, and an apartment with a large common area.

In the common area, you can easily turn it into a living room complete with a couch, some chairs, and a flatscreen.

Things to Consider Before You Before You Apply For an Apartment

Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you are getting the deal and the apartment you're expecting.

Let's review some of the important considerations before you make a decision you're going to regret or apply for an apartment only to get turned away.

Location

Location is everything, so it’s best to visit several apartments in the area you want to live in and then compare them against each other before making a decision.

Student Loans

If you have student loans, the lender will give you a six-month grace period after you graduate from college.

But after that, you’re on your own.

Can you still afford a rental if you take into consideration your student loans?

Know the Types of Housing

There’s a condo and there’s a co-op. Each of these is a type of apartment. Do you know the difference between them?

Avoid the headache when searching by knowing all the types of housing.

If you are looking at a rental and it’s a co-op, be prepared to know the difficulties of getting into such a building.

Read on: What to Expect at an Apartment Lease Signing in New York?

Protect Your Property by Purchasing Rental Insurance

You should not do without renters insurance.

While not required by law, some landlords do require their tenants to get coverage--even showing proof of coverage in order to sign the lease.

Renters insurance typically covers and reimburses customers for loss or damage to their possessions due to fire, theft, vandalism, water damage, short-circuits, and more.

If you have property loss and don’t have renters insurance, you will have to pay out of pocket for any damages. And, your landlord is under no legal obligation to compensate you for your losses.

The average renters insurance cost in the U.S. is only $14 per month or $168 per year.

That’s not a lot, especially when the insurance gives you security and peace of mind that you’ll be protected.

To start your apartment hunt planning and budgeting, take a look at the rents by apartment size and neighborhood in New York City here.