First time renters guide

How to Rent an Apartment: The Complete Guide for the First-Time Renter

Published on May 2nd, 2018
By Jennifer Oppriecht

If you’re wondering how to rent an apartment, this complete guide for the first-time renter will help you prepare and make smart choices. It’s the ideal way to make veteran moves as you rent for the first time.

The guide can be used for renting in any city, but it’s tailored for people looking for apartments in Madison, WI and includes links to local businesses that can help with your move.

How to rent an apartment (in a nutshell)

Renting an apartment includes the following steps:

  1. Determine how much apartment you can afford
  2. Research the marketplace and tour apartments
  3. Rent an apartment by filling out an application and signing the lease
  4. Set up utilities, get renters insurance, and MOVE!

Sounds easy, right? It is, but there are a gazillion things that need to be done along the way.  We’ll break it down throughout the post or you can download our PDF guide (below).

Here are quick links to each section of the post:

  1. Figuring out what you can afford:
    Setting your budget based on the market, deciding whether to get a roommate, checking your credit history, determining what you want in an apartment.
  2. Choosing an apartment:
    Researching what’s available, touring apartments, asking owners the right questions.
  3. Start the renting process with a property owner:
    Filling out an application, signing your lease, reserving a moving truck, setting up utilities, updating your address, getting renters insurance.
  4. Moving into your apartment:
    Conduct a walk-through inspection, requesting repairs.
  5. After the move:
    Renewing your lease, deciding whether to move out, moving out.

Before the move

Figuring out what you can afford

(6-9 months before you move)

If you want to get an apartment that fits your budget and your lifestyle, you need to do some important pre-planning.

Making choices in these areas will help speed your decision-making process when you begin your apartment search. They’ll also help you avoid biting off more than you can chew financially, a common mistake among first-time renters.

Set Your Budget

You’ll want to establish how much money you have for the apartment before you begin searching. By setting a simple budget, you can determine how much money you can spend on housing. First of all, you don’t want to get in over your head. Make sure your rent doesn’t exceed more than 25-30% of your gross monthly income.

Next, keep in mind there’s more than just the advertised rent to consider. Expenses could include utilities such as electricity, gas, water/sewer, phone, Internet, cable/satellite TV, groceries, laundry, parking, furniture, household supplies, and more.

Renters Guide Tip

Now it’s time to calculate your rent.  Use the following Budget Worksheet to evaluate how much money you can spend on your apartment each month. You can download your Budget Worksheet here! It includes calculated income and expense fields!

Budget For Rent Worksheet


Subtract your expenses from your income, making sure to leave a cushion for unexpected expenses and savings. The amount left over is the amount you can spend in rent and utilities each month. This is the budget amount you’ll want to hit when shopping for your new place.


Income $ ________ – Expenses $ ________ = Amount Available for Rent $ ________

Get a Feel for the Apartment Rental Market

Rents can vary widely in Madison. Spend some time looking at apartment rental listing sites for the neighborhoods you think you may want to live in. Understanding the Madison market can help you save time in the coming months.

It may be a good idea to either drive or walk through the areas you like. Make sure you like the feel of the area and that things you value most are nearby. Are you close to:

  • Public transportation
  • Work
  • School
  • Grocery stores
  • Nightlife, culture, fun
  • Girlfriend, boyfriend, family, etc.

If you can’t afford the area you want, you may need to adjust your income or expenses, find a roommate, or adjust your expectations for where, or how, you’ll live. Remember, most apartment companies will have income and credit requirements that you’ll need to meet so it’s best to be realistic right from the beginning.

Decide Roommate or no Roommate

If you find that your budget is a little tight, you may want to find a roommate who can help share in the costs. Or you may just want some company. Either way, here are some tips if you’re looking for a roommate:

  • Ask friends and family if they know anyone moving to (or living in) the area. See if they can introduce you to a person looking for a roommate.
  • Use online sites like Craigslist, or your rental company’s roommate matching service.

Contact a potential roommate via Facebook or email for initial conversations. Then meet in person or use Skype/FaceTime to “interview” each other before determining if you’ll live together.

Here are some good compatibility questions:

  • What kind of habits do they have?
  • When do they go to bed?
  • Do they like noise or music when falling asleep?
  • How do they feel about overnight guests?
  • How often they go out?
  • Do they smoke and drink or do drugs?
  • How clean do they like their environment?
  • What kinds of music and TV shows do they like? Do your tastes align?
  • Do you feel like you can communicate openly with them?

It’s important that you determine compatibility BEFORE you move in together.

Check Your Credit Report

Most apartment companies want to be sure you’ll pay your rent on time, so they’ll want to see your credit report. A credit report gives them a snapshot of your credit worthiness. It will show what types of credit you currently have and/or what you have had in the past, if you have paid your bills on time, filed for bankruptcy, or if you have ever been evicted.

Before you apply for an apartment, download a free report of your credit score at (the only FTC authorized source for a free credit report that’s yours by law). Take a look and make sure there aren’t any inaccuracies on the report that could lower your score.

Beware: If you have a low score, the owner might ask you to have a guarantor (a person who will co-sign your lease and agree to pay rent in the event you’re unable to) or reject your application. For more information, check out our in-depth post: What credit score do you need to rent an apartment.

Determine Your Must-Haves

Take some time to decide what you are willing to sacrifice when it comes to finding the right place. If your credit isn’t so hot and you don’t have a lot to spend, you may not get a fireplace and wood floors in a trendy neighborhood.

However, certain things like feeling safe and receiving good service should never be sacrificed.

Use this chart to determine what’s important to you. We’ve listed typical issues for renters, including brief descriptions of what you should consider. Rate them accordingly:

1 = Must Have 2= Nice to Have 3=Not Important

Location: close to work, school, family, etc.  1 2 3
Neighborhood: low crime rate, parks, walking, etc.  1 2 3
Building Safety: doors, gates, cameras, etc.  1 2 3
Apartment Safety: window locks, second floor, deadbolt 1 2 3
Transportation: parking, bus route, bike path 1 2 3
Cost: easily within budget 1 2 3
Nightlife: close to dining, clubs, friends, theater 1 2 3
Shopping: close to groceries, gas station, etc. 1 2 3
Pets: must allow cats, dogs, etc. 1 2 3
Outdoors: patio or balcony, yard space, pool 1 2 3
HVAC: central heat and air, wall A/C, radiators 1 2 3
Furniture: furnished, partially furnished, unfurnished 1 2 3
Building Amenities: fitness center, on-site office, etc. 1 2 3
Apartment Amenities: wood floors, fireplace, style 1 2 3

let’s put it all together

Use this format as a guide to build your pre-planning checklist.

Choosing an Apartment


Now we’re getting down to the fun stuff. In this section, we’ll take you through the selection process, showing you how to find your apartment and set up a showing. You’ll also get some good tips for narrowing your selection.

Research What’s Available

The search is on. With your Pre-Planning Checklist in hand, it’s time to look through a number of resources to find your apartment.

Narrow down the choices. Eliminate the places that don’t meet your criteria from the Pre-Planning Checklist.

Visit Prospective Apartments

It’s time to start calling the properties you’re interested in and set up tours to see them first hand. Some important things to keep in mind:

  • See the real thing. It’s best that you see the actual apartment, not a model, and that you never rent sight unseen. Even though all of the floorplans may be the same, the actual condition of the apartments can vary greatly.
  • Don’t fall in lust. When renting an apartment, be careful not to fall for really cool features unless they’re on your Pre-Planning Checklist. A great view might be fun, but if it’s not one of your Must-Haves, don’t make the mistake of falling for the apartment. You’ll regret it later.
  • Keep an eye out during your tour. Regardless of what’s on your Must-Have checklist, check these items during your tour to avoid any surprises:
    • Does the building and neighborhood appear safe (look for secure parking, possible illegal activities, outdoor lighting, security gates, etc.)?
    • Are the property’s grounds or common areas kept clean and attractive?
    • Do the property units appear to be maintained (look for working windows, toilets that flush, faucets that don’t drip and have good water pressure, units free from bad odors, etc.)?
    • Are the floors in good shape? Doors? Walls? Appliances?
    • Is there enough space and additional storage for your things?
    • Are the hallways well lit? Is there emergency lighting? Are there fire escapes?
    • Is there sufficient lighting in each room? Electric outlets? Ethernet ports?
Ask the owner important questions

While you’re on the tour, you’ll want to ask the owner or the person showing the apartment a few daily living and rent-related questions. Don’t make your decision until you’re clear on the following:

  1. When is rent due and how do you pay rent? Can you pay online or by mail? Is the process easy? When is rent considered “late” and a fee is assessed?
  2. How long is the lease? When do you move in, when do you move out?
  3. What’s the move-out process like? What are you required to do to get your full security deposit?
  4. How much is the security deposit? How much money do you need to put down to reserve the apartment until you move in?
  5. What kinds of things can the apartment company assess fees for? (Late rent, damage, parties, drug use, etc.)
  6. Exactly which utilities are you responsible for and what are the estimated costs each month?
  7. What type of heating and cooling does the apartment have? Who controls the thermostat settings? When is the heat turned on?
  8. Who are the providers for Internet, phone and cable? How many choices will you have?
  9. What are the pet policies? Are there extra fees or deposits? What happens if there’s damage from your pet?
  10. What kind of routine pest control do they perform? Have there been any ongoing problems with bed bugs at this property?
  11. Can you hang pictures, paint walls, add curtains or blinds without being penalized?
  12. Are there any restrictions regarding guests, parties, etc.?
  13. Is there emergency maintenance? What happens if you lock yourself out of your apartment?
  14. How is garbage handled? Is there a dumpster or do you take trash to the curb?
  15. How is snow removal handled? When can you expect the driveway/sidewalks to be cleared after a snowfall?
  16. Who maintains the lawn and landscaping? Are you responsible for any of it?

Okay, you’ve compiled your lists, done your tours, and asked a ton of questions. By this point, you have a fairly good sense of which apartment is the right one for you.

Now that you’re ready to commit, it’s time to apply for the apartment and sign your first lease!


copy this format TO build a REFERENCE SHEET for SHOPPING
Properties On My Top 5 List:

Location Star Rating

1. _____________________________________________________________ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩

2._____________________________________________________________ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩

3._____________________________________________________________ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩

4._____________________________________________________________ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩

5._____________________________________________________________ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩


Start the Renting Process with a Property Owner


Fill Out an Application

Once you’ve made the decision to rent a particular property, you will be asked to fill out a rental application. Rental applications provide the apartment company with your background information. The rental application will typically ask for your:

  • Social Security and/or Driver’s License number
  • Employment, rental and income history
  • Credit information
  • Contact information
  • References (former landlords, employers, friends)
  • Any past evictions or bankruptcies

If you are a first-time renter with little or no employment, rental, or credit history, you may be asked to have a co-signer or guarantor on your lease. A co-signer is typically a relative with good credit that agrees to be responsible if you cannot pay your rent.

Sign Your Lease

When your rental application is approved, the next step is to sign a lease agreement. This agreement spells out what both parties are agreeing to and what is expected of both parties.

A lease will state:

  • How many months or years the agreement is in effect.
  • What the rent amount is and when it is due.
  • Who is responsible for the utilities.
  • What fees may be charged and what those fees are for.
  • What policies and “rules” are in effect at the property.

It is extremely important that you read the agreement carefully. If there is something you don’t understand, ask the owner for clarification.

Read though the provisions, making sure you understand your rights. Be sure to download the City of Madison’s Tenant and Landlord’s Rights and Responsibilities. It’s packed with useful information.

You may want to get a copy of the lease in advance so you have time to read it, or to have a trusted advisor read it for you. Leases can take a long time to read through; don’t be overwhelmed. Simply take the time to review the document and ask for help if needed.

Smart Tip

Reserve A Rental Truck

If you’re in the downtown Madison area, you know the big moving day is in the middle of August.

Because so many people are moving at the same time, it’s a good idea to reserve moving trucks a few months in advance so you won’t be scrambling at the last minute. Here are some local rental companies to consider:

  • U-Haul Moving at Downtown Campus: 602 W Washington Ave, Madison, WI – (608) 256-3743
  • Penske Truck Rental: 1201 Regent Street, Madison, WI – (608) 251-4232
  • Ryder Truck Rental: 2400 Industrial Drive, Monona, WI – (608) 221-8550
  • Budget Truck Rental: 2705 Packers Avenue, Madison, WI – (608) 249-4551[9]

If you don’t have a moving truck’s worth of belongings, you may also want to consider renting a van instead of a truck, or renting a pickup truck from The Home Depot or a car rental agency. Better yet, borrow a van or truck from a friend or family member!

Set up Utilities

If you are paying for utilities, you’ll need to establish service in your name. If your utilities are included, the property owner will take care of making sure you have service on your move-in day.

  • If your utility provider is Madison Gas and Electric, click here to to start your service.
  • If your utility provider is Alliant Energy, click here to start your service.
Update Your Address

Get this done early, so your friends, family, creditors, subscriptions services, etc. know that you’ll have a new address next month.

Either change your address online or visit the post office and fill out a change of address form.

Get Renters Insurance

Insuring the belongings inside your apartment is your responsibility, not the property owner’s. Owners carry insurance on the dwelling, but not the contents inside.

Consider purchasing renters insurance to protect yourself against theft and fire. The insurance is typically less than ten dollars a month and can be invaluable if you have an unexpected loss.

If you’re still in college, make sure you check your parents’ homeowners insurance policy. Their policy may cover your belongings.

For more information, read our post on Wisconsin renters insurance.

It’s time to move!

Once you’ve got everything loaded up and ready to go, you’ll go to the rental office to pick up your keys and your move-in information. Once you have access to your new apartment, here’s what you’ll want to do:

Conduct a walk-through inspection

Before you move any of your belongings in, inspect the unit for damages: cracks in walls, damage to doors and windows, problems with appliances, faucets, toilets, and tubs, broken blinds, etc.

The owner will generally provide you with a check-in sheet so you can list any damages.

Be sure to take photos or video of any problems with the apartment. Document everything that is wrong now, so you won’t be held responsible at move out.

Request repairs

If there are problems with the apartment, request maintenance as soon as possible to have those problems fixed.


Once you’re settled


Renewing Your Lease

If you like your apartment and want to stay for a second year, you can only have the space if you renew your lease. Owners want to rent the space as soon as they can, so they’ll likely send you renewal options when interest starts to heat up for your apartment.

It may seem like the property owner is pushing the issue, but more often than not they’re reacting to demand – particularly in desirable locations.

Apartments that are in high demand in Madison:

  • Campus area high-rises
  • Lower Langdon Street apartments (Between Lake St. and Henry St.)
  • Anything with lakeshore access
  • Anything that’s less than two years old

If you love your place (and others do too), be prepared to renew early. Go through the same lease-signing process you did the first time you rented, to ensure you’re aware of any changes to rental costs, utilities, etc.

Deciding to Move Out

If you plan to move out, make sure you give proper notice in writing to help avoid disputes. Your lease will outline how many days notice you are required to give. Keep a copy of the notice for your records. Click here for a sample notice.

Preparing to Move Out


You’re going to be repeating many of the same things you did when you moved in. Here is the critical list:

  • Notify the utility companies that you are moving out and will no longer be responsible for the bills at that apartment. The same links above will allow you to stop your service.
  • Either change your address online or visit the post office and fill out a change of address form.
  • Request maintenance to repair any problems with your apartment. You want everything in good repair before you leave to avoid deductions from your security deposit.
  • Find your inspection form and photos from your move-in walk-through inspection and have them on hand. If there are new problems that you may have caused, do what you can to repair them now to avoid deductions from your security deposit.
  • Start cleaning! The cleaner your apartment is, the less likely you are to have deductions withheld from your security deposit. Don’t assume your apartment only needs to be as clean as it was when you moved in, it’s best to assume that there’s no such thing as “too clean.” Your best bet is to hire a service. Here are some local cleaning companies to consider:
    • Green Cleaners – 10 East Washington Avenue, Madison, WI – (608) 219-6916
    • B&J Cleaning Professionals, Inc. – 1320 Mendota Street, Madison, WI – (608) 467-4166
    • The Dirt Destroyers – 5683 Norfolk Drive, Madison, WI – (608) 288-3478
    • All Clean Now – 4230 East Towne Boulevard, Madison, WI – (888) 681-4263
  • Confirm your moving truck reservation and line up volunteers to help you move your belongings.
  • Update your renter’s insurance policy.

Moving Out


You are responsible for moving out all of your belongings, cleaning your rental unit, and turning over the keys by the day, and time, stated in your lease.

  • Take all of your belongings. Don’t leave unwanted items behind, you will be charged for their removal.
  • Clean, clean, clean every surface.
  • Take photos or video of the condition of the apartment.
  • Do a final walk-through of the apartment with the property owner and then hand over your keys, parking passes, remote door openers, etc.
  • Leave a forwarding address with your property owner, they will need it to return your deposit.
  • Ask for a final statement, indicating that your balance is paid in full and that there are no outstanding fees or charges.

Ready to start your Apartment search?

That’s enough talk about moving out. Let’s talk about moving in! Click here to start searching for apartments in Madison, WI  that are right for you!


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