A Step by Step Guide Through the Rental Application Process

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You’ve taken the first steps to renting an apartment: You’ve looked at apartments online, scored walkthroughs in and around the city and finally found the dream apartment. What now? Now comes the rental application process, taking you closer to the moment of settling into a new home. We compiled a quick guide on what is the apartment application process and what to expect from it.

1. Fill out a rental application

Let’s start with the basics: the apartment application itself. If you are interested in a property, the next step is to reach out to property management by filling out a rental application. If you have a co-signer or plan on having roommates, they will also need to do the same. Essentially, every person planning to move in needs to fill out a separate lease application form. Most properties have online application forms, but you can also apply in person. It’s best to have the necessary information easily available as soon as you take the very first steps to renting an apartment.

Each form is different from the other, but expect a typical rental application to require the following information:

  • photo ID
  • name
  • address
  • phone number(s)
  • email
  • employment and income information
  • previous address
  • pets (if applicable)
  • emergency contacts
  • background information
  • landlord references
  • personal or professional references

Some rental platforms will allow you to create a virtual folder with all the documents, so you can easily apply to your dream apartment.

2. Pay the apartment application fee

The application fee funds the credit and background checks done on potential renters. It essentially covers the screening cost of the applicant.

The rent application fee itself differs depending on various factors, such as the area, the building, or even the landlord.

In some cases, the application fee may be accompanied by processing fees. Ask your future property manager about all the applicable fees associated with the application process for the property you’re interested in. You can also ask what fees are refundable in case they decide to go with someone else.

rental application process

3. Expect credit and background checks

The rental application process means you will most likely be asked to agree to background and credit checks.

Apartment background checks may go as far back in the past as a landlord deems necessary and they will usually focus on criminal history. It’s better to report any relevant background information.

A rental application credit check accounts for how financially responsible a potential tenant is. Are they a reliable person who pays rent on time? The easiest way of doing this is to check credit scores. Make sure to mention if you have bad credit or if you are still recovering from past medical bills. This is where a co-signer can step in (see step #5).

4. Prove you can pay rent

An important part of the rental application process is providing proof of employment or income. Most landlords will ask for copies of tax returns, recent pay stubs or other forms of receipts from an employer.

Depending on your job, you may also provide recent bank statements, copies of client contracts, or copies of one or two W-2 forms if need be.

Employment and credit checks usually take the longest, which is why most applications can take up to 72 hours. Rental application process time also varies depending on the property, so make sure to check with them for the best estimate.

5. Figure out if you need a co-signer

The next step in the apartment application process is figuring out if you need a co-signer or not. A co-signer is a person with good credit who acts as a willing guarantor. If you have bad credit or insufficient credit history, they take the legal responsibility of paying your rent in case you won’t.

Co-signers or guarantors may step in when first-time renters have no way of accounting for rental history or commitment to monthly rent and bill payments. You might need one in case your monthly income is less than three times the rent. You may also look at a co-signer as a way to strengthen your application and improve your chances of approval. Think of it as an additional referral.

6. Show them that you are an agreeable renter

Usually, landlords want to know from previous landlords what type of tenant you are. Were you a bit on the noisy side? Did you abide by the pet policy? All this usually comes in the form of a letter from the former landlord.

Although typically not required, you might want to think about attaching a landlord reference to the application as another way to improve your chances of approval or simply to set yourself apart from other applicants. For some properties, you might even find it mandatory to do so.

steps to renting an apartment

7. Have good personal references

Personal references make all the difference, and good personal references might make or break an application — especially if you don’t have a rental history. Much like landlord references, it means someone vouches for your character and dependability. While landlord references serve as a good benchmark for future landlords, personal references may come from a friend or colleague who knows you and can attest to your integrity.

The apartment application process might seem like a lot of work, but it’s all worth it in the end. If everything goes well, the final steps to renting an apartment is signing the lease and picking a good moving company.

8. Sign the lease

You’ve passed the rental application process, inspected the premises, checked for parking space, made a quick note of the neighbors, and went through your checklist of essential things you must do before you commit to a new apartment. It’s time to sign the lease!

This is when you discuss upfront costs like the security deposit and any additional fees. Deposit requirements are typically state-regulated. Most landlords will ask for the equivalent of one or two months’ rent in case you fall back on rent payments, so bring a bank check and ask for receipts. This is also the time for any last-minute questions you might have, such as how soon can you get the keys to the place or should you bring your own toaster.

It goes without saying that reading the lease agreement carefully is essential. You might be blinded by the floor plan and storage space your new place has, but make sure you take your time to understand the details of your lease before planning your move-in date, such as what happens if you must break the lease in case of unexpected circumstances.

Meanwhile, if you’re eager to apply, but still on the lookout for that perfect apartment, take the first steps to renting an apartment and have a look at available listings on RentCafe.com.

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Alexandra is a creative writer and researcher for RentCafe. With a background in e-learning content writing and a passion for knowledge-sharing platforms, she's covered topics from prop-tech to renters insurance to interior design tips. Very familiar with the renter lifestyle herself, Alexandra enjoys researching and writing about renter demographic shifts and residential real estate market trends as much as she loves writing about how to get along with roommates. You can connect with Alexandra via email.

Alexandra’s work includes collaborations with financial and business publications. Her articles have been featured in several national and international online publications, including the New York Times, Barrons, Inman, Forbes, Architectural Digest, Marketwatch, Bisnow, and Curbed. Her educational background includes a B.A. in Japanese and English and an M.A. in Journalism and Cultural Studies.

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