Before beginning a search for rental housing, your first step as a prospective tenant is to determine what your budget is, and which amenities and features are “needs” and which are “wants.”
When looking at your budget and income, keep in mind that many landlords look for a debt-to-income ratio of less than 50 percent, including rent costs. That means you’ll want to consider other monthly payments, including car loans and credit cards, as well as future expenses, such as utilities.
In the case of multiple roommates, many landlords expect each tenant who signs the lease to earn at least three times the full monthly rent, so don’t assume that you only need to qualify to pay your portion.
Once you’ve determined how much you can afford to spend on rent, you’ll need to set aside enough money for screening fees, the first month’s rent and a security deposit, at a minimum.
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When you’re ready to meet a prospective landlord for a showing, be sure to request a copy of his or her “minimum screening criteria.” This will allow you to confirm what your financial picture should look like before applying.
The other half of the home-search equation includes knowing what you need and where you want to be located. That sounds simple enough — and it is, if you do your homework first.
In addition to searching rental listings, drive through your neighborhood(s) of choice and watch for “For Rent” signs. Many landlords still do things the old-fashioned way, and a firsthand look can reveal hidden gems that won’t show up anywhere else.
Your must-have amenities should be noted and organized so your calls to landlords will be easy and quick. This is your chance to be the interviewer, and to determine whether a property and landlord make your short list for viewing.
To cover the basics, start by asking how many bedrooms and baths the unit has. Which amenities are included? Are pets allowed? What is the smoking policy? Which utilities are included in the rent? Is there reserved parking, and at what cost?
If things check out over the phone, ask the owner when you can meet to view the property.
When touring the property, see how well it’s been maintained. A unit does not need to have been updated for it to be a quality property, but it should be clean and ready for the next tenant.
If you think you may be interested in renting the unit, get an application and ask about the screening policy and fees. When you apply, fill out the rental application completely and truthfully. Incomplete or incorrect information can be cause for automatic denial. If the unit will have more than one tenant, everyone over age 18 will need to complete an application and be met by the landlord or property manager.
Confirm that you can meet the landlord’s stated minimum screening policy before paying a tenant-screening fee. Many landlords will only accept cash, money order or cashiers check; ask for a receipt for the payment. Be prepared to provide identification, proof of income and any other requested documentation.
This is also your opportunity to talk to the owner about how he or she operates the property, and for the references of past or current renters. While the landlord is checking out your background, you should be researching the landlord’s.
At this point, if you have doubts about whether this is the appropriate home for you, it is not too late to change your mind. At most, you will have lost the $40 tenant-screening fee, but that is better than renting a home that you won’t be comfortable in.
Sean Martin is the director of external affairs of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, a not-for-profit association of more than 5,000 landlord members statewide. Rental Resource is the organization’s biweekly column. For more information for landlords or tenants, visit rhawa.org.