Renting an Apartment

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Renting an Apartment

What It Means

An apartment is a room or suite of rooms designed to function as an independent living space (or residence). The term unit is often used to refer to apartment, which is usually just one portion of a building that accommodates multiple households. Renting an apartment means entering into a legal arrangement with a landlord (the owner of the property) to live in the space for an agreed-upon fee. This fee, which is usually paid on a monthly basis, is called rent. The renter who occupies the apartment is also known as the tenant.

In essence renting is a form of borrowing. Just as you rent a video from the video store with the intention of watching it and returning it, you rent an apartment with the understanding that you will live there for a period of time and eventually return the property to its owner. You rent a video so you can watch the movie without buying it; you rent an apartment so you can live in a particular place without taking on the legal and financial responsibilities of owning it.

The legal agreement between landlord and tenant is represented by a contract called a lease. All of the legal terms of the rental agreement are contained in the lease, so it is important to read it carefully and understand what is expected of you and what you may expect from the landlord. You should also keep a copy of the lease for your records, so that you may refer to it if you need to.

Renting an apartment is not an investment that gains value over time, the way owning a house does. The rent you pay is simply the price of having a roof over your head. Still, there are benefits to renting, such as the freedom to move more easily and the convenience of knowing that someone else is responsible for repairs, property taxes, and other potential headaches and costs.

When Did It Begin

Apartment is an American term that came into use in the late nineteenth century in association with an emerging trend in urban housing in New York City. Apartment-style living, with multiple households in the same building, had become popular in Europe decades earlier with the advent of the Industrial Revolution (the rapid, major change in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from an economy based on manual labour to one dominated by industry and the manufacture of machinery), but in Europe an apartment was and still is more commonly referred to as a flat.

The trend was slower to catch on in the United States, where multiunit housing carried the negative image of tenements: overcrowded, often squalid buildings occupied by immigrants and the working classes. After the Civil War (1861–65), however, as urban real estate became increasingly scarce and expensive, builders began to promote apartment living as a convenient, affordable, even fashionable option for the middle and upper classes. New apartment buildings were modeled after those in Paris, and the units were advertised as “French flats” to ensure that they would not be confused with tenements.

Designed by the Paris-trained American architect Richard Morris Hunt (1828–95) and built by Rutherford Stuyvesant (1842–unknown) in 1869, the Stuyvesant Apartments on East 18th Street in Manhattan was the first apartment building designed in accordance with this new concept. Within 10 years the construction of apartment buildings was booming in New York and elsewhere. By the 1900s, more than 75 percent of American city-dwellers were living in apartments.

More Detailed Information

There are a number of ways of finding an apartment. First, ask around: friends, coworkers, and other local contacts might know of someone who is moving out of a great place that has not yet been put on the market. In addition to using the word-of-mouth approach, many people hunt for an apartment by reading through the classified ads (advertisements in the classified section of the newspaper). In cities where apartments are hard to find, it may be worthwhile to pay for the help of an apartment-finding service. This may mean buying a $50 subscription to a database containing listings that are not available to the general public, or it may mean hiring your own private agent whose fee is as much as one month’s rent.

There are many factors to consider when choosing an apartment. Probably first and foremost is the price. As a rule of thumb most money experts suggest that your rent should be no more than 25 percent of your total income. So, for example, if you bring home $3,000 per month, you can afford to pay a maximum of $750 a month in rent. Another important consideration is the location of the apartment: Is it close to public transportation? Are there amenities nearby, like a grocery store, a bank, and a post office? Is the neighborhood safe? Can you park on the street? All of these factors will make an impact on your daily life.

When you have found an apartment you want to rent, you will likely be asked to fill out an application providing information about your financial situation and your rental history, and you will be asked for a list of references the landlord may contact to confirm that you will be a reliable tenant. While the landlord verifies information about you, you in turn may want to inspect the apartment to make sure it is safe and in good repair. Do the appliances work properly? Are smoke detectors provided? Are the locks secure? Is anything broken or damaged? Identify any problems before you sign the lease, and make sure the landlord agrees either to fix them or at least not to hold you responsible for them.

Once landlord and prospective tenant have satisfied their concerns, the next step is signing the lease. A binding legal contract, the lease stipulates the amount of rent to be paid, as well as the amount of the security deposit. The security deposit (often as much as one month’s rent) is paid to the landlord before you move in (usually along with the first and last months’ rent) and returned to you when you move out, provided the apartment is in good condition. If anything has been broken or damaged during the time your tenancy, the landlord will deduct the cost of the repair from your deposit.

The lease also outlines a variety of other rules and aspects of the agreement, such as the length of time the tenant will occupy the apartment (the term of a lease may vary from one month to one year); what day of the month the rent is due (usually on or before the fifth); whether utilities, such as electricity and water, are included in or must be paid separately from the rent; whether the tenant may keep a pet, smoke cigarettes, or have a waterbed in the apartment; and many other details. Importantly, too, the lease spells out what happens if you have to break the lease. Say, for example, that you are in the middle of a one-year lease when you get a great new job in another city or when a family member becomes ill and you have to move home. In some cases the landlord may charge a penalty for breaking the lease; in others you may be required to continue paying rent, even after you have moved out, until a new tenant is found.

The fine points of landlord/tenant rights and regulations vary from state to state in the United States, but many of the provisions are common to all states. For example, all states stipulate that both parties must obey health codes and safety rules, that the tenant must not damage the landlord’s property or disturb neighbors, and that the landlord is required to give adequate notice (usually 24 hours) before he or she may enter a tenant’s apartment. Also, the landlord may not shut off utilities, remove a tenant’s belongings from his or her apartment, or lock a tenant out of his or her apartment in order to collect the rent.

If the tenant fails to pay rent, breaks the rules of the lease, or refuses to move out when the term of the lease is over, the landlord may file a lawsuit to evict (or remove) the tenant. If a judge determines that the eviction request is valid, the tenant may be physically removed from the apartment by a law enforcement officer. Eviction is a serious matter that reflects badly on your rental history and may make future landlords less likely to rent to you. If you need help negotiating a dispute with your landlord, there are state rental and housing agencies that can advise you.

Recent Trends

It has long been assumed that owning your own home is a cornerstone of the American Dream and that the only people who do not graduate from renting an apartment to buying a home are those who lack the financial means to do so. In the early 2000s, however, these assumptions were changing. According to studies done by the Fannie Mae Foundation (an organization that works to help low-, moderate-, and middle-income families buy homes) and the National Multi-Housing Council, an increasing number of high-income Americans were renting apartments as a lifestyle choice. This trend was especially prevalent in high-density urban areas among young adults, singles, and married couples without children (or whose children were grown). For these households the benefits of renting included financial flexibility (because their investment money was not tied up in a house); the ability to live in desirable urban locations near restaurants, entertainment, and shopping and to do away with long commutes from the suburbs; and liberation from home improvements, yard work, and other such responsibilities. In response to (or perhaps fueling) this change of attitude, developers introduced a new model of high-end apartment building that offers customized interior design, on-site fitness centers, high-speed internet access, and movie-screening rooms. Some of these cutting-edge buildings even feature an on-site concierge (a staff person who attends the front desk) to facilitate housekeeping, babysitting, grocery delivery, pet care, show tickets, and other arrangements.