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Renting a House in 10 Easy Steps: A Guide for First-Time Renters

At HomeLight, our vision is a world where every real estate transaction is simple, certain, and satisfying. Therefore, we promote strict editorial integrity in each of our posts.

Whether you’re tired of living in a boxy dorm room or you want more room for your kids or pets, you’ve decided that renting a house will give you the space and privacy you desire. You won’t have to put up with that annoyingly loud TV from your upstairs neighbor anymore, and maybe you can find a place with a patio for entertaining. But do you know how to rent a house if you’ve never done it before?

Before you start mentally arranging the living room furniture in your new home, however, spend a little time learning the ins and outs of how to rent a house. The process of renting a house is different than renting an apartment.

We’ve talked to experts, done the research, and prepared this easy guide to help you rent your first house. Read on!

A phone used to rent a house.
Source: (Giorgio Trovato / Unsplash)

Step 1. Assess your situation

Who is going to be living in a rental house with you? Your partner, kids, or pets?

If you’re single, will you need a roommate or two to swing the rent?

If you’re sharing a house, and a lease, with other people, make sure they are financially responsible and will pay their share of the bills. Life will also be more pleasant if everyone living in the house is in sync on variables such as:

  • Standards of cleanliness
  • Rules about guests
  • Whether a pet is welcome
  • The need for set quiet hours

Confirm that your potential roommates will be compatible before signing a lease because leases are difficult — and costly — to break. Everyone living in the house must be on the lease.

Step 2. Check your credit score

The landlord wants to be certain that you’ll pay the rent monthly as agreed. Landlords usually look at your credit score to confirm you have a record of paying your bills. Make sure your credit score is acceptable before you apply for a rental lease.

Your credit score is based on your credit record and considers factors like whether you pay your bills on time or have loans in default. Three companies known as credit reporting agencies compile credit records for consumers in the United States.

Creditors, like the store or bank that issued you a credit card, regularly report your history of paying your bills to the reporting agencies, which use that data to determine your score. The higher your credit score, the more likely a landlord is to grant you a lease.

If you pay bills late, have too much money racked up on your credit cards, or you have defaulted on a loan, then your credit score may be lower than the landlord desires. It’s a good idea to check your credit report before you start hunting for a rental house, so you can take steps to raise the score if necessary.

All consumers may request their credit report annually from each of the three credit reporting agencies. Order your report through, a federally approved site where you can be sure you’ll get a free report. (Other sites may give you a free report, but you’ll end up paying for credit monitoring.)

Review the report and make sure there are no errors, such as an entry that shows a debt as unpaid when you’ve paid it off. To dispute any incorrect entries, follow the instructions on the report.

If you’re worried your credit looks shaky, you can take steps to improve your credit score before looking for a rental house:

  • Correct errors on your credit report
  • Pay down any outstanding bills, including credit card balances
  • Pay all your bills on time; consider setting up autopay on your monthly bills so they’re never late
  • Limit your credit purchases

Step 3. Figure out your budget

Depending on where you live, the rent for a house could be more than for an apartment. And houses come with expenses you don’t have in a dorm or condo, so you need to decide how much you can spend and what that money will need to cover.

Your housing expenses shouldn’t be more than 40% of your monthly income, Case Western Reserve University recommends. If several people share the bills, you can afford more than you can by yourself, but be sure to list out all possible expenses before you commit.

In addition to the monthly rent, your costs for a rental house could include:

  • Utilities, like water, gas, and electric
  • Services, like trash pickup, internet, or satellite TV
  • Renter’s insurance
  • Parking fees

Additionally, with a house, you may be responsible for mowing the lawn and other upkeep, so budget for that as well.

You’ll also need to save up the upfront money your landlord might require when you sign your lease. That can include:

  • The first and last month’s rent, paid in advance
  • A security deposit in case you cause any damage to the house
  • A pet deposit if you have a pet
A computer used to rent a house.
Source: (Mikey Harris / Unsplash)

Step 4. Decide what you need

Decide how many bedrooms and bathrooms you need, based on who’ll be living in the house. Then think about whether you need extra space.

If someone works from home, they might want another bedroom or other dedicated space they can use for their home office, for example.

Think about whether you want a fenced yard for your dog, what kind of entertaining space you’d like, and how important a large kitchen is.

Create a list of desired features, separating your criteria into two categories: needs and nice-to-haves. Depending on the rental market and how much you’re willing to spend, you may have to let go of some of your wants.

Step 5. Start your rental home search

There are lots of ways to find listings of rental houses. Many websites that list homes for sale, like Zillow, also have rental listings.

Check social media sites, from Facebook to Craigslist, for notices about local rental homes. Also check classified ads in the local newspaper or other local publications (look on their websites, too).

If you’d like someone to help you find a rental house, contact a local real estate office, says Kelly Hollowell, an agent in Chesapeake, Virginia, who has worked with 75% more families than the average agent in her region.

“Call any office in the area you want to rent in, and the duty agent who answers the phone can assist you,” she said. Real estate agents are often willing to help people find a rental home because eventually, many renters become buyers. An agent can help target specific areas, such as neighborhoods encompassed by a specific school district.

“A real estate agent will show you any houses in the area that are available for rent,” Hollowell added. If you call a property management company, they’ll only show you rental houses that they manage.

While looking online for rental houses, be alert for scams. Crooks use fake property listings to lure people into putting down a “deposit,” then they disappear.

If you suspect it’s a scam, walk away. Red flags that you’re dealing with a scammer include:

  • A deal that looks unusually good – such as very low rent for a large home in a nice neighborhood
  • They keep giving excuses about why you can’t see the property in person
  • They won’t provide the address of the property
  • They pressure you to put money down without visiting the house

Step 6. Visit your top choices

Once you’ve narrowed your options, check out the top choices in person to make sure they live up to your expectations. If you can’t visit in person for some reason, like you’re moving from another state or there are pandemic restrictions, the property manager or real estate agent may be able to provide a video walkthrough.

During your tour of each house, evaluate the home to make sure it will meet your needs. Take notes or photos so you can compare the properties. Check:

  • The size and arrangement of the rooms
  • The amount of storage space
  • Whether the home has all the appliances you need or expect
  • The condition of the home
  • The size of the yard
  • The parking situation

If a home you like has some shortcomings, figure out if you can overcome the negatives. For example, you can buy a few more lamps if the home doesn’t have a lot of lighting.

However, if the yard isn’t fenced or there’s no dishwasher, and you need those things, there’s not much you can do aside from asking the landlord to add those expensive features.

Step 7. Check the landlord

Once you’ve found the house you want to rent, check out the landlord. If there’s a current renter who’s about to move, ask them about their experiences with the landlord.

Investigate anything current or former tenants have written on online review sites, especially if it’s a management company, to see how other renters rate the company’s responsiveness. Your local Better Business Bureau might have a file on the company, too.

If it’s an individual landlord, ask your future neighbors what they know about the house or landlord. Other homeowners in a neighborhood often keep an eye on rental properties to ensure the landlord maintains neighborhood standards, so their property values don’t fall.

A man filling out an application to rent a house.
Source: (fizkes / Shutterstock)

Step 8. Put in a rental application

Before renting a house, you’ll have to fill out an application for the landlord. If you’re going to have roommates, each one will need to fill out an application. You each may have to pay an application fee.

The landlord will run a credit check, make sure you haven’t been evicted previously or convicted of serious crimes, and verify you have enough income to pay your monthly rent.

Information you’ll have to provide includes:

  • Personal contact information
  • Social Security number and birthdate
  • Employer information
  • Where you’ve rented previously or landlord references

Step 9. Read the lease

Once the landlord has screened you, you’ll have to sign a lease. A lease is a legal contract setting out the rules of the tenant/landlord relationship. It covers issues like:

  • When your rent is due
  • Fees for late payment
  • The size of the security deposit
  • How to terminate the lease
  • Expenses the tenant must cover

Read the lease very carefully and be sure you understand everything in it.

It’s critical that you know clearly what’s expected of you as a renter, Hollowell says, especially if this is the first house you’ve rented.

“Find out who cuts the shrubs and who takes care of mulching the garden,” because the landlord might require the renter to take care of those tasks.

Ask to see the move-out checklist, too, she recommends. The landlord might expect you to clean the carpets before you leave, for instance.

Hollowell has seen leases where the renters were required to get the fireplace professionally cleaned, even if they never lit a fire, and one that required renters to repaint the house when they moved out. (And that’s why you need to read the lease carefully!)

If you don’t understand something in the lease, ask for clarification. If you think something is unreasonable, see if you can negotiate a change.

Tenant/landlord laws differ by state. You can Google the standard lease in your state to see what’s in it and compare it to what the landlord uses. If something in your lease seems at odds with the standard lease, you can question it yourself, or consult a lawyer.

If you’re renting with roommates, everyone who will live in the house must sign the lease.

Champagne popped after renting a house.
Source: (Corina Rainer / Unsplash)

Step 10. Congrats, you’ve rented a house!

Once you sign the lease and pay your fees, you’re a renter. It’s time to pack your belongings and move in.

Enjoy the extra space and privacy, and be sure to keep up with the lease requirements. (While you’re there, it might be smart to start thinking about saving up to buy your own place!)

Header Image Source: (Erik Mclean / Unsplash)