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Home & Real Estate

Guide to Apartment Dwelling

Don't let your new place become a financial nightmare. Here are eight tips to help you get the most out of your rental -- and your money.

Finding an apartment that fits your budget is only half the battle. Renting comes with many financial challenges that aren't always obvious. For instance, your wallet could take a hit if you don't read the fine print of your lease, don't protect yourself against a deadbeat roommate or don't know how to deal with your landlord.

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Here are eight tips to help you get the most out of your rental -- and your money.

1. Search smart. Prices for life's expenses can vary widely from apartment to apartment. So pay attention to these costs when choosing a place to live. For instance, consider your commuting costs and parking fees. Utilities and services are another wild card. Does the landlord pay a portion of your utilities, such as water and garbage? Or will you be charged separately for everything? See Seven Sins of First-Time Renters for more.

2. Read -- and understand -- your lease. A lease is a legally binding contract between you and the landlord, spelling out each of your rights and the rules you must abide by while living in the space. Every lease will include some basic information, such as the length of the lease (say, six months or one year), the amount of rent due and the amount of the security deposit.

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There are additional clauses that could have a big impact on your wallet and your lifestyle. Keep an eye out for penalties for late rent or moving before your lease term is up. Look for policies on owning pets, painting or altering the apartment, subletting and having roommates (or roommates of the opposite sex). Look for the protocol for what to do if something breaks or needs repair.

Also, make sure you know what happens to your lease agreement at the end of the term. Usually, your contract will become a month-to-month arrangement, but read the fine print ahead of time to know how much notice is required before moving out.

3. Spell out roommate responsibilities in advance. Living with a roommate is a great way to cut your living expenses. But unless you discuss the logistics, the arrangement could quickly become a financial nightmare. Protect your credit and pocketbook from a deadbeat roomie by drawing up, signing and getting notarized a roommate "pre-nup." This can help you resolve disputes and give you legal recourse to recover your money from an irresponsible roommate in small-claims court if necessary.

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Include in your pre-nup how much each person pays for rent, how you'll split utility bills and other expenses, when bills are due, who owns what furniture, how you'll pay for damages and late fees, how much notice is needed before one of you can move out and how to handle disagreements (who has to leave if it doesn't work out). This is as much of a measure to protect them as it is you. So if they refuse to sign and you can't work out a mutually beneficial agreement, you may want to find new roommates. See Winning Roommate Roulette for more information.

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4. Get renter's insurance. A policy costs only about $150 to $250 a year -- or $12 to $21 a month -- and covers your loss in case of fire, theft or other damage. Unless you have enough money saved to replace everything you own -- clothes, furniture, computer, entertainment system, microwave, etc. -- it's definitely worth the cost. Check with your auto insurer to see if it offers renters insurance. You might be able to get a discount for having more than one policy with the same insurer.

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5. Get credit for your rent payments. Making on-time rent and utility payments usually doesn't help build your credit history. But if you sign up at PRBC.com, you can get credit for your payment history. This is a great tool for young adults just starting out. See Rent Your Way to Good Credit to learn more.

6. Complain effectively. If something is wrong with your apartment, the landlord has an obligation to fix it, as detailed in your lease. For most people, this isn't a problem. They simply notify the landlord of the issue, and the landlord resolves the issue. But on occasion, the problem doesn't get fixed. Then what do you do?

First, keep your cool. Name-calling and flaring tempers will only aggravate the situation. Then notify the landlord of the problem in writing. If the problem persists, you may have the right to apply your rent toward making the repair or to terminate your lease.

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Or you might consider taking the dispute to your local government's code compliance department or a lawyer if necessary. Remember that, by law, the landlord cannot retaliate against you for lodging a complaint. It is illegal for him or her to evict you, increase your rent or send you a bill for the cost of a reasonable repair (unless otherwise stated in your lease) as long as you hold up your end of the rental agreement.

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7. Make it homey without spending a fortune. For most young apartment dwellers, your home is probably tiny and temporary. So when it comes to furniture and decor, think small and versatile. Look for pieces that can do double duty -- they'll work now and can make the transition if you plan to move in a couple of years. For example, use a patio set for your kitchen table, or an ottoman that doubles as extra seating -- and that has storage space inside. If your budget is particularly tight, look for bargains in classified ads such as those on Craigslist. See How to Outfit Well-Dressed Digs for more advice.

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8. Know your rights in foreclosure. Today's real-estate meltdown isn't only affecting homeowners, but also renters whose landlords have lost their properties in foreclosure. More renters are suddenly discovering their home has been taken over by a bank that may want them out in a matter of days.

Unfortunately, you don't have a lot of recourse in this situation. Depending on where you live, a foreclosure could legally wipe out your lease. If the new owner asks you to leave and you refuse, you could face an eviction lawsuit -- which you most likely won't win. And having that eviction on your record hurts your chances of getting into an apartment elsewhere. It's a pain, but it's usually best to move on.

According to the legal experts at Nolo, you can sue the former owner in small claims court for breach of contract -- after all, the landlord signed your lease promising to provide you with a place to live for the agreed-upon length of time. But considering that the former owner probably isn't flush with cash, it may be a while before you're able to collect on any judgment. See Nolo's guide for Renters in Foreclosure to learn more.

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