With a few tricks up your sleeve, you can become a pro at spotting potential danger zones in your apartment search. Even better, you’ll know when you come across a gem, and have the confidence (and prepared paperwork) to pick it up posthaste. Here’s a 10-step guide to scoring the space of your dreams—without getting taken for a ride.

1. SET YOUR BUDGET.

And stick to it—even if you’re “just looking.” If you see a beautiful apartment that’s out of your price range, there’s a good chance you’ll end up renting it (or being really disappointed with what you can afford). One common rule of thumb in budgeting is that 50 percent of your take home pay should go to monthly expenses—but that’s not all rent! It also counts groceries, utilities, transportation, and more. Plan to spend no more than 30 percent of your take home pay on rent and utilities. And know that you may have to compromise on some of your “must-haves” to stay within budget. Maybe you’re fine with an apartment being a touch small as long as it has great light.

2. USE YOUR CONNECTIONS.

Starting your search can be overwhelming, and some Internet listings can be deceptive or even fake. More reliable? Your friends, including friends of friends. You’ve got a wide network—use it! Word of mouth can often find you a much better deal than impersonal online listings and real estate apps, and it can save you a lot of time. While we’re on the subject, don’t discount other low-tech search methods. Some owners, especially older ones who aren’t quite so tech savvy, still post in newspaper classified sections—and often offer lower rents.

3. CHOOSE YOUR LOCATION CAREFULLY.

Do you have friends who live in the neighborhood? Are there things to do nearby? If you’re taking public transport to work, how close is the nearest bus or subway station? If there’s no washer/dryer in the unit or building, how close is the nearest laundromat? In a walking city, how close is the nearest grocery store? Location is just as important as amenities, so these are all questions you should ask yourself before starting your hunt. If you’ve identified a neighborhood—or apartment—you’d like to rent, visit it at all times of the day, including night, to check out noise levels, safety concerns, and neighbors.

4. CONSIDER A SUBLET.

If you’re just moving to a city and want to get a feel for different neighborhoods and apartment types (say, a big building run by a management company vs. a smaller building for rent by the owner), consider looking for a short-term sublet. You can often find a month-to-month room to rent from someone whose roommate has just moved out; other times, you can find a six-month situation where you don’t have to go on the lease or bring your own furniture. That kind of arrangement also gives you much more flexibility—so if your dream place happens to fall into your lap during that time, you can jump on it.

5. BEWARE OF HIDDEN FEES.

That said, don’t just fork over dough! Consider the up-front fees: Some owners request first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit. This means you have to have three months’ rent lined up just to sign. Having a roommate will obviously lower these costs—and may be necessary before you have enough savings. Be very aware of broker fees, which might be a month’s rent or 15 percent of the yearly total of rent.

Before you make any commitments, ask what fees would be involved if you sign. And don’t forget to ask about utilities: Is heat and hot water included? What’s the deal with electricity? Are there any yearly building maintenance fees? All of these tack on costs, so be sure to calculate the real monthly rent.

6. SAVE CASH BY LOOKING DURING THE WINTER.

December, January and February are generally the least popular moving months. This means there’s more inventory and more chance that there are actual vacant apartments. Landlords hate empty units that just sit there without generating revenue. All this adds up to cheaper rents being offered, plus more bargaining power. Moving to a new city in the summer? Seriously think about subletting a room or signing a six-month lease so you can look for a more permanent home when the temperatures drop.

7. CHECK EVERYTHING.

Look in the cupboards and under the sinks for signs of vermin—this includes mouse droppings, bug traps, and holes where uninvited, er, “roommates” can let themselves in. In most places, landlords and agents are required to reveal if an apartment has or had bed bugs, but they don’t always, so look up the building’s bed bug history online. Test all the faucets (kitchen sink, bathroom sink, shower) for water pressure and hot water. See if you get phone reception throughout the space, and bring a phone charger to check the outlets. Also make sure the windows, doors, and locks work properly. If something’s amiss, get the landlord to agree to fix it before moving in—and get the promise in writing.

8. READ THE LEASE AND AMEND IT WHERE NECESSARY.

Speaking of, the lease is really, really important! You might hit it off with your landlord who tells you your dog is fine even though the standard lease they printed off the internet says no pets. Even if you trust the person renting to you, there’s a chance they could change their mind in the future—leaving you unprotected. Get any changes in writing, either by requesting a rider to your lease (a legally binding document covering additional points) or by amending the actual lease itself (and having both parties initial the changes).

Getting everything in writing also protects you if the building sells while you live there. If you don’t have additional agreements in writing, you’re left without a legal leg to stand on with the new landlord. Speaking of, once you sign the lease—scan a copy of the document and hold onto the original. Leases definitely fall into the “Do Not Lose” category of documents.

9. BE PREPARED.

In competitive cities, show up to appointments with proof of your salary (in the form of a statement or letter of employment), a photo ID, and a checkbook in case you want to leave a deposit. It’s also common for a landlord or management company to run a credit check or ask for a guarantor if your salary doesn’t meet their requirements. Have all the info ready to go in case you’re sure you found The One.

10. ENGINEER YOUR EXIT.

Yes, you’re super excited you finally have your own place—and you should be! But keep in mind that the chances of it being your forever home are slim… and you want that security deposit back when you move out. So before you move in, do a (literal) walk-through of the apartment with the management company. This is your chance to document any conditions that exist prior to your taking over the space—and achieve complete peace of mind for a job well done. Congrats!

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