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It wasn’t until my first apartment flooded after an overnight storm (leading to water damage and having to move) that I found out the hard way I lived in a floodplain — an area of low-lying ground adjacent to a river and subject to flooding. I hadn’t known to ask whether the proximity of a small body of water affected the unit’s flood risk.
“Asking those questions, I think, is incredibly important for renters, but also for future owners,” said Jessica Lautz, the vice president of demographics and behavioral insights at the National Association of Realtors.
Your potential home’s vulnerability to the elements is just one factor to assess during your search process. No matter what type of living situation you’re seeking, here are some other essential points to consider.
Financial bases to cover
Once you know how much you can afford to pay, there are other financial issues to consider — regardless of whether you’re looking to rent or buy. Ordering a credit report in advance can help you ensure your score is good and that there aren’t unforeseen blemishes that could deter a potential landlord or lender from accepting your application, Lautz said.
If you want to rent, know that those monthly payments aren’t your only financial concerns.
Upfront costs typically include application fees, first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, a pet deposit if needed, and sometimes money for the landlord to check your credit, said Christopher Bloom, the communications and marketing manager for the National Center for Healthy Housing.
If your lease requires a co-signer and you don’t have a loved one to do that for you, you’ll need to pay a lease guarantee service to be one, which could cost as much as one month’s rent — so, you’ll need to plan on having a few months’ worth of rent saved in the bank to cover just these costs.
And besides the upfront and monthly costs of securing a place to live, you’ll of course also need to budget for utilities and services.
The lease might require that you have renters insurance, which can provide generally affordable coverage for your belongings in case they’re stolen or damaged by natural causes, since your landlord or superintendent isn’t responsible for that, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.What can be additionally helpful if you’re looking to buy is talking ahead of time with a mortgage broker, an intermediary between a lender and a borrower. They can help you understand what you can afford and what loan products are available to you.
“There are, in many communities, low down payment programs or programs that help and are targeted towards first-time homebuyers and helping them get into homeownership,” Lautz said.
Everyone has “their own personal preferences and what’s important to them for the neighborhood,” Lautz said. Driving around the neighborhood during the day and night can give you a good sense of what goes on at those times and how well-lit the property is at night.
Whether you’re looking for an apartment or a house, searching neighborhood groups on social media to find out what an area is generally like when you’re not around can be very helpful, Lautz said.
To gauge how safe or secure an apartment complex is, there are some things you can ask a landlord about and other aspects you need to check out yourself, Bloom said. Ask whether doors have deadbolt locks and peepholes. Assess whether the complex looks well maintained, if doors close securely and don’t have gaps underneath, and if there are fire escapes that would allow someone to get into your unit from the ground, he added.
Try to choose an apartment with 24/7 controlled access that also applies to secondary areas such as recreation centers, pools and courtyards, suggests Apartment Guide, an online apartment matcher and advice service powered by property solutions platform Rent.
You can check an area’s crime rates by talking to the local police force or viewing an online map provided by the local government.
You can also try commuting from there to see how far you are from your friends, work and favorite places, and how difficult it might be to stay connected. Where you live matters almost as much as apartment layout, Apartment Guide notes — having a few walkable options and being close to public transportation, grocery stores and restaurants is great, if possible.
If you’re looking for a house, a home inspector could tell you the year the home was built and, based on that, what issues you might have, Lautz said. “Building standards over time have changed. For an older home, there of course could be things like asbestos within the home. That was commonly used until a certain time period.”
Asbestos, a heat-resistant fibrous mineral, has been classified as a human carcinogen (a cancer-causing substance). You could find out the same information about an apartment building by asking the landlord or property manager. If the structure was built before lead paint, a health risk, was banned in the United States in 1978, you’d need to ask whether that’s in your unit.
Sometimes apartment listings or tours (including virtual tours) show a model or renovated unit instead of the unit you would be renting. A model is a good way to show off the quality of the construction or features, but it is probably at least a step above anything else, Bloom said. “Ask if you can see the unit that you’re going to be moving into before you do it,” he added.
Take as long as you need to do a thorough inspection of every part of the unit, and be sure to check out areas that are less visible or something a manager might want to hide — such as inside cabinets, on top of shelves, whether outlets work and if the water runs clear. Take photos so you have documentation of what the unit looked like when you moved in. And bring a tape measure so you can know how your belongings will fit.
“There’s a lot of attention right now to really having a beautiful kitchen and having a beautiful bathroom or outdoor space,” Lautz said. “But understanding the bones of the home can be really important, and I think that can be overlooked. So, the age of the HVAC or the hot water heater, the heating and cooling systems, the roof — all of those are incredibly important.”
Issues with these systems or structures can be both annoying and expensive to fix, she added.
Home buyers have the advantage of hiring professional home inspectors who can “tell you everything you need to know about the bones of that home, to let you know what you’re buying so that you don’t have any unforeseen surprises in your first year,” Lautz said.