MONEY Housing Market

How to Find the Perfect First Apartment

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Tom Merton—Getty Images

Everything you need to know, from credit checks to pet fees.

You know what makes for a great “my first apartment” story? Grim memories of late-night arguments with your landlord, lost security deposits, the heat that never worked and countless other grisly memories of that hole-in-the-wall you lived in at 23.

What’s not so great? Actually living in that first apartment.

If you’re a recent college grad and looking for your first place, you might not be clear on all the steps you need to take to line up an awesome apartment. This guide will walk you through what you need to do to snag your dream space and avoid those nightmare apartment scenarios.

Decide what apartment features really matter

Before you dive headfirst into apartment hunting, create a list of everything you want. This may include particular neighborhoods, number of bedrooms, size of square footage and certain amenities. Lee Williams, a New York City real estate agent, suggests organizing and prioritizing your list into three key areas:

  • Must-haves
  • Nice to have, but can do without
  • Dream apartment features

“Have a list. That way you’ll know when you’re ready to compromise and how your budget translates when you go out to experience a new space,” Williams says.

Pro tip: Depending on what city you’re looking in, consider neighborhoods that are slightly off the beaten path, or just outside of trendier areas. You might get more square footage for your money. Use a site like WalkScore to explore communities and find out what amenities are in walking distance.

Timing is everything in real estate

Start looking according to when you want to move in. Most move-in dates are on the first of the month, but some landlords may prefer or be willing to swing a midmonth start date.

“Anywhere from May through the end of August is the busiest season for rentals,” says Tanya Mahmood, chief operating officer and executive vice president of RLTY NYC. “It’s crucial to start looking a month in advance because you could run into the problem of showing up and not having an apartment in time to start a new job.” She adds not to look too far ahead because there will be fewer apartments available more than a month before your planned move-in date.

Pro tip: Don’t automatically assume you can move in a few days before your lease start date without incurring costs. Talk to your landlord before you book a moving truck or recruit friends to help. Also, since moving companies tend to be busiest on the first of the month, make your reservations as soon as possible to secure a spot if you’re moving at that time.

Make sure you can afford your rent … and everything else

You might have your first salary, but you don’t want to be working just to pay rent. Typically, landlords are looking for an annual income ratio to be 40 or 50 times the monthly rent (40 times monthly rent should equal 30% of your income). To make apartment living more affordable, consider bringing roommates into the equation. Some landlords will let roommates combine salaries to meet the income ratio, but not always.

When you’re looking for a place, don’t forget to factor additional living expenses into your budget. This could include monthly expenses for:

  • Utilities (gas, heat, electric)
  • Parking
  • Storage
  • Internet and/or cable
  • Pet fees
  • Building fees (water, trash, maintenance)

When you apply for the apartment, you may have to pay a processing or credit check fee. And don’t forget the security deposit, which is typically one month’s rent or less. You might also have to pay your first and last month’s rent upfront.

Your landlord might require renters insurance. This insurance protects your possessions in case of an emergency or catastrophe and provides liability coverage for personal injury or property loss. Even if your landlord doesn’t require renters insurance, it’s a good thing to have.

Pro tip: Your landlord will want a complete picture of your financial health when you apply. “Get one of the free credit reports you’re entitled to each year so you’re not surprised when a landlord runs your credit,” suggests Ravi Dehar, growth lead at Cozy.co, a service for landlords and tenants to screen applicants and pay rent. You can check your credit report through each of the three major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.

When you might need a guarantor

If you have no credit history, apartment history or have just started working, a landlord might require a guarantor, also called a co-signer, on your lease. A guarantor’s role is to take on your financial obligations if for some reason you can’t. Most guarantors for recent grads are parents. Landlords will require guarantors’ income to be 80 times the monthly rent, to ensure they can pay for their own bills as well as yours if you can’t afford your rent.

Pro tip: Make sure you have your guarantor in tow or at least have his or her documentation ready when you’re applying.

Start your search and watch out for these red flags

If you’re strapped for cash, then going online is the way to go. For most, that means an apartment hunting site such as PadMapper and the ubiquitous source for the online search, your local Craigslist. Melanie Siben, a New York City real estate agent, suggests maintaining a healthy level of suspicion throughout your online search. “Not all apartments are what they seem and not all are real,” she adds. These are all red flags:

  • Too good to be true usually is. If an apartment is listed in a great neighborhood, with large square footage, lots of amenities and all at a cheap price, it’s probably a fake. Compare similar apartments in the area.
  • Extremely high fees paid upfront. “Sometimes you’ll be asked to pay everything including the security deposit and finders fee upfront before you have any lease or even seen the apartment,” Siben says.
  • Landlord doesn’t ask for your credit score and other necessary background materials. “Every landlord wants to verify you’re gainfully employed and that you don’t have a criminal history,” Siben says.
  • When you’re getting too much pressure to hurry up, sign and pay. “You can tell when someone wants a quick buck,” Siben says.
  • A listing says, “I’m out of the country, but…” The landlord or his agent isn’t available to show you the apartment until after you send the money. “You need to see the apartment before you give any money,” Siben says. “If that’s not an option, make sure you’re dealing with a reputable agent or company.”

If you hire a real estate agent, you can find places that are unlisted and you’ll have someone to do the negotiating for you. The downside is you’ll pay a fee or commission, often up to a full month’s rent or 15% of an entire year’s rent.

Pro tip: To verify a landlord owns the property, you can look up an apartment’s tax records at your local assessor’s office to make sure names match up.

Be prepared to jump on an apartment

Even if you find your dream apartment, it may be someone else’s two-bedroom utopia too.

“It’s extremely competitive for young people. They’re looking for the cheapest, safe place possible and they’ve got tons of competitors. You have to act fast,” Siben says.

Before you visit a place, have everything you might need to lock it down quickly on hand, including:

  • Recent paystubs or a note of employment validating your salary. Your letter must be officially signed and on company letterhead.
    • Recent bank statements and/or a recent tax return
    • Your Social Security number for a credit check
    • Photo identification
    • Vehicle information, including a license plate number, make and model number
    • Your checkbook to pay for application fees and security deposit
    • Contact information for references

If the application asks for a reference from a previous landlord, don’t think you’re out of the running if you’ve never lived on your own. “Landlords have seen everything — they know if you just graduated and just got your first job that you either lived at home or in dorms,” Williams says.

Pro tip: If you’re certain you want an apartment, apply on the spot. If you wait too long, you may miss out.

Comb through fine print

Most landlords will give you a standard lease agreement to sign. But the lease riders, or clauses, are the fine print you should examine the closest.

“It’s like anything else: You need to read the small print,” says Carol Stuckey, account manager at Apartment Locator in Oklahoma City. “You need to know the length of the lease and if you don’t fulfill the lease what the consequences are. In the state of Oklahoma they can charge you the full amount of the lease if you move out early.”

Certain add-ons such as a cleaning fee after you move out are becoming more common, Williams says. He adds, “Some landlords may have had a bad experience with frat guys who moved into a beautiful four-bedroom. They want to make sure the property is returned to a state that it was originally in and so future renters will have a clean environment.”

Before signing the lease, point out any concerns you might have. If you make any verbal agreements at this time, get them in writing.

Pro tip: When you move in, submit a report and take photos of any prior damage. You don’t want to be held responsible for a literal hole in the wall that was already there when you moved in.

Final takeaway

Knowing how to approach finding your first apartment gives you the power to make the best possible decision. You’re going to have pitfalls and plenty of memories to collect along the way — this is still renting, after all. Just remember: The great thing about your first apartment is that it will always be your first.

More from NerdWallet:

MONEY home prices

The Price of US Presidents’ Homes Today

Some would cost a fortune, others not so much.

White picket fences, grassy green front yards, owning your own slice of the pie — when you think about it, the American Dream is all about real estate. This Independence Day, we’re celebrating the places that some of our most influential presidents, from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt, once called home.

Today, the National Park Service or presidential historical societies manage most of these homes, but when they were owned by our former commanders in chief, these grand estates played host to swanky parties, intimate family celebrations — and no doubt important conversations.

To find out how much these presidential homes would be worth if they hit the market today, Trulia compared these eight stately residences with like-sized homes currently on the market.

Massive amounts of historical significance? Priceless.

Trulia

More From Trulia:

MONEY home buying

7 Amazing Celebrity Homes You Can Buy Right Now

Open house on homes owned by J. Lo, Michael Jordan, and Paula Deen.

What’s your fancy: Berry Gordy’s historic “Motown Mansion” or Ted Turner’s private island off the South Carolina coast? Or perhaps the epic estates formerly owned by Jennifer Lopez, Michael Jordan, and Michael Jackson are more your speed? For the right price—a few million to upwards of $100 million—these homes, and the bragging rights that come along with them, can be yours.

Spring and summer is prime time for sales of all manner of homes, including those owned by the rich and famous. And celebrity homes on the market aren’t limited to southern California, but extend to areas such as Long Island, Chicago, Savannah, and even Detroit. Here are 10 of the hottest celebrity properties on the market right now.

  • Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony

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    Evan Joseph Images The Long Island home where Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony used to live is for sale for $9.495 million.

    No fewer than two mansions formerly owned by Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony are currently for sale. In addition to $17 million, nine-bedroom estate in the gated California community of Hidden Hills, the former couple’s home on Long Island’s Gold Coast is also on the market. Listed by Dolly Lenz Real Estate, the asking price is $9.495 million. That’s the price after a recent cut—not long ago, it was listed at $12 million.

  • Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony

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    Evan Joseph Images

    Lopez and Anthony lived in the home until announcing their separation in 2011. The compound, which consists of two homes and a total of 10 bedrooms on eight acres, is now listed under the ownership of Anthony, or rather his birth name, Marco Muniz. The main house is a 16-room red-brick mansion built in 1941. The guest cottage is a five-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot Colonial.

  • Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony

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    Evan Joseph Images Home of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, 3 Country Lane, Brookville, NY. Dolly Lenz Real Estate LLC

    Both Anthony and Lopez are world-famous entertainers, and yes, this place is great for entertaining—and performing. There is an oversized pool and pool pavilion, as well as a tennis court and vast manicured grounds. Inside the main house, there’s a movie theater and a professional-quality recording studio.

  • Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan's Illinois home is currently on the market for $14.855 million.

    Appropriately, basketball legend Michael Jordan named his estate Legend Point. His Airness’s attempts to sell the 56,000-square-foot property in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb north of Chicago, are approaching legendary status as well. It was first listed for sale in 2012 for $29 million, which was reduced to $21 million about a year later. In late 2013, the plan called to put the 7.39-acre compound up for auction with a minimum bid of $13 million, but again it failed to sell. In the most recent listing, the estate’s asking price is $14.855 million, or about half of its initial price.

  • Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan's compound was designed with all manner of players in mind.

    In the main residence, the living room and family room are both double height—fitting given that Jordan and many of his pals are oversized athletes. For that matter, many of the home’s features were designed with all manner of players in mind. The original doors from the Chicago Playboy Mansion mark the entrance to the “Gentleman’s Retreat” area, where there are card tables, a cigar room, and a wet bar. The home also boasts a wine cellar with space for 500+ bottles, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a movie theater, an indoor tennis court, and a golf putting green. Meanwhile, for the ladies, the estate includes a “full-service beauty salon.”

  • Michael Jordan

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    What Jordan estate would be complete without a basketball court? The compound comes with an NBA-quality indoor basketball court with a custom sound system. The backboards are motorized, the flooring is cushioned hardwood, and the Jordan “Jumpman” logo is painted in the center of the court.

  • Paula Deen

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    Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn Known as "Riverbend," the Georgia home of Paula Deen has an asking price of $12.5 million.

    Poised on the Wilmington River with 300 feet of water frontage, the estate known as Riverbend has been described by listing agent Seabolt Brokers as “the most significant offering in Savannah, Ga.” and “truly its own private resort.” Owned by Paula Deen, the TV chef and restaurateur who came under fire for racist comments in 2013, the 5.5-acre property features a 14,500-square-foot main home, two guest cottages, and a 10,000-square-foot barn with three bedrooms and an eight-car garage. Asking price: $12.5 million.

  • Paula Deen

    Deen/Groover Residence
    Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

    In total, the property has 28,000 square feet of living space, including—of course—a gourmet kitchen with commercial grade appliances in the main home. There is also an outdoor kitchen with a trio of grills, a smoker, and four outdoor refrigerators, plus a pool with an outdoor “dive-in theater” for watching movies under the stars.

  • Berry Gordy

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    Deborah Smith—Keller Williams Realty The "Motown Mansion" in Detroit where Motown Records founder Berry Gordy lived for 35 years.

    Billed as the “Motown Mansion” by realtor Keller Williams, this 2.2-acre estate in Detroit features a 10-bedroom, 10,500-square-foot Italian Renaissance main residence, plus an adjoining 4,400-square-foot pool house. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy owned the property from 1967 until 2002, and the likes of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5 have been guests. It is listed at $1.295 million.

  • Berry Gordy

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    G. Greg Wells Photography—Keller Williams Realty

    The property is said to have undergone a significant restoration over the past decade, with much of the original architecture and design preserved intact. The current owner, Detroit lawyer Cynthia Reaves, said that she acquired the property after writing a letter to Gordy pleading with him to sell her the home. “I told him about my love of the city of Detroit, my love of old homes, the fact that I had grown up in this neighborhood. And that I really felt that a home like this deserved to be part of the community,” Reaves told a local news program earlier this year. “I remember growing up across the street as a kid and saw all the wonderful parties that he would host here. The red carpet would go around the block. The stars would come out and walk around on the red carpet to the parties. And I remember seeing the Jackson 5 here trying to play golf in his backyard.”

  • Denise Richards

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    courtesy Douglas Elliman and Re/Max Olson & Associates Denise Richards' home in Hidden Hills, Calif., is listed at $7.749 million.

    Let’s cut right to the chase: This place has its own doggie hotel! Owned by Denise Richards, the actress and ex-wife of Charlie Sheen, this six-bedroom, 1.1-acre property in the Hidden Hills gated community in southern California features an onyx fireplace, cathedral ceilings, and two pools, including a grotto, waterfall, and “beach” entryway. But anyone who looks at the home will be talking about the pet hotel—a private kennel custom-made for allowing dogs to feel right at home. It’s being listed by The Altman Brothers for $7.749 million.

  • Denise Richards

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    courtesy Douglas Elliman and Re/Max Olson & Associates

    This home is made for dog lovers and foodies alike. In addition to the pet hotel, there is a wine tasting room with temperature-controlled walls for keeping bottles chilled at just the right degree. The kitchen is gourmet and fully state of the art, complete with a pizza oven and large windows overlooking lush manicured lawns and greenery.

  • Michael Jackson

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    Jim Bartsch The estate once known as Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch is on the market for $100 million.

    Currently dubbed the “Sycamore Valley Ranch,” this epic 2,700-acre estate in Los Olivos, Calif., 40 miles outside Santa Barbara, is world famous as the “Neverland Ranch” long owned by Michael Jackson. The asking price is a cool $100 million, according to Hilton & Hyland and Sotheby’s, which share a joint listing of the property. The main residence is a 12,500-square-foot building in French-Normandy style, and there are a total of 22 buildings on the grounds, including three guest homes and a 5,500-square-foot movie theater with a stage.

  • Michael Jackson

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    Jim Bartsch

    Jackson sold the property in 2008, when he was in dire financial circumstances. When he lived there, Neverland boasted amusement park rides and a zoo’s worth of animals, including giraffes, orangutans, baboons, and an elephant. The animals and rides are gone now, though the private railroad tracks and train station that Jackson used to entertain guests remain.

  • Michael Jackson

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    Jim Bartsch

    Jackson purchased the estate in 1987, and over the years it was used for a wide range of events, including Elizabeth Taylor’s 1991 wedding (her seventh), the World’s Children Congress, and numerous fundraising gatherings. And yes, this is where Jackson allegedly abused children: When he was facing child molestation charges in the mid-’00s, prosecutors said Jackson used Neverland as a lure for children.

  • Ted Turner

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    courtesy Plantaion Services Inc. The main residence on St. Phillips Island, Ted Turner's private retreat off the coast of South Carolina.

    For a mere $23.777 million, you can be the owner of an entire private island—specifically, St. Phillips Island, a 4,680-acre retreat outside of historic Beaufort, S.C., reached only by boat. The listing from realty company Plantation Services states that media mogul Ted Turner purchased the island—now a Registered Natural Landmark—in 1979. The property comes with two residences, and an agreement with The Nature Conservancy stipulates that the owner may add up to 10 more residences on the island, which has its own water and power supply.

  • Ted Turner

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    courtesy Plantaion Services Inc.

    “The Turner family and their friends have enjoyed sailing, fishing and entertaining here for thirty-five years,” the listing description notes of the island, which is a short sail away from Hilton Head. Among the 4,680 acres that fall into the domain of St. Phillips Island, more than 1,000 acres are categorized as “Upland,” or firm ground, and 70 acres are sandy beaches.

MONEY buying a home

Why It’s a Good Thing That Cash Buyers Are Exiting the Housing Market

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Nils Hendrik Mueller—Getty Images

Cash buyers skew the market by soaking up inventory that could be purchased by a young family looking for a first-time home purchase.

In many parts of the country, housing prices gave returned to pre-recession levels. That’s good news for sellers, bad news for buyers. But buried within the latest housing data is some good news for everyone — everyone on Main Street, anyway.

All-cash buyers seem to be finally retreating. The percent of homes purchased by all-cash buyers share in May was close to its long-term average going back to January 2000 of 24.8%, and well below its recent peak of 42.2% in February 2011, according to data released Thursday by RealtyTrac. It’s one sign that the housing market is on the road back to a normal, “how do we find a place to live?” market, and away from the “how do I make a quick buck?” market.

What’s an all-cash buyer? Someone — or something — with a lot of money. All-cash buyers don’t need mortgages, they just show up with a check and buy a home. Generally, they are big investors, like hedge funds and foreign entities, who have no intention of living in the homes. They skew the market by soaking up inventory that could be purchased by a young family looking for a first-time home purchase. They also make such buyers look bad. If you were a seller and had two offers — one all-cash, and one that still required financing to be arranged — which would you choose?

“As housing transitions from an investor-driven, cash-is-king market to one more dependent on traditional buyers, sales volume has been increasing over the last few months and is on track in 2015 to hit the highest level we’ve seen since 2006,” said RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist.

The out-of-whack housing market has been suffering from a record level of all-cash buyers for the past several years – well above historical norms, according to mortgage expert Logan Mohtashami. He says the retreat of cash buyers is positive development.

“This is a positive as total sales are rising with less cash buyers as a part of the market place…Less cash means more traditional buyers in the system, which means the supply and demand balance is more correlated to Main Street economics,” Mohtashami said. “(This year) is trending between 24%-27% which is still very high, but this is the first time it’s under 30% in every report.”

Of course, the shrinking number of cash buyers doesn’t mean prices are going down. In Manhattan, for example, the average sales price for an apartment just hit a record high — $1.87 million. And it’s not just New York. Home prices in Dallas, Denver, and San Francisco are positively bubble-icious, rising about 10% last year, soaring past pre-recession levels.

But with more first-time homebuyers and fewer inventory, at least the dynamics of home buying might change a bit.

“The competition in the market place is … different,” said Craig King, COO at Chase International brokerage, covering the Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada, markets. “While inventory is tight many investors have dropped out of the market and cash deals are not as prevalent as they were. Even in multi-offer situations much has been equalized. This is great news for first-time buyers.“

If you’re looking to buy a home this year, make sure you know how much home you can afford (here’s a calculator that can help). And be sure to check your credit, since improving your credit scores can save you thousands of dollars in interest over the life of your mortgage.

More From Credit.com:

MONEY home buying

Buying a House Together Before Marriage? Read This First

house keys in a ring box
iStock

Love may be blind, but don't go into a real estate purchase with your eyes closed.

Serious young couples used to mark their commitment to each other with an engagement ring, but now they’re in the market for a bigger asset: a set of shiny new house keys.

One in four couples between the ages of 18 and 34 bought a house together before they were married, according to a study by Coldwell Banker Real Estate. MONEY found in our own poll of 500 millennials’ financial attitudes that 40% think it’s a good idea for a couple to buy a home together before marriage, while 37% think the purchase should take place prior to the wedding.

Low-rate mortgages, rising rental costs, and the ability to deduct mortgage interest from income taxes all make being a homeowner now rather than later seem like an attractive option. And while making that move first can work out well, as it did for Seattle couple Katy Klein and Charles Hagman, not every story has that same happy ending.

In fact, many financial planners advise against it. That’s because buying a home is often the biggest and most financially complicated move a couple makes, and unwinding it can be especially difficult for unmarried partners if the relationship ends. So if you’re buying a home with your beloved before getting hitched, spare yourself any potential financial heartbreak by following these tips.

Compare Credit Scores

You and your partner have probably already shared details about your income and savings when determining if you could afford to buy. But another piece of information you’ll need to share well in advance of closing is your credit report.

“If a couple is entering into a business deal, which is what a home purchase between two nonmarried people is, they should know the creditworthiness of their business partner. A person’s credit score will impact your ability to obtain a mortgage and the interest rate you will pay,” says Pewaukee, Wisc.-based financial adviser Kevin Reardon.

If you or your mate has a poor score, it could influence how you decide to title the property and who takes responsibility for the loan. Married couples are generally viewed by creditors as a single unit, but unmarried couples are assessed as individuals, even if applying for the loan together.

“This can work to your advantage if you have the person with stronger credit purchase the home,” says Sandra O’Connor, regional vice president with the National Association of Realtors. By eliminating the poorer score from consideration, you can secure better rates. On the flip side, with only one person applying for the loan, and thus one income on record, the amount you qualify for could be lower than what you could get with two incomes. And, of course, only one person’s name will be on the loan and deed, leaving the other partner vulnerable in the event of a breakup.

Open a Joint Account

Consider setting up a joint bank account, if you don’t already have one, that can be used to pay the mortgage, property taxes, insurance, and maintenance, Reardon suggests. Each of you can set up automatic monthly deposits into the account from individual bank accounts; this way neither party can forget. You can further simplify bill paying and budget tracking by having home expenses automatically deducted from the account each month.

Decide How to Manage Costs

When you cosign on a mortgage, you are 100% liable for the debt, which means if the relationship turns sour and your partner stops paying, you must assume the entire obligation. For this reason, financial planner Alan Moore, co-founder of the XY Planning Network, recommends choosing a home with a mortgage you can swing on one income. That can also be a huge help down the road in the event of unexpected illness or injury, since you’ll still be able to afford the monthly payments.

Before setting a housing budget, both partners need to have an honest conversation about the amount of debt they’re comfortable living with. Just because you can borrow the maximum amount doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Stretch your combined budget too far, and any unexpected expense will likely have one of you coming up short when the monthly payments are due.

Put Your Agreement in Writing

Contact a real estate lawyer to prepare a written document, such as a property, partnership, or cohabitation agreement, that clearly outlines the full details of your arrangement, including what percentage of the home’s equity each partner is entitled to, especially if you contributed different sums to the down payment or mortgage balance, and what will happen to the property if you split up.

“The contract should specify whose name will be on the deed or lease, one or both, who will pay for what—I pay the utility bill, you pay the cable bill—etc.,” says Reardon. “It would be productive to note what happens if one party can’t pay. Will both parties move out? Will one party take over the payments for the other, if they are able to, then create a note receivable from the partner who can’t pay to the partner who can? Will this note be collateralized? It’s great to iron out these details in advance because it removes any doubt or emotions in the event things turn out badly.”

Title It Right

You and your partner must decide how you will own the home or take title. You have three options: One person can hold the title as sole owner, both of you can hold title as “joint tenants,” or you can share title as “tenants in common.”

Typically, you would want both parties to hold title, as putting the property in only one partner’s name leaves the other partner without equity in his own investment. (You’ll certainly want that separate written contract mentioned above if you go this route.)

If both partners sign the title as tenants in common, then each owns a specified percentage of the property. One person may own a 60% interest, while the other owns 40%, for example. This split is specified in the deed. If one partner dies, ownership will not automatically transfer to the other homeowner unless that person is named in the will; instead the deceased owner’s heirs will inherit his or her share.

When you hold title as joint tenants with right of survivorship, you are considered equal owners, and if one of you were to die, the other would automatically inherit the other’s stake and own the entire property.

Bottom line: No matter how you hold title, it is important that you and your partner enter this agreement with a complete picture of each other’s finances and a written contract outlining your desires for the property’s division should the relationship end.

MONEY home improvement

4 Deceptively-Easy Home Improvements You Can Do in a Day

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Bruce Laurance—Getty Images

Spiffing up your home doesn't have to be a neverending chore.

To the uninitiated, home renovations sound daunting and conjure painful images of burning cash. But don’t let that scare you. Many projects can be done in a day, and if you’re smart about it, says Kerrie Kelly, founder of Kerrie Kelly Home Design Lab, they’ll boost curb appeal without breaking your budget.

“Whether it’s something you leave on a list for a handyman to do or you do it yourself, which is always gratifying,” she says. Here are few of her favorites.

1. Switch the Hardware

Sometimes it’s easiest to begin with the front of the house rather than what’s inside, Kelly says, especially if you’re on a tight budget. To that end, changing the front doorknob and lock is a quick update that only takes a few minutes and can compliment the style of the house. Add a kick plate for a touch of glam or go gold for a traditional feel.

2. Brighten the Lights

Another quick, simple way to brighten your home is by changing the lights in the front yard. Feel free to purchase new ones, or better yet, clean the ones you already have. Your home will look far less spooky at night and you’ll actually see where you’re walking.

3. Paint the Door

If scrubbing bug-infested front yard lights isn’t your thing, put a new coat of paint on your front door to freshen it up. Go for something that complements the house’s exterior or be bold and opt for a pop of color, Kelly says, which will set the right tone.

4. Upgrade Your House Numbers

House numbers and address plaques are another quick update that can make a big difference. With the proper placement, they can make your house easier to find — not a bad thing when trying to sell — and the right style of numbers can help play up its architecture.

Need more inspiration? Read on for other Home Improvement Projects You Can Do in a Day.

More from Credit.com

MONEY buying a home

Should You Ever Pay Cash for a Home?

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Laboko—Shutterstock

Consider what paying in cash will do to your savings — emergency, retirement and otherwise — in the short term.

While some of us may be struggling just to afford a down payment, there are people out there who are paying for their homes in full in cash. Finding a great property and forgoing all the bank paperwork and loan repayments may seem like a dream, but it can, in fact, be a mixed blessing. So, if you are looking to buy a home and could afford to pay all cash for it, should you?

Running the Numbers

A great place to start in this process is figuring out how much money you would save buying a home in an all-cash payout versus with time-based loan payments. Compare the sticker price to the eventual price tag of your home if paid for with a 15- or 30-year fixed mortgage with a down payment of around 20%. You will save money on interest, but it’s a good idea to factor in the loss of the mortgage interest deduction when it comes to tax time. Also, consider what paying in cash will do to your savings — emergency, retirement and otherwise — in the short term.

Pros

If you truly have the money available immediately and it won’t put you in jeopardy of going into debt if an emergency were to come up, you will most likely save money by not paying interest on a loan. You will also avoid all of the paperwork that comes with securing a loan, pesky closing costs and the often-frustrating loan process.

Your credit history also will not come into play, which may be beneficial if you have a shaky credit past or have run into trouble before while still having considerable savings. You will also have available equity in your home that you could likely tap in case you hit tough financial times. Furthermore, you can only lose the amount of money you have put in because you are not leveraged, meaning you do not need to get as concerned about market fluctuations.

Another benefit is mostly psychological — you actually own your house, giving you a sense of security and pride. Probably most importantly, you are a very attractive buyer to motivated sellers, giving you an edge over other buyers. The deal will be simpler and faster for both sides and buying in cash may even put you in a position you to get a better deal. After all, time is money.

Cons

Paying cash for your home likely means most of your savings or at least a lot of your money will be tied in one asset, leaving less money to invest in other, diversified assets. Also, real estate has a historically lower return on investment than stocks or bonds, meaning you could be losing out overall if other investments would have outperformed the interest on a mortgage.

Additionally, you are sacrificing liquidity, so it’s probably only a good idea to buy a house with cash only if you can afford it without emptying your emergency fund. A home can take months to sell, and borrowing against your home’s equity brings fees and borrowing limits into the equation. You further lose the financial leverage a mortgage provides because your payment is locked in and hopefully received a favorable interest rate. Lastly, you will not qualify for the tax deductions mortgage payers receive, which often total over $10,000 when itemized.

How you pay for your home is a very personal decision and paying in all cash will likely work for some people but not for others. This generally makes sense if the home’s price does not subtract a significant portion of your liquid assets and/or the interest rate you would pay on a mortgage is higher than what you could earn on other investments. It’s important to properly assess your financial situation and long-term investment strategies, the drawbacks as well as the benefits.

Read next: How Much Rent Can You Afford?

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How Much Rent Can You Afford?

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It all depends on your other expenses.

When with one of my friends recently, I walked past a building covered in “for rent” signs from a property management group in Chicago, where we live. “Oh, hey, it’s the company that robs me blind every month,” my friend muttered as she saw the logo.

A lot of people feel that way when it comes to cutting a rent check (and Chicago isn’t even that bad, as far as housing costs in big cities go). A new report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University says more than half of people who live in the highest-cost metro areas put more than 30% of their income toward rent (aka cost-burdened renters). Nationwide, nearly half of renters shell out more than 30% of their pay for housing, and roughly a quarter pay more than 50% of their income toward rent.

For a large number of people, that’s the reality of renting in the U.S.: It’s really expensive, and finding a way to make it work can be very difficult. But if you’re living in a place like San Francisco, where the average rent price increased 14.9% from 2014 to 2015, according to Zillow, how exactly are you supposed to find affordable housing at all? The first step is to figure out what “affordable” means for you. Everyone’s priorities and circumstances are different, but math can be a harsh, yet helpful, equalizer. I put the topic to members of the Financial Planning Association, and most of them insist on putting no more than 30% (or even less) of your annual income toward annual rent expenses.

Still, there’s a lot more to consider than the equation of (annual income) x .30 = maximum annual rent. Here are some things you need to do in order to figure out how much rent you can afford.

Make a List

What are your major financial goals? Because for every dollar you put toward rent, that’s a dollar you’ll never get to put toward traveling, homeownership, retirement or anything else you need money to accomplish. Even things that aren’t as easy to quantify monetarily — how much you value living in a certain area, your ideal commute time, access to certain transportation methods — need to go on your priority list, too.

“It may not be that we can have everything we want right now,” said Eric Roberge, a certified financial planner in Boston. “It’s about prioritizing your goals and building up to living in the place of your dreams, especially when you’re graduating you have plenty of time to spend in the city — you don’t have to be there immediately.”

Roberge said that’s a frequent dilemma he sees among his clients (he works with 20- and 30-somethings in Boston): Young people want to live in high-rent areas before they can really afford to.

Do Some Math

You have to look at more than just the advertised rent pricing on a living space, because you’ll have many more regular expenses associated with your house or apartment. FPA members recommended keeping the rent portion ideally at less than 25% of your income, to allow room for costs like insurance and utilities.

You may need to think of transportation as part of your rent costs, too, especially if you have to pay for a parking permit or parking space because of where you choose to live. The more of these add-on expenses you have (for example, are the utilities included in your rent payment?), the less you should try to spend on your base rent.

What About Your Other Expenses?

If you’re like many Americans, you have debt. This is especially prevalent among young college grads. That has to be a factor in deciding what you can afford in housing costs.

“The conventional statistic is that no more than 28% of gross salary be spent on housing and no more than 36% on consumer debt. However, that does not at all take into account other obligations in people’s budgets,” said Kristi C. Sullivan, a CFP in Denver, in an email. “Student loans are a large bill for many and if that’s the case, you can’t afford to spend 28% on housing because then you’ll have nothing left for food. Rent is not the fixed expense people think it is. You can lower this cost by living in a less desirable area of town, having roommates, or living in a smaller place.”

Roberge said a common mindset he sees is that people will find a place, decide to move in and figure they’ll make everything else work afterward. To improve your chances at financial success and stability, you need to plan more carefully. Be honest with yourself about where your priorities lie (not just those that give you instant gratification, like a sweet apartment), and you’re less likely to find yourself in trouble with debt or a savings shortage. Keep in mind that paying down your debt and making payments on time will help you build credit, which will come in handy later on when you’re looking for that dream apartment or home. You can track your progress by checking your credit scores regularly.

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The Layperson’s List of Mortgage Application Junk Fees

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You should challenge fees that make no sense.

From time to time we bring you posts from our partners that may not be new but contain advice that bears repeating. Look for these classics on the weekends.

Thanks to two home purchases and refinancing my mortgage five times, I’ve become very familiar with that eternal home loan enigma known as the mortgage junk fee. As a result, I always challenge the more questionable junk fees — and you should too.

So what is a junk fee? Well, it refers to dubious lender or broker fees designed purely for increasing their profits. Yes, some fees are legitimate; after all, lenders and brokers have to make their money too, but in many cases junk fees are 100% profit.

So how can the layman know whether or not the fees listed on the itemization statement are legitimate? Well, here are three tips — and a junk fee glossary — that should keep you from overpaying at closing time:

1. Comparison Shop

The best way to fight excessive junk fees is to comparison shop your loan and make sure that you try to negotiate each one down to, at the very least, the lowest price you receive.

2. Challenge Questionable Fees As Early As Possible

It’s important to understand that the time to challenge these fees is not when you’re at the settlement table signing papers. Instead, do it after you’ve got several estimates in hand from which you can compare fees.

3. Understand What You’re Being Charged For

It’s a cliche, but it’s true nevertheless: knowledge is power. So here’s a junk fee glossary that will shine a light on some of the more common charges:

Where applicable, at the end of each description I’ve included the percentage of institutions charging each of these junk fees based upon a survey conducted by Bankrate.com; the lower the number, the more negotiating leverage you should have to get the fee removed or lowered.

Administration. A pure junk fee that’s supposedly used to cover the cost of managing the loan during the closing process; it’s outrageous and ripe for negotiation. (14%)

Application Fee. This fee is shameful. No lender that wants your business should ever charge this fee. Imagine paying money to simply fill out the application to buy a service. This is equivalent to a hamburger stand charging you money to place your order for a cheeseburger. (18%)

Appraisal Fee. Lenders need to know the value of your home. But in times of rising home prices this is usually unnecessary if you refinanced or bought your home within the previous year. (83%)

Closing Costs / Settlement Fees. These fees cover services that must be performed to process and close your loan application such as title fees, recording fees, appraisal fees, credit report fees, pest inspection, attorney’s fees, taxes, and surveying fees. Watch for double-dipping with other junk fees. (93%)

Commitment Fee. This odd fee is supposedly the cost of processing the loan terms-and-conditions paperwork. Completely bogus. (2%)

Credit Report. This is exactly what it says. Credit reports are extremely cheap; they’re generally free to individuals at least once per year. While they aren’t necessarily free to the lenders, it is highly doubtful they are paying even $100 for it. This is usually a big profit maker for the lender. (81%)

Document Prep. This is a classic junk fee that nobody should ever pay. The process of preparing paperwork is an inherent part of the lender’s job. This is tantamount to a burger joint tacking on an additional Burger Preparation fee on top of their advertised menu price. (34%)

Discount Points. This fee is used to buy down the interest rate. (47%)

Express Mail Fee. Again, another junk fee that should be inherent to the lender’s job. This is also sometimes listed as a Postage or Courier Fee. Despite the high number shown in the bank rate survey, I’ve successfully got this charge removed all but one time. Don’t feel bad for the lender — they aren’t losing any money here. (81%)

Fee. That’s right. “Fee.” If you see this garbage charge, immediately call your lender to get a detailed explanation of this. As she stammers and stutters, be ready to pounce on any instances of double dipping that crop up.

Flood Check/Certification Fee. In order to comply with federal regulations and secondary mortgage requirements, lenders are required to obtain a certification from a surveyor indicating whether the property is within a flood hazard area. (95%)

Funding Fee. This is similar to a wire transfer fee, so watch for double-dipping. (14%)

Lender Fee. These fees are borne by the lender during the closing process and may include attorney fees, application fees, recording fees, courier fees, etc. If this number appears excessive to you, ask for a detailed breakdown of all costs involved with this fee. Then after you get the breakdown, make sure the lender is not double-dipping by charging you a Lender Fee and a Courier Fee. Due diligence on your part usually makes this one of the more negotiable fees. (46%)

Origination Fee. This is a payment associated with the establishment of an account with the lender.

Processing Fee. This fee is fairly common and covers the cost of processing the loan. (45%)

Reconveyance Verification Fee. A fee — if not an outright scam — charged to have someone verify that the bank holding the seller’s loan actually reconveys the title, or clears the loan. Pure poppycock.

Tax Service Fee. This is a fee to cover a third party the lender hires to monitor and/or pay the property tax bills. (82%)

Title Fees. These fees may include escrow fees, document prep fees, messenger service fees and recording fees for recording the title onto the deed. Watch for double-dipping here. (29%)

Title Insurance. This fee covers the costs of assuring the lender that you own the home and the lender’s mortgage is a valid lien. It also protects the owner in the event someone challenges ownership of the home. (83%)

Underwriting Fee. A lender charges mortgage underwriting fees to cover the cost of evaluating your total loan application package, including your ability to pay the loan back. This should include your credit report, employment history, financial documents and appraisal. Again, watch for double-dipping; there should be no credit report fee if there is also an underwriting fee. If you’re working with a broker, he shouldn’t be charging you for a separate underwriting fee, as this is handled solely by the lender. (40%)

VA Funding Fee. This is required by law and is intended to enable veterans who obtains a VA home loan to contribute toward the cost of this benefit, thereby reducing the cost to taxpayers. It is usually in the vicinity of 2% – 3% of the loan. If you aren’t getting a VA loan, then you shouldn’t be charged this fee.

Warehouse Fee. A lender will tell you this is his cost of temporarily holding the loan before it’s sold on the secondary mortgage market. Utter garbage.

Wire Transfer Fee. This fee covers the cost of transmitting cash via the inter-bank wire transfer system to you, your prior lender or the company closing the loan. Similar to the Funding Fee, so watch for double dipping. (50%)

Remember, federal law prohibits lenders from charging fees for nonexistent goods or services, as well as markups of settlement expenses when no additional services are rendered. But the good faith estimates that the lenders hand out have very minimal legal backing, so in the end it is up to you to make sure that you are not being taken for a ride at closing time. Knowing the make-up of your junk fees is a great place to start.

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