Keys for the first-time apartment shopper

Times Staff Writer

Since moving to Los Angeles from St. Louis in August, Mike Dunsmoor has spent most nights sleeping on friends’ floors and couches.

The 23-year-old aspiring film composer scoped out rentals in Northridge, Santa Clarita and Hollywood but walked away empty-handed each time. One landlord rejected him because he didn’t pass a credit check. Another time, a potential roommate bailed out on him.

“It’s taken a lot of time out of me and a lot of frustration,” said Dunsmoor, a barista at a Starbucks in Burbank. “There’s a lot of back and forth. It looks like something’s going to work out but it ends up totally not.”

As Dunsmoor has learned, landing an apartment in Southern California can be a challenge, especially when you’re young.


The region’s high rents -- averaging nearly $1,700 a month in Los Angeles County -- are troublesome enough. But if you’re just starting out, you probably don’t have much of a credit history or a long sheaf of references, making it even harder to become a tenant.

But there are ways to even the odds a bit. Here are some tips for getting the keys to your first apartment.

Know your budget

Before even looking for a rental, come up with a realistic range of what you can afford to pay, experts say.

A good benchmark is to spend no more than one-third of your gross earnings on rent, said Nancy Ahlswede, executive director of Apartment Assn., California Southern Cities, Inc. Any more than that and you’ll quickly find yourself going into debt to buy gas and groceries. As tempting as it might be, resist the urge to rationalize spending less on food for nicer digs, Ahlswede said.

You should also be prepared to cover the first month’s rent and a security deposit when you sign a lease.

Can’t afford the apartment of your dreams? Consider a smaller place or another location.

Roommates are also a good way to cut expenses, but “try not to go overboard,” said Mark Verge, owner of Santa Monica-based listings service Westside Rentals.

“Believe me, the last thing an owner wants to see is five college students moving into their two-bedroom,” Verge said.

What about roommates?

Sallie Lin, 20, placed an posting on the Craigslist website in August, hoping to find prospective roommates in the Westwood area. Lin, transferring to UCLA from UC Santa Cruz, got a quick response from a landlord who said he had one spot left in a house rented by a group of UCLA women.

Lin was ready to send a security deposit when, almost as an afterthought, she asked a friend in Los Angeles to swing by the place to check it out. The friend reported that the house was being inhabited by the middle-aged landlord -- and no one else.

“I was so disappointed,” Lin said. “I thought everything was done and settled and all of a sudden I had to start looking again.”

Experts say young adults should be particularly cautious when searching for roommates online. Be wary of ads offering free rent in exchange for “services,” or anyone who asks you to submit a photo.

It’s also important to meet prospective roommates before you commit, and to be certain of their financial stability.

“It matters a whole lot more if they can pay the rent than whether they like the same yogurt as you do,” Ahlswede said.

Choosing an apartment

Newspaper ads and Internet sites are good places to start your search for an apartment, but that’s just a first step.

You’ll want to find a place where you feel safe and at ease. Verge recommends driving by a potential apartment multiple times -- on different days, at different hours -- to scope out the neighborhood.

“That is one thing that drives me crazy; these kids only look at these places during the day,” he said.

“No matter what you rent -- I don’t care what it looks like during the day -- go with your parents at night.”

The drive-by approach can also clue you in to potential traffic and parking problems. Is the apartment close to shopping? The freeway? Public transportation? These are things to check out before you sign a lease.

No credit? No problem!

Young renters often don’t have some of the assets landlords want most, such as steady jobs and a long, solid credit record. But there are ways to make up for shortfalls here.

Getting good grades in school? Bring a transcript. Have you held leadership positions in a community organization? Now’s the time to mention it.

“What I recommend to young prospective tenants is to be very upfront about showing responsibility that they’ve had in other aspects of their life,” said Ahlswede, a former landlord. “Try to capitalize on those.”

Janet Portman, an attorney and coauthor of “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide,” advises that first-time renters prepare a “rental kit” to bring to apartment viewings. A strong rental kit, she said, “presents you as a very together young person” and should include:

A letter from your employer that establishes your employment, pay and good standing.

Your credit report, which can be obtained free online.

Recommendations from your previous landlords or even residential advisors from college dorms.

A letter from your parents saying they will cosign a lease if necessary.

Other tactics you can use to make a good first impression include bringing your parents to an apartment viewing.

Just don’t bring your friends, Ahlswede advises.

“Take it seriously and don’t give the landlord a lot of mouth,” she said. “You don’t go on a job interview with your friends; you don’t look for your new rental home with your friends.”

Negotiating a lease

Before signing a lease, obtain a copy of a guide that outlines your rights as a renter. Try “California Tenants: A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities.” Go to the California Department of Consumer Affairs’ website,, and click on the “Landlord Tenant” button.

“If you don’t know what your rights are and your landlord doesn’t know or doesn’t want to follow them, then you’re at a disadvantage,” Portman said. “Learn your rights so you’re in a position to demand that they be followed.”

Also, be certain about what you’re getting -- don’t assume that premium amenities such as an assigned parking spot, an on-site laundry room and storage space are included.

Last words of advice

Lin, the UCLA student, ultimately could not find an apartment and has resigned herself to living in the dorms for now.

One way to avoid such disappointments is to plan ahead.

Young people who are a year or two away from renting a place can also take steps now to make it easier when the time comes. For example, if you don’t have established credit, consider applying for a credit card -- and if you get it, be sure to make payments on time.

After his odyssey, Dunsmoor recently found a two-bedroom apartment in Burbank. He’ll be moving in by the end of the month with two roommates and paying $400 a month for a shared bedroom.

Dunsmoor said the end of his housing search had brought “a definite sense of relief.”

“It feels good to say that I can live in Los Angeles on my own,” he said. “It was definitely a struggle along the way.”




Tips for young renters

Act professionally when meeting a landlord. Although you may not have established credit, prove you’re responsible by talking about leadership positions held at school or in the community.

Consider bringing your parents to an apartment viewing -- but don’t bring your friends.

Expect the landlord will demand a credit check, a security deposit and first month’s rent.

Stay within your budget. No more than one-third of your gross income should go to rent. A roommate can help lower expenses.

Drive by a rental prospect at different times of day to help assess the safety and traffic patterns.

Don’t assume that extras like a parking spot and storage space are included.

Know your rights as a tenant. For the state Department of Consumer Affairs guide, go to and click on “Landlord Tenant.”