The thought of striking out into the world and finding your first rental home can be as exhilarating as it is overwhelming. And if we’re being honest, the prospect can be a wee bit terrifying as you work to figure out all the ins and outs of what you should know and do to land your first rental, especially navigating factors that pertain to military members and families.
Are there any secrets to success in finding your first rental, particularly as a military family? The answer is yes, and the secret formula is actually pretty simple, once you know where to start.
1) Getting started: what are my housing options?
As you begin to think of your first rental, particularly as a military family, you’ll want to consider your housing options, potential move-in fees and deposits, and available moving allowances.
4 Housing Options for Military:
As a new renter, there are four primary options to consider in finding the right rental option for you and your family.
- Live on base, in military privatized housing.
- Live off base, and find a rental managed by a private landlord (such as a military family renting out their home).
- Live off base, and find a rental managed by a property management firm or realty company.
- Live off base, and look for an apartment complex, large or small, that best fits your needs.
The question is often asked, “Should I live on base or off?” There are certainly several pros to living on base, as a renter, as well as a few cons.
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Pros of Living on Base
- If you are a new renter, with no credit or bad credit, living on base could be a smart option.
- The daily commute will likely be much more pleasant, with short drive times to work and the added time-saver of not having to worry about backed up traffic at the gates.
- Transitions both into and out of the installation may be smoother, as on-base housing companies primary customers are military families.
Cons of Living on Base
- There may be a significant waitlist for on-base housing.
- Similar to property management firms, some housing companies are better run than others.
- Some families crave the separation between work and home in an environment where they will have a blend of neighbors, versus every neighbor being attached to the military.
2) How do I figure out how much rent I can afford?
Each duty location is assigned a housing allowance or BAH rate, based on rank, dependents, and locale. These rates are published by the Defense Travel Management Office; you’ll only need to obtain the zip code of your installation to determine your rate.
A general rule of thumb is to try and limit your housing expenses to no more than 30% of your monthly income.
TIP: Alaska and Hawaii duty stations are also entitled to an additional housing stipend, via an ‘overseas’ Cost of Living Allowances (COLA), as these locales incur a higher cost of living for goods and services, to include housing.
Incidentals and Utilities
Remember, BAH is the maximum housing allowance you will receive. Don’t forget to budget and include incidentals and utilities, such as gas and electricity bills, laundry (if coin-op), lawn care, snow removal, or any parking fees that you may need to pay outside of your rent.
Save for move-in fees, security and pet deposits, and utility start-up costs. In addition to rent, there are a number of start-up costs to budget for as a new renter, and it is typical to need the equivalent of 2-3 months’ worth of rent due upon signing.
You’ll need to budget for a rental application fee, at least one month’s rental equivalent for a security deposit (some states allow landlords to charge up to 2 months), a pet deposit if applicable – which can be a few hundred dollars, and there may be connection fees to start your utilities. Additionally, you may need to budget for furnishings, goods, and homewares, if you do not yet own these items.
TIP: You may be entitled to a Dislocation Allowance (DLA), which is an allowance to partially reimburse a servicemember for expenses incurred when moving. DLA is a flat rate, and the amount paid will vary on the circumstances of the move (such as if you moved yourself, in a ‘do-it-yourself’ or DITY, personally procured move).
3) Can I rent a home with bad credit?
There are several things a landlord will look for in a potential tenant, and an applicant’s credit score is one of the deciding factors.
If you’re contemplating your first rental, you’ll want to know and understand what is in your credit report, and what your credit (or FICO) score is, as virtually every rental application will include running your credit and consumer reports.
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What makes up a credit score? And who determines my score?
A FICO score consists of five areas: payment history, current level of indebtedness, types of credit used, length of credit history, and new accounts. There are three primary credit reporting agencies; Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Although calculations can vary slightly between the three bureaus, each will produce a consumer report, with a FICO score denoted.
FICO scores vary slightly in numerical range from 300 to 850, depending on the reporting agency, but in general credit scores are reported as: Very Poor/Bad, Bad, Fair, Good, and Excellent. Most landlords should have a minimum score or a target range as an application threshold, and as an applicant you are entitled to know that screening criteria.
Where does my score rank?
According to Experian (one of the primary credit reporting agencies),
“Most consumers have credit scores that fall between 600 and 750. In 2020, the average FICO score in the United States reached 710.”
If your credit score is not where you’d like it to be or below the given rental application’s minimum acceptable category, there are a couple of strategies you can take:
- Offer to add a co-signer to your lease or rental agreement.
- Offer a larger security deposit. Before you plunk down extra cash, do check state laws though, as many states have legislated the maximum amount a landlord or property manager can collect and hold as a deposit.
If you know a negative credit history is going to pop up when you submit a screening questionnaire, you have two choices: keep mum and wait for the landlord to discover it, or come clean early and offer an explanation for a less-than-stellar report.
Learn more: How to Rent a Home with a Bad Credit Score.
Depending on circumstances, such as a divorce that destroyed your credit, landlords can choose to work with you. But upfront honesty is usually the best policy in these situations.
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4) Where do I search to find a rental home or apartment?
Looking for a new home can certainly feel overwhelming, particularly if you’re beginning your search a thousand miles away before you actually PCS to the area. But there are a number of strategies to help narrow your focus and find the perfect rental home.
- Virtually explore your new duty station and the surrounding area with military-tailored resources, such as: Military Town Advisor, your gaining installation’s housing office, and MilitaryByOwner’s home search feature . Once you’ve narrowed your search to a specific area, also research local school district ratings and any crime activity in the area.
- Gauge priorities and choose a home type. Take the time to mentally assess what priorities will be key to your family’s lifestyle. Considerations such as commute times, proximity to shopping and city centers or schools, or quick access to running trails and nature can be deciding factors in finding the right home. A yard and privacy in a single-family home? Or the amenities of an apartment complex?
- Searching solo, or hiring a professional? Without a doubt, combing through rental listings and comparing listings against your priorities is time-consuming. If you’re short on time or energy, you may wish to consider hiring a real estate professional to assist you. Although real estate brokers and property managers charge a fee for this service, they will often have the best pulse on homes becoming available in various areas and neighborhoods, which can significantly streamline your search.
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5) Ask these key questions before signing a lease.
Whether you rent from a private landlord, an on-base housing provider, or a property management firm, there are a number of key questions to ask before signing your lease.
Poor maintenance policies are one of the top complaints from renters. Ask what procedures are in place to report work orders. Is there an internal maintenance team or will a contractor need to be identified and called? Is there an emergency maintenance number, and is it 24/7?
Is there a resident’s handbook that you could read before signing your lease? Property management companies that have well-defined resident policies tend to often also be highly responsive landlords, when there are issues that arise.
Lease terms, Penalties, and Security Deposits
How long is the lease term? Once the original lease term ends, can you extend it? If so, in what increments, i.e. monthly, 6 months, or another year? How much notice is required to vacate the unit? Is the security deposit refundable, and if so, under what terms? When is rent due, how are you to pay it, and what penalties are incurred for any late fees?
Utilities and Rent Inclusions
What is included in the rent, specifically utilities and parking? Are you expected to provide lawn and snow care? Or is this provided by the landlord, and if so, is there a fee? Ensure all inclusions and exclusions are denoted in writing on your lease.
What is the pet policy? Is there a number, size, or breed limit, and what is the deposit for each?
Is there any construction, renovation, or demolition planned over the term of your lease?
Maintenance and improvements are great...until they’re not. While there may not be a legal requirement to inform residents of planned construction, it is certainly something you would appreciate knowing, as it could affect the peace and enjoyment of your rental experience in that particular location.
As a military family, there may be times where you want extended family to come stay, and help – particularly for a new baby or other life events, when the servicemember is deployed, or TDY for several months. Ensure your rental will allow guests, and what their policy is for extended stays.
6) Consider details when it comes to military clauses and cohabitating.
Military life can be a whirlwind, particularly in the romance department. If you are ready for your first rental, but not yet ready for marriage, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.
Consider which parties want to be lease signatories. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and Military Clause (SCRA) can be nuanced and may offer protections to a servicemember that will not extend to a non-military individual.
BAH rates and moving expenses. A military member will only receive “BAH with Dependents” rate if the member has provided proof of marriage to the military’s personnel systems, or Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). Additionally, PCS and moving expenses (to include moving a non-military affiliated individual’s personal belongings) are authorized only for the servicemember.
Related: Cohabiting Can Ruin Your Military Relationship
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7) Moving day is here! Don't forget to complete a move-in report.
Before you unpack your first box, take the time to carefully assess the current condition of your new rental home and denote any repairs needed or damages present, no matter how small. Most companies offer a standard walk-through worksheet, to be completed and returned within 15 days. Consider submitting pictures or video of any damages as supplemental documentation.
- Flooring and baseboards. Carefully examine the condition of the flooring and carpet. Note any stains, pulls, or scratches, as well as the condition of the baseboards.
- Walls and paint. Note any scratches or dents, the condition of the walls, if paint is fresh, and any stains.
- Appliances and ceiling fans. Ensure appliances provided are in working order. If they aren’t, immediately place a work order for repair or replacement. Ensure ceiling fans are securely mounted, in good order, and clean.
- Windows, blinds, and doors. Ensure windows and doors open and close smoothly, report any torn screens and request replacement. If blinds are provided, ensure they are clean and report any broken or bent blinds.
- Plumbing, toilets, and tubs. Check that there are no leaks, faucets are in good order, and tubs and toilets are caulked. Report any water leaks or a toilet that constantly runs immediately.
- Exterior and landscaping. Note the condition of grass, shrubbery, and trees. Is the property overgrown or in need of an initial mow? If so, document and report it.
TIP: Don’t let the excitement of move-in day overshadow this final bit of due diligence. Taking the time to painstakingly annotate what damages were present upon move in could literally save you hundreds of dollars at move out if any questions arise as to what damages were already in the home prior to your occupancy.
Welcome to this new exciting chapter of your life! Whether you are a first-time or multi-time tenant or a new landlord, MilitaryByOwner has your back. Our real estate experts provide thorough and sound information and guidance each step of the way to help with all of your housing questions and needs.
By Kristi Adams
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