Survival tips for new renters

The ultimate guide to surviving as a first-time renter.

No matter whether you’re 18, 38 or even older, moving out of home and renting for the first time is a daunting experience. From finding the right rental property and flatmates to dealing with landlords, real estate agents and even utility providers, there are a whole lot of traps and potential obstacles standing in your way.

These simple tips will help you overcome those obstacles, ensuring that you can survive and even thrive as a first-time renter.

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Finding a place

Many first-time renters leave home filled with dreams of renting spacious mansions or boutique inner-city apartments in glamorous locations. Unfortunately, this sort of lifestyle is way out of reach for most people moving out for the first time, so put those dreams on the back burner and start making some more realistic plans.

There are two main obstacles you face when searching for your first rental property:

If you’re going to find an apartment or home that is located where you want, has all the essential features and is affordable, you may have to lower your expectations. You might not be able to afford the nicest suburb with the best properties, but you may find something cheaper nearby. To get a better idea of whether the landlord expects a reasonable amount of rent, attend a few other open houses in the area to find out what you can get for a similar price.

As for the second problem, finding a rental property with no rental history can be a big hurdle. In a competitive rental market, being able to show a potential landlord a couple of years’ worth of problem-free rental history can be a huge bonus.

If you don’t have any rental history to show, work around it by doing the following:

  • Get a reference from your employer.
  • Offer to pay a few months’ rent in advance.
  • Show proof of any regular payments (eg, car loan repayments).
  • Talk to the leasing agent, build a relationship with them and ask for advice on how you can improve your application.
  • Get a guarantor, such as your parents or a family member, to back your application and guarantee to the landlord that you will pay your rent on time.
  • Consider living in a share house for a while to build a rental history – if your name isn’t on the lease, ask the leaseholder or real estate agent to write you a reference when you move out.

Understanding the lease

Once you’ve found a property, the next step is signing a lease. This is particularly daunting if you’re renting for the first time as the lease is a very official-looking, intimidating document full of a whole lot of technical jargon.

The lease is a legally binding agreement between you and your landlord. It sets out all the specifics of your rental arrangement, including the following:

  • How long you’ll be renting the property.
  • Who will be living in the property.
  • How much the rent will be.
  • Your responsibilities for maintaining the property.

Signing the lease means you agree to all the terms and conditions it contains, so read it closely before putting your signature on the dotted line. Breaching the lease conditions means the landlord can have you evicted, so make sure you know what you’re getting into.

However, you’re also entitled to the following rights under the lease:

  • The landlord can’t show up unannounced.
  • The landlord can’t force you to pay for maintenance costs and general repairs.
  • The landlord must ensure that the property is clean and in good repair when you move in.

Legislation regarding the rights of tenants varies slightly between states and territories, so contact the residential tenancies authority where you live for more information.

Choosing your housemates

Ask anyone who’s ever lived in a share house for advice on choosing a roommate and the chances are they’ll respond with two simple words of advice: Choose wisely.

The mere fact that you’re friends with someone doesn’t mean you can (or should) live with them, and just because someone seems nice enough doesn’t mean they won’t throw parties until 3am on a Tuesday morning, leave clumps of hair in the shower drain or just constantly drive you up the wall.

Sometimes it’s simply impossible to work out that someone is a bad housemate until you’ve actually lived with them, but there’s plenty you can do to minimise the risk of ending up in a bad situation. You can do the following to find a good housemate:

  • Advertise the room for rent and specifically state full property details and what you’re looking for in a housemate.
  • Meet potential housemates before asking them to move in.
  • Ask for references.
  • Ask questions to find out more about their hobbies, pastimes, general behaviour etc.
  • Be upfront about money – do they have a job? How much rent will they need to pay? How will you split utility costs and other shared bills?
  • Be very wary of moving in with friends – familiarity can breed contempt and share-house living has ruined many a friendship.

Check out our handy guide to choosing a housemate you actually like for more info.

Taking care of household tasks

The common areas of any share house can be the cause of many disputes and fights between housemates. If you and your housemates can’t agree on keeping the bathroom, kitchen and living area clean and tidy, the situation can turn ugly pretty quickly.

With this in mind, it’s a good idea to sit down with your housemates from day one and work out a plan for all those boring household chores. From mopping and dusting to cleaning the toilet and mowing the lawn, work out how you’ll tackle everything so the chores are divided equally.

Making sure to always clean up your own mess and to wash your dishes after eating can also go a long way towards ensuring a harmonious household.

Paying the bills

Will your regular bills be included as part of the weekly rent, or will they need to be paid as they arrive? Water, electricity, gas and Internet will all need to be covered, so you and your roomies need to work out a fair way to divvy up the costs.

From a personal perspective, you’ll also need to adjust your own budget so you’ve got enough money to pay the bills. Putting aside some of your regular pay is an easy way to do this.

Paying the bond

The rental bond is the amount you pay at the start of the tenancy agreement. This deposit provides financial protection for the landlord in case you breach the terms of the lease – for example, if you damage the property or fail to properly clean it, the landlord can use the bond to cover repair and cleaning costs once you leave.

The bond is held by the relevant regulatory body in your state or territory (such as Fair Trading in NSW or the Residential Tenancies Authority in Queensland) and is paid back to you at the end of the lease as long as you don’t owe any money for rent, repairs, cleaning or other costs.

The maximum a bond can cost for most properties is four weeks’ rent, but you’ll need to factor this lump sum into your calculations when working out the cost of moving out for the first time.

The condition report

If you pay a bond, the landlord or property manager must provide you with a condition report. This document notes the general condition of the property, including all fittings and fixtures.

While you might be tempted to skim over the condition report, don’t. If there’s ever a dispute about who is responsible for paying for cleaning or repair costs when you move out, the condition report can act as a very important piece of evidence.

So check the report closely and make sure it accurately records any damage or potential issues. If there’s anything missing, make sure you add it to the report and don’t be afraid to go into detail.
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Paying rent

The method you’ll need to use to pay the rent will be stated in the lease. You can use the following options to pay your rent:

  • Electronic bank transfer
  • Direct debit
  • EFTPOS
  • Credit card
  • Cash
  • Cheque

The landlord or property manager will keep a record of your rental payments, known as a ledger. They should keep this ledger for one year after your tenancy has ended, and you can request a copy of it to provide proof of on-time rental payments when applying for a future rental property.

If you ever fall behind on rent, try to pay the arrears immediately. If your rent is late by a specified period of time, typically 14 days, the landlord can usually start the process of having you evicted.

Repairs and maintenance

It’s your responsibility as a tenant to keep the property clean and undamaged, but it’s up to the landlord or the property manager to ensure that the property is kept in a reasonable standard for you to live in.

What does this mean for you? If the property ever needs repairs, including emergency repairs, it’s up to the landlord to organise and pay for them. So if the roof is damaged in a storm or a pipe under the kitchen sink breaks, the landlord should fit the bill.

Of course, if you have a wild party and one of your drunken guests accidentally puts their foot through the wall, the repair costs will come out of your pocket. Routine inspections will be held throughout the lease so that the landlord or property manager can be sure that you’re keeping it in a satisfactory condition.

What to do if you and your housemates aren’t getting along

Hopefully, you and your housemates will get along like the proverbial house on fire and never experience any disagreements. Establishing a few firm ground rules concerning housework, paying bills, parties and privacy can go a long way to ensuring a harmonious home.

But if things turn pear-shaped, communication and compromise are the keys to stop a simple dispute going nuclear. If you can stay calm and have an open, relaxed discussion, peaceful resolution is always an option.

However, if a disagreement can’t be successfully resolved, most states offer free dispute resolution services to help you get back on track.

What to do if you have a dispute with your landlord

Got a dodgy landlord who has breached the terms of your lease? The tenancy tribunal in your state can investigate and resolve disputes between tenants and landlords, so you can raise the matter with them if you can’t first reach an agreement with your landlord.

There are also several tenancy advocacy services around Australia that can offer advice and assistance. For example, Victorian renters can get help from the Tenants Union of Victoria, while NSW renters might want to approach Tenants NSW.

Insuring your stuff

Moving out for the first time is a big step in anyone’s life, and one that also brings a host of challenges. While moving out promises freedom, it also comes with an extra level of responsibility, so now is the time to consider taking out contents insurance.

Contents insurance, which is sometimes also referred to as renter’s insurance, provides cover for all your personal belongings if they’re lost, stolen or damaged. For example, if you lost everything in a fire or a burst pipe flooded your home, contents insurance provides the financial support you need to replace everything.

How important is contents insurance when renting? Take a few minutes to tally up the value of everything you own – TV, laptop, smartphone, clothes, furniture, appliances and everything else. If all of those items were damaged beyond repair, would you be able to cover the cost of replacing them?

For most people, the answer is a definitive no, which is why contents insurance is such a wise investment.

Saving money as a renter

The final tip is a crucial one, as the cost of living as a renter can come as an unpleasant surprise to first-timers. While your weekly paycheque may have seemed like a huge sum of money when you were living at home with mum and dad, it suddenly seems a whole lot smaller when a big chunk of it goes straight towards paying your rent.

Then there’s the cost of utilities, cooking for one and all those expenses that go with having a busy social life. It can all combine to put a strain on your finances pretty quickly, so it’s worth keeping a few simple tips in mind to boost your savings:

  • Work out a budget and stick to it.
  • Plan your meals to save money, and consider having shared meals with your housemates.
  • Cook a little bit extra and save the leftovers for the coming days.
  • Consider finding an additional roommate (if possible) to reduce your rent.
  • Be conscious of your energy use to lower your power bill.
  • Put away a portion of your pay each week or fortnight – you could set up an automatic transfer each week to a savings account.
  • Set up a savings account so that the funds you put aside earn an attractive rate of interest.

Checklist for moving out of your parents’ house

Getting ready to move out of home for the first time? This checklist should make your transition to renting a little bit easier.

  • Money. Your finances are probably the most important thing you need to consider when moving out. It’s essential to work out whether you’ll have enough money to survive on your own, so consider your income, rent, utilities, food, transport and other expenses to work out whether you’ll be able to make ends meet. Before taking the leap, draw up a budget to make sure you won’t be headed for financial trouble.
  • Where to live. Your budget will be a huge factor that determines where you rent, while your work commitments and social life will also play a part. Look for somewhere affordable that also has sufficient transport options to help you get from A to B.
  • Type of property. House, apartment, unit or townhouse? Your budget and a range of practical considerations will influence your choice here. For example, houses provide more space and features, but they’re also more expensive to rent and harder to keep clean.
  • Age. How old do you have to be to rent a house? Most people are at least 18 years of age when they leave home, but it’s still possible to rent a home even if you haven’t yet reached your 18th birthday. However, be aware that you may find it difficult to find a landlord willing to let you rent their property.
  • Moving costs. Moving house can be a stressful chore but it can also be an expensive one. While you could ask friends and family to help, you may find it easier to hire professionals. Removalists don’t come cheap, so hunt around for the best value and factor this cost into your budget.
  • Insurance. While there’s no particular type of insurance you have to get, contents insurance is a very worthwhile investment that protects your important belongings. You might also want to check whether you need to take out your own health insurance or whether you’re still covered by your parents’ policy, and now is as good a time as any to start thinking about your life insurance needs.
  • Mail. Will you be updating your details so that all your mail goes to the new address, or will you just keep things as they are? If you do want your mail to follow you, remember to set up a redirect to your new address for the first couple of months while you get settled.
  • Utilities. You’ll need to get electricity, phone, Internet and pay TV connections set up so your property is ready to go as soon as possible after you move in.
  • Extra expenses. Netflix? Stan? Foxtel? Wi-Fi? Make sure to include all these extra luxuries in your budget.

Take care of all of the above and you should be ready to start your new life as a renter.

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Tim Falk

A freelance writer with a passion for the written word, Tim loves helping Australians find the right home loans and savings accounts. When he's not chained to a computer, Tim can usually be found exploring the great outdoors.

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