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June 23rd 2023

How to rent an apartment in the U.S.

When you first come to the U.S., you might find the apartment rental process difficult. Our in-depth guide covers everything from getting started to getting your deposit back.

Nova Credit is a cross-border credit bureau that allows newcomers to apply for U.S. credit cards, phone plans, and loans using their foreign credit history.

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Alison Rogers
Journalist and real estate broker

When you first come to the U.S., you might find the apartment rental process difficult. Don’t worry, Nova Credit is here to help.

Important questions to ask

You want to make sure that the apartment meets your basic needs. Is it in your budget? Is the location convenient and safe? You’ll also want to make sure that it meets specific needs: will it allow you to bring your pet? Outline the procedure for paying rent, for getting something fixed if it is broken, and what your obligations are when you move out. 

Beware scammers

You’ll want to make sure that you aren’t getting scammed. If you’re renting an apartment or house from local landlord, verify that they actually own the home and have the right to rent it. (You could ask the landlord for photo ID and a current utility bill, for example). Make sure that you have a written lease, and do not pay cash for a rental.

If something seems “too good to be true” -- for example, a unit has a low rental price but you can’t get inside to see it -- it probably is. 

Charm the landlord

Large corporate rental companies won’t care how you dress, but if you’re looking at an a rental in someone’s home, wear business clothing, not shorts or sweatpants. Your landlord may ask you to find a co-signer or guarantor - Nova Credit offers a partnership with TheGuarantors. They offer a third party lease guarantee service that will help you get approved for your desired apartment even if you don’t meet the landlord’s other application standards. The fee is typically 7%-10% if you’re coming from outside the U.S.

How to find a roommate

Many roommate pairs meet the old-fashioned way, by being introduced by a mutual friend. So put the word out throughout your network that you are looking for a roomie, and give a couple of basic details like whether you smoke and how tidy you want your home to be. You can also use Craigslist (search for “rooms and shares”) or a roommate service in your area. Always arrange to meet potential roommates in person. 

Bring documents

Proof of ID: Bring your passport or your driver’s license. The photo should look recent.

Bank Statements: Requirements vary by landlord; bringing your last three months’ bank statements should cover it.

Proof of Employment: Also known as an “employer letter,” this is a note which states the date that you were hired, your job title and your salary. Students should bring a letter confirming any scholarships or other financial awards.

Previous Landlord Info: Have your last landlord write a letter that says that you were a good tenant and paid your rent. That landlord should offer an email or phone contact as well. 

Your credit report

Nova Credit offers partnerships with tenant screening agencies to help you use the credit history from your home country. Ask your landlord to use one of our partners: First Advantage, Intellirent or Yardi. All three platforms can evaluate a rental application using credit from select Nova Credit-enabled countries, such as Australia, Canada, India, Mexico, or the U.K.

Did you know?

You can use your foreign credit history to apply for a U.S. credit card

Credit history used to stop at the border—until now. Your existing foreign credit history could help you get credit in the United States.

Document security

If you are working with a real estate agent, ask them how they handle your personal information. Ask what steps they take to protect sensitive info. For most landlords, it’s okay if you black out, or redact, all but the last four digits of your bank account numbers. 

Short vs. long-term rentals

A standard lease is annual, for a one-year period. If you’re seeking a shorter-term lease, be aware that the rent might be higher than for an annual lease. If you want a very short-term situation -- say three months or so -- then consider a sublet. That’s a situation where you are renting from an existing tenant. Check with the local rent board (here’s San Francisco’s) to see your city’s sublet regulations. In general, when you sublet, ask to see the existing tenant’s current lease -- it will outline the procedure to get sublet approval from the overall landlord. 

If you are seeking an annual lease, note that many renters move in the summer, in order to be settled for new jobs, or for a school term that begins in the fall. If you do have a choice of when you can move, then move in the winter. A study by RentHop, an Internet apartment search site, found that during the winter is the best time to find cheaper rents.

Show them the money

Your landlord will want a “security deposit.” Security is money that you pay at the start of the lease, but have returned to you at the end of the lease if you leave the home in good condition. The amount of security varies by tradition and locale: in New York State, new rent laws limit security deposits to one month’s rent. The landlord will also ask for the first month’s rent and, perhaps, the last month’s rent. There can be an extra deposit for pets, and also fees charged by a building’s managing agent. A large luxury condominium might also have separate move-in/move-out fees, which pay to protect the building’s carpets and elevators so they are not damaged by your movers.  Finally, some real estate agents are paid by landlords and some are not. If you are using a real estate agent, find out at the start if you are paying his/her fee. 

How to pay rent

Your landlord will generally take a check from a U.S. bank, or allow you to set up an automatic, direct-deposit. Make sure that the procedure for payment is in your lease, as well as an explanation of late fees -- how much the landlord will charge you for being late, and when that charge would go into effect.


Talk with your landlord about how heat and electricity will be handled. Who will pay for heat? Who will control it? (There may be a minimum standard in your area. In Chicago, for example, the required minimum temperature is 66 degrees Fahrenheit during the colder months of the year.) Other utilities to discuss with your landlord are: cooking gas, cable, Internet/Wi-Fi, water, and trash pick-up. 

The takeaway

Once you’re established, can you use your utility payments to help build your credit history? The answer is yes. Experian, for example, is a large credit bureau which offers a program called “Experian Boost.” That program will allow you to use on-time payments as entries in your credit file.  You can also contact TransUnion and Equifax, two other major credit bureaus, to ask about adding credit data.

Use your foreign credit history to start your U.S credit history

New to the U.S.? Check if you can use your country's credit history in the U.S. to apply for credit cards and start your U.S credit history using Nova Credit.

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