Part 4: Apartment Rental, Home Buying, Subletting, Finding a Roommate
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Just landed in the USA with a visa in-hand, ready to start your new life? Immigration can be stressful, living abroad a real challenge. Here are some basics to help you get started on the right path.

Part Four: Finding a Home: Rent, Buy, Sublet or Find a Roommate

What is "renting?"
Renting refers to a monthly fee that you pay a landlord to live in a home he owns. An apartment is a small unit consisting of several rooms that is normally attached to other such units. Sometimes it's a subsection of a house. Houses, cottages and town houses can also be rented out. 

What does a rental include?
Most rentals come with kitchen and bathroom appliances, such as a stove, refrigerator, bathtub and sinks. Some also come with laundry and dishwashing machines, air conditioners and other specialties. You need to check out the details of each rental you look at.

What are the legal and financial details of renting?
Renting an apartment requires a fairly simple contract and a small outlay of cash, usually first month and a payment equal to one month's rent, for  "security." The monthly payment is smaller, you will have to real estate taxes and the landlord is responsible for maintenance and repairs. Most of the time, heat and water are included in the rent payment. Sometimes other utilities, such as cable or electricity are also included.

Credit history
Before you begin your search, be aware that the landlord (owner of the rental) may want a credit history. If you are new to the US, and don't have a credit history, gather references and letters of recommendation from your own country if you can, and be prepared to give a larger security deposit. You may not need to, but it's good to be prepared for the possibility.

Finding the apartment
There are three main ways to apartment hunt: local real estate/rental guides, online, or the main newspaper's classified sections. Check local supermarkets and convenience stores for publications. You can also visit the Born Abroad site on Apartments and Rental Living for a full spectrum of tips and resources on finding a rental. Once you identify living places that you'll want to see, call to schedule a time to do so. 

Check the home, neighborhood and community, then act quickly
Do a thorough check on appliances, security, neighborhood reputation, local services, community to make sure you will be safe and comfortable living there. But try to do all that as quickly as possible because in many areas, rentals go very quickly. Once you decide hat you like a place, you will need to submit an application, often with a reasonable application fee, and--if approved--sign a lease, which is a legally binding contract that promises you will live in the apartment and pay the rent for a certain, fixed period of time. The lease also protects you and ensures that you can stay in the home. If you get a rent stabilized or rent controlled apartment (ask if it is), your rent is guaranteed to stay at a certain rate, or to increase from lease to lease or year to year at a small, fair rate.

Benefits of buying a home
The advantages of buying a home include the investment and equity factor. If you later sell the home, you can end up making a profit. In the meantime, equity--meaning real estate collateral--can help you get good credit lines at low interest rates. You will get a tax break on your mortgage payments, and on real estate and other homeowner taxes. The mortgage is the monthly payment you make on the house. It can feel a lot like rent, except that a house comes with additional payments, such as the taxes, and any maintenance needs that come up. Don't underestimate maintenance needs. If a toilet springs a leak, or the heating goes, you will need to fix it, and pay for the repair. Some brand new homes come with warranties that guarantee most things will not break for a certain period of time. If they do, the outfit who sold you the house will do the repairs free of charge.

Funding a home purchase
To buy a house, you generally need a substantial amount of money to put down. If you explore options with agencies such as HUD, which helps low income families get a mortgage with low interest, you can put down as little as 3 percent plus closing (administrative/sale) fees. Most people pay at least 20% as a down payment though. You also generally need excellent credit and a good job history to purchase a home. If you are lacking either, you may want to rent for a while until you can build up a savings and good credit. 

Inspecting your investment
Every community has a real estate guide, at least one real estate office and classified listings for home sales in the area. You should inspect a home for sale even more thoroughly than you would a rental. A home is an investment, either in your own future, living there, or in terms of resale value later on. Do a lot of research on your local market and home buying strategies before you buy.

Sometimes, a person who rents an apartment or home will move elsewhere, or go on an extended trip, but still want to keep their lease. In the meantime, they may rent the apartment or home to someone else (maybe you?) while they are not using it. This is often a good arrangement because approval can be quicker and easier, and the term of the lease may be shorter, or open-ended. Use all the guidelines for renting or buying when you check for a sublet, and make sure the sublet is legally allowed before you move in.

Finding a roommate
Perhaps the least contractually obligated form of home hunting involves renting a room or part of a home from someone who already lives there. If you are single, or even just a couple, with little cash, credit or furniture, this may be just the thing for you. It usually doesn't require credit checks, it's generally inexpensive, and often includes many furnishings. It's one of the fastest ways to get into a home and start getting established in your new community.

Go back to Part I: Social Security Card, Driver's License and Auto Insurance 
Go back to Part II: Bank Accounts, Credit and Taxes
Go back to Part III: Health Insurance and Medication

Coming next: Finding a Job in the USA

Jennifer and Peter


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