You’ve made it through college or university, and you’ve landed your first job. Next: Where will you live? Perhaps your parents’ home is too far from your new employer. Or Mom and Dad have decided to downsize. Or maybe it’s just time you had your own place. But before you start organizing your house-warming party, it pays to plan your apartment hunt. You may be out of school, but a successful search still takes homework.

Torontonian and 2009 graduate Greg Ward is a veteran apartment hunter. His number-one tip: Read your province’s Landlord and Tenant Act. “It’s easy to read online and it’s full of stuff your landlord will never tell you,” he says – such as the maximum allowable security deposit (in Ontario, the equivalent of one month’s rent), or whether you’re entitled to the accumulated interest on your last month’s rent (you are).

“Also, if the landlord warns you about anything out of the ordinary, like the upstairs neighbour being a bit sensitive to excessive noise, count on it being an understatement,” says Ward. “The neighbour will probably complain if you even sing in the shower.”

Before you sign a lease, consider these other tips:

Scope out the location

  • How close are you to work? Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance, says this is crucial: “Being close to where you work frees up more time in your personal life, reduces stress and [if you drive] can save you a great deal of money on gasoline and auto expenses.”
  • Can you walk to the nearest transit stop? Can you get to work with few or no transfers? Does the route operate evenings and weekends?
  • If you need it, is there parking? How much does it cost?
  • How close are you to a grocery store? For Ward, who has no car, being within walking distance is a must.
  • How near is it to sources of noise such as train and streetcar tracks, highways, flight paths and nightclubs? If you’re apartment-hunting in winter, open the windows and listen for noise you might not hear until the weather warms up and you open the windows.
  • How safe is the neighbourhood? Would you be comfortable coming home late? There’s a difference between colourfully bohemian and downright sketchy – you may want to pass on renting next to an after-hours bar.
  • A basement apartment might be affordable, but the lack of natural light can be a problem. Ward recommends looking for high ceilings and above-grade windows if you’re going the subterranean route.

Examine the apartment carefully

  • Do the plumbing, heating/air conditioning and appliances work? Don’t be shy about turning on taps, checking drains, opening fridge and oven doors and flushing toilets. “Although many of these items can be fixed by the landlord, you’ll have enough things to worry about when moving aside from having to deal with immediate repairs,” says Schrage.
  • Are there laundry facilities? Are the washers and dryers in good working order and is the laundry room clean and well-lit?
  • Look closely for signs of cockroaches and other creepy creatures. A mousetrap in the corner is not a good sign – especially if it’s occupied. Ask whether the unit has been sprayed recently.
  • Pay attention in winter if the windows are open – the landlord may be trying to hide an unpleasant odour. Close the windows and sniff well.

Add up the costs

  • Are utility costs included in the rent? What about hook-up charges?
  • Look into getting tenant insurance. Standard tenant policies cover you not only for fire and theft of your stuff, but also for liability, which could be handy if you’re ever held responsible for damage to someone else’s property, or injury to another person.
  • Moving costs money. You may be able to save by renting a truck to move your stuff and springing for beer and pizza for the friends you’ve persuaded to help you. Or, you’ll have to shell out several hundred dollars for professional movers.

Finding a place of your own in the right location, with the right features and for the right price is a big assignment. But a little homework and a lot of legwork can help you score a place you’ll love to call home, even in a tough rental market.