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Choosing a Home That's Right for You

Moving out on your own for the first time can be an exciting—but stressful—journey. With the right planning, you can avoid potential problems on the road to independence.

First Things First

Before looking at apartments, there are several factors to consider:

Cost. Start by looking at your budget to determine how much you can afford to pay each month. Most experts suggest spending no more than 25 to 30 percent of your monthly income on rent and utilities (electricity, etc.)

Location. It’s important to live in an area that is convenient to work or school but that also offers access to friends, shopping and recreation. Think about transportation needs, including public transportation, traffic issues, and parking.

Quality of life. How important are on-site amenities, such as laundry and workout facilities? Do you want to live in an area with other young people, or do you prefer something quieter?

Roommates. Having a roommate can help save money, but be sure you choose someone who’s easy to get along with, honest and trustworthy. And be upfront about how you plan to handle expenses, chores and other issues.

Safety. Research the safety of the neighborhood, as well as the apartment property. When looking at apartments, be sure that hallways and parking lots are well lit.

Where to Look

Once you’ve determined a general price range and location, you can begin your search by checking:

  • Online rental listings, such as TNHousingSearch.org,
  • Local newspapers and free apartment guides
  • The housing office of local colleges and universities
  • City/county housing departments
  • With friends or co-workers for recommendations

At TNHousingSearch.org, you can search for rental housing by standard features like location, rent, and number of bedrooms, as well as special considerations like public transit, accessibility for physical disabilities, rent controls for low-income individuals, and Section 8 participation.

School Housing

If you are attending a college or university, you should be able to live in a dorm on or near campus. Often, a dorm costs less than renting an apartment in the area. If you receive financial aid or a scholarship, some of this money might cover your on-campus housing costs.

Job Corps also offers free housing to its students. Students who meet program eligibility criteria receive a monthly allowance and get a free place to stay while they learn a trade. For more information, visit Job Corps' website.

Options for Transitioning Foster Youth

If you qualify, the government will assign you a voucher that you present to your landlord. The voucher pays part of your rent and you pay the rest. There are long waiting lists for Housing Choice Vouchers, up to two years in some areas of Tennessee, so it's important to sign up as soon as possible.

Housing Choice Voucher waiting lists are managed by the state in most counties or by city governments in certain areas:

Chattanooga: Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA):

Knoxville: Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation

Memphis: Memphis Housing Authority (MHA): www.memphisha.org

Nashville: Nashville’s Metropolitan Development and

Housing Authority (MDHA):

Other areas: Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA)

  • Independent Living Program. Foster youth transitioning to adulthood should also consider whether there are housing programs specific to former foster youth and if they can live in a foster or group home that is subsidized by the Independent Living Program.
  • Extension of Foster Care Services housing. If you meet the eligibility criteria for Department of Children’s Services (DCS) voluntary Extension of Foster Care Services, you may maintain a supported foster placement if finishing high school or taking classes in an approved program in preparation for your high school equivalency exam until your 21st birthday. Talk to your caseworker or Independent Living Program Specialist to learn more about these services.
  • Independent Living Allowance. You may be eligible for this service if you are receiving DCS voluntary Extension of Foster Care Services. The funds may vary based on the availability of funding. For more information, please talk to your Independent Living Program Specialist.
  • Call 211 to find other assistance in your area. You may find programs that offer emergency assistance to pay rent or help people with low incomes pay their utility bills.

Landlords and Leases

Large apartment complexes will provide plenty of written materials outlining a community’s rules and regulations. Individual property owners, on the other hand, may take a more informal approach. Either way, be sure to ask questions and make sure you understand the lease and any other paperwork you are asked to sign. It’s also a good idea to have a parent or other trusted adult review legal documents.

Questions may include:

  • How much is the security deposit, and will I get that money back if I leave the property in good condition?
  • Does the rent include utilities, such as electricity, gas and water? If not, how much do those bills typically run?
  • What about cable/phone/Internet services?
  • What other fees are involved, such as application or processing fees?
  • What happens if I need to break the lease?
  • What amenities are available, and are they clean and well-maintained?
  • Is there a security guard on the property?
  • Are pets allowed? If so, is there an additional deposit requirement?

Tips for the Final Walk-Through

Before signing a lease, landlords should provide a final “walk-through”—an opportunity for tenants to review the property. This is your chance to make sure everything is in working order and that there is no damage.

  • Check all appliances to be sure they work.
  • Turn on faucets, checking water pressure (in the shower, for example) and availability of hot water.
  • Make sure windows and doors open and close properly.
  • Look for signs of insect/rodent infestation.
  • Bring along a cellphone charger to make sure electrical outlets work, and check to be sure you have a strong signal in every room.
  • If the landlord says they will fix problems, be sure that it’s in writing in the lease agreement.

Know Your Rights

Most problems can be avoided by simply following the rules and paying your rent on time. However, it’s important for tenants to know their rights.

If you’re a transitioning foster youth and moving out on your own, you may need to sign a lease and make a utility deposit before you are 18. You will need to get a document from your judge saying it is OK for you to sign the lease and utility agreement. Make sure you ask the judge when you are 17 for a court order stating that you can sign a contract to rent a place to live and pay for utilities. Get a copy of the court order and show it to your landlord when you sign the lease. If you need help with this, ask your caseworker for assistance.

Getting your security deposit. If you kept your place in good condition and do not break your lease agreement, your landlord should return your security deposit when you move out.

What are your housing responsibilities?

  • Pay your rent on time.
  • Follow the rules in your lease agreement.
  • Pay for repairs if you damage your place.
  • Tell your landlord if damage occurs that they may need to fix.

Here are other points to know regarding your rights:

  • According to the Fair Housing Act, no one can deny housing to a tenant based on race, sex, religion, disability, family status or national origin.
  • Landlords must maintain the property in compliance with housing/health codes. This means everything should be safe, structurally sound, clean and weatherproof, and there must be adequate water, electricity and heat.
  • Landlords must make repairs in a timely manner, or allow you to hire someone to make repairs and deduct the cost from the rent. (Check your lease for this type of provision.) More on this below.
  • Landlords must give prior notice (usually 24 hours) before entering the premises to make repairs, except in case of an emergency.
  • Even if you fail to pay your rent, the landlord cannot turn off your utilities, change the locks or remove your property.
  • Landlords cannot evict a tenant without a court order, and must give you three days from the date on which your rent is due to pay. If you pay your rent within those three days, you can’t be evicted, unless they file a lawsuit against you.

Asking Your Landlord for Repairs

Having a good relationship with your landlord can save you a lot of headaches. It’s normal for buildings to need repairs, so try not to be confrontational right away. If it’s a minor issue, think about resolving it on your own, and try to be reasonable with your requests. Try to stay on friendly, respectful terms, and understand that your landlord may have other requests that they have to address with other tenants as well, and may not be able to get to your problem immediately.

Also, it helps to establish trust with your landlord by always paying your rent on time and abiding by the rules and restrictions for the property. If you present yourself as an honest, reasonable renter, your landlord will be more likely to treat you with respect and address your request as quickly as possible.

However, it’s also important to remember that your landlord ultimately must maintain the building in which you live. For example, if the food disposal is faulty, the landlord must fix it. The landlord must also fix damaged items (unless you caused the damage), such as the walls, ceilings, plumbing, heat and fire safety devices. If there is serious damage to your home and your landlord has not fixed it, you must take the following steps before you may refuse to pay rent:

  • Send a certified letter detailing the problems and giving the landlord seven days to fix them.
  • Be up-to-date with your rent payment, even through the seven days you are waiting for the problem to be fixed.
  • Keep all of your rent money so that you can pay it to the landlord when everything is fixed.

If you do not follow these steps, you may be evicted. If you have questions or need help, contact your local legal services office.

Legal Aid Services

If you are having trouble with your landlord and need legal help, contact an attorney. The Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) is a nonprofit organization that works with the legal aid programs in the state. The mission of TALS is to make sure every low-income person in Tennessee has access to the civil legal justice system. Legal aid offices offer civil legal help to persons who are unable to afford an attorney. You must qualify for this service. The first step is to find the office in your area. Then, call the office to explain your problem. The office worker will let you know what the next steps are. For more information about the legal aid program in your area, call 800-238-1443 or go to the Legal Aid Society website or TALS website.

Learn more about renter rights.

Thinking About Purchasing a Home?

Buying a home is one of the most important decisions—and biggest financial transactions—you can make in your life. So you want to be sure you make sound decisions, from making sure you can afford it, to deciding where you want to live, to knowing the type of home you want to buy, to applying for a mortgage, and so forth. The Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) suggests taking a homebuyer education course. See what you will learn in the course and find upcoming classes.

THDA also offers the Great ChoiceTN Mortgage Loan Program, which can help first-time homebuyers get approved for a mortgage and receive financial assistance toward their down payment. This 90-second video explains how the program works.

If you're interested in home ownership, the first step is to talk to a REALTOR® and sign up for a homebuyer education course near you.