The current US rental market, particularly in major cities, can be so pressured you could end up making a hasty decision in the rush to find somewhere to live. Where you live can have a huge impact on your life so it's essential to take a little time (before you start apartment hunting) to consider exactly what you're looking for. Having a clear idea of what's important (and what you can compromise on) will save you time and effort when you begin your room or apartment search for real.
You wouldn't believe the number of people who start looking for somewhere to live but haven't worked out what they can afford to pay. Be honest with yourself. How much can you really afford every month - there's no point looking at apartments you can't afford. Set yourself a rigid limit and stick to it.
Will you need more than just a room to call your own? Do you have lots of stuff you'll need room for? Many apartments are tight on space - especially when they're shared with roommates - so you won't have the luxury of lots of storage. You might want to consider renting some storage elsewhere, or leaving some possessions in your parents' attic if you can. One alternative is to have a garage or yard sale or hit eBay to reduce your book collection or wardrobe until it's a manageable size. This will also help to raise funds for your security deposit.
Consider what you really need. Do you need laundry in the building or is it OK to have a laundromat nearby? Would you be able to sacrifice a bathtub if there was a good shower? Make a list of what you consider essential and use it to rule out rooms that don't fit your requirements.
How easy will it be for you to get to work? How many blocks is the apartment from the nearest subway, tram or bus stop? It can sometimes be quicker to travel in than to walk several blocks to the nearest station.
This applies to both the building and the neighborhood. Will you feel safe walking around on your own at night? Do the neighbors seem friendly? Are the street and the entrance well-lit? It's important you feel safe where you live.
Are there foodstores nearby that are open till late? What are the local restaurants and bars like? They may be appealing, but how often are you likely to visit them if the neighborhood's expensive. What else do you consider a necessity to have nearby? A gym? A great deli?
Make sure to check out the neighborhood in advance, either online or (even better) by visiting on foot.
Do you need a yard or a terrace? Will you be able to get to a park easily? You might not miss these things in winter but, come springtime, you may be aching to see some greenery.
Utilities and services
Make a list of questions to ask when you're doing viewings. Check who pays for the utilities and whether they're included in the rent. Are you expected to pay extra for things like internet and cable? Make sure you're aware of any extra service charges for the building as these will all eat into your budget.
Finally, make sure you (and anyone else you plan to live with) have arranged your finances before you look at places to rent. Apartments go quickly and landlords won't want to hang around waiting for you to get organized. Make sure you know which documents you'll need to take with you before you go, so you can stake your claim to the room or apartment.