Rental Application Process in Chicago

Whether you choose to live in the Hyde Park area or elsewhere in the city, you can expect the application process to be basically the same. There are typically several steps involved, and it can take anywhere from a few minutes (if you are well prepared), to a few days (if, for instance, you need to gather documents or communicate back and forth with the landlord or your co-signer).

Filling Out the Application Form

As the first step of securing rental housing, you should be prepared to fill out a rental application when you find an apartment you are interested in – there is usually an application fee, though, so you will not want to apply for several units all at once. The rental application includes the applicant’s personal information, social security number (if any), employment or school information, references, etc. This information will be used by the landlord to run a credit check, criminal background check, verification of your prior addresses and rental history, your source and amount of income, and a personal reference check.

For international students who may not have a Social Security Number yet, it is a good idea to have a copy of your passport, as well as your UChicago admission letter, financial aid offer letter, and your I-20 form.

Sample Rental Application

Pay the Necessary Fees

Depending on the company or landlord you are renting from, you may be asked to pay an application fee, a security deposit, move-in fee, pet deposit, or other costs. Ask the leasing agent or landlord about which of the fees are refundable, and under what circumstances. If your application is not approved, any deposits – but not the application fee – should be returned. However, if you are accepted and change your mind, you may forfeit what you have given them. Ask lots of questions, and ideally do not submit a full deposit until you have decided to take an apartment.

Submit Proof of Income

You can expect to be asked to present some proof of income and employment. If you have them, consider bringing pay stubs or other financial records, or documentation of any University financial award or other sources of income you will have, when looking at or applying for apartments.

Credit and Background Check

In almost all cases, the landlord will run a credit check on the applicant(s) and/or your co-signer. Some may also want to conduct a criminal background check. These allow the manager to determine your level of financial responsibility, and to ensure the safety of their community.

Co-signers (Guarantors)

If you do not have a rental history, or have poor credit, you may need to have someone sign as a guarantor on your lease. The co-signer or guarantor will also be required to sign the lease, and will share legal and financial responsibility with you for the terms of the lease. This is not the same as applying with a roommate.

Signing the Lease

Once your rental application is approved, the landlord or manager will prepare a lease for you to sign. You, along with any roommates, and any co-signers or guarantors, will all be required to sign the lease. After signing the lease, you will need to pay first month’s rent, as well as any move-in fees or security deposits you have not already paid.

Housing and Leasing Vocabulary

  • Amenities: The features and services offered by an apartment or building. This may include things like on-site laundry facilities, parking, fitness center, bike room, extra storage, childcare center, playground, and community room.
  • Co-signer (or Guarantor): A co-signer is someone who assumes responsibility for a lease with a tenant who otherwise would not meet the landlord’s financial qualifications. If you have no rental history or bad credit, you may be required to have a co-signer or guarantor. This is different than having roommates who also sign the lease on their own behalf.
  • Condo or condominium: An apartment that is owned by an individual in a building, with the common areas of the complex shared among all condo owners. Many condo owners rent out their units, either through a management company or listing site, or through classified ads.
  • Credit Check: Landlords will review a potential tenant’s credit history through one of several credit rating agencies before approving a rental application. This provides the landlord with an understanding of your financial history. You need to give written consent which permits the landlord to check your credit, but almost all applications will require this.
  • Credit Report: This is the report prepared by the credit rating agencies. It will describe your personal credit history – whether you have made bill and debt repayments on time, have delinquent accounts, or have been sued. This report gives the landlord information about a potential tenant’s trustworthiness.
  • Eviction: A legal process to remove a tenant from a rental unit because the tenant has violated the rental agreement by damaging the property, failing to pay rent, etc.
  • Fixture Fee/Fix Fee: A fee paid by the tenant for appliances already in a unit.
  • Full Bath: A bathroom which includes a toilet, sink, and bathtub or shower. A “Half Bathroom,” on the other hand, has a toilet and sink but no shower.
  • Furnished Apartment: An apartment that comes with basic furniture such as a bed, sofa, kitchen table and chairs, etc.
  • Landlord: The person or company who offers a property they own or manage for rent. This may be the owner of the building, a property manager hired by the owner to rent his/her apartment, or an individual renting out their home or condominium.
  • Lease (Leasing Agreement): A written legal contract between a landlord and a tenant stating the dates, cost, rules, and other terms of the rental agreement for a predetermined length of time. A lease must be in writing to be valid.
  • Lessee: A tenant under a lease (i.e., you as the renter).
  • Lessor: One who grants a lease (the landlord).
  • Loft apartments: An open-plan apartment, often with large windows and high ceilings, often created from an old industrial property, such as a factory or warehouse.
  • Rental period: Can refer either to the length of time between rent payments (usually one month), or to the length of the lease.
  • Renter’s Insurance: Insurance protecting the tenant in case of damage or loss due to fire, flood, or theft. Agreements usually include clauses covering injury to a guest or visitor. Some leases will require you to secure renter’s insurance. The landlord’s insurance will not cover your belongings.
  • Security Deposit: A deposit, often equal to one month’s rent, is sometimes required at the start of the rental agreement against any damages/losses that might occur while you live in the unit. This amount should be returned to you at the end of your lease agreement if all the terms of the lease have been met.
  • Square Feet: All measurements will be given in feet and inches (indicated with ‘ and “), with total size indicated with square feet (SF or another abbreviation may be used). 600 SF is about 56 square meters; 900 SF is about 84 square meters.
  • Sublease or Sublet: A lease by a tenant to a third party (sublessee or sublettor), usually renting all or part of the rental property for a shorter term than the tenant’s term while still maintaining full responsibility to the landlord. This may occur if, for example, you rent out your apartment to someone else for the summer.
  • Studio: An apartment which is composed of a single room and a bathroom. The main room functions as the kitchen, living room and bedroom. Usually appropriate only for one person.
  • Tenant: A person who rents or leases a rental unit from a landlord. (Also known as a lessee.)
  • Termination: The ending of a rental agreement by either party.
  • Utilities: Utilities include basic services like electricity, natural gas, heat, and water. You may also want other services, such as internet, cable television, or telephone. Ask your landlord which you will need to sign up for. Depending upon your building, the heat may be included, or may be powered by gas or electricity, and the same is true for your appliances and other items.
  • Warranty of Habitability: The warranty of habitability implies that the tenants have the right to live in a safe, healthy and clean apartment, which does not have a negative impact on their welfare.

Common Abbreviations

Here are some of the most common abbreviations that you will come across during your apartment search.

  • A/C: Air Conditioning
  • APT: Apartment
  • BA: Bathroom
  • BD or BR: Bedroom
  • BSMT: Basement
  • CAC: Central Air Conditioning
  • CBL: Cable
  • CPT: Carpet
  • DR: Dining Room
  • ELV: Elevator
  • D/W: Dishwasher
  • HDWD: Hardwood
  • HW: Hot water
  • LR: Living Room
  • MBR: Master Bedroom
  • MO: Month
  • MWV: Microwave
  • PRV: Private
  • RDR: Radiator
  • REF: Refrigerator
  • SQ FT: Square Feet
  • W/D: Washer and Dryer
  • WTR: Water
  • YD: Yard


A lease is a legally binding document that contains the agreement between a landlord and a tenant, including details about the length of the rental period, the amount and payment schedule of the rent, maintenance of the unit, pets, utilities, and any other legally allowed terms or conditions the landlord chooses to add. Reading and understanding your lease is the best way to protect your rights as a tenant.

Sample Lease Agreement

The following is a summary of the major components that you will see in most rental agreements.

  • Information about the unit, lessor, and lessee:
    Usually apartment leases include basic information about the unit – including address and sometimes a brief description – as well as the names, contact information, and other details of the tenant(s) and the landlord. All adults who will live in the unit should be listed on the lease.
  • Lease term:
    This section includes the dates on which the lease will start and end, and possibly renewal and termination details.
  • Rent:
    This part of the lease agreement states the amount and due date of rental payments, along with the penalty for late payments.
  • Fees and Deposits:
    In this section the landlord details any deposits or fees such as security deposits, pet deposits, and other charges.
  • Rules and Regulations:
    There are some rules and regulations that the tenant should follow during his/her tenancy. This part of a lease agreement states specific regulations, including rules regarding pets, guests, modifications to the unit, and so on.
  • Access to Premises:
    Your landlord may need to access the property for repairs, inspections, and to show the unit to potential tenants or buyers. This section regulates when a landlord may enter the unit as well as the type of notification required.
  • Other Lease Details:
    There are often separate clauses regulating repairs, utilities, renter’s insurance (if offered or required), and so on.

Renter’s Insurance

You may wish to invest in a renter’s insurance policy to cover your belongings in the case of theft, weather damage, or other incidents. The landlord’s insurance policy will typically cover only the building itself, so in the case of water damage, a power surge, or a break-in, they will not cover any loss or damage to your possessions. Renter’s insurance may also provide you protection in the case that someone is injured in your apartment. You can comparison shop and sign up for renter’s insurance through a wide range of websites. After shopping around, it’s a good idea to sign up through the specific insurance company’s own website. Below are a few major U.S. insurance companies which offer this type of coverage.

Please note that the university does not endorse or promote any specific non-university company, vendor, or agent; the third-party companies mentioned here are offered for informational purposes only.

Renters will provide quotes from several companies
State Farm

Setting up Utilities

Be sure that any utilities that are included in your rent are expressly noted on the lease agreement. The most commonly included utilities are water and heat, although wide variation is possible. In most, but not all, cases, you will need to establish your own accounts with the utility companies for electricity, natural gas, and any additional services you want.

Typically, the landlord will – or can on request – provide you with a list of the names and contact information for the utility companies that provide service to the building or the area. Call each of them a week or more prior to your move in date to allow the provider time to create an account for you, and if necessary to schedule an appointment to visit the premises.

Students who do not yet have a Social Security Number (SSN) should visit this page on our Office of International Affairs site for more information on setting up utilities without this identification number.

Electricity and Natural Gas
When planning ahead for utility costs, be sure to ask the landlord or prior tenant for monthly estimates for electricity and/or gas. Don’t forget to take account of Chicago’s weather: if it’s not included, home heating can be a major expense in the winter, and most apartments do not have air conditioning – installing a window unit during the summer months might require a surcharge, and most certainly will raise your electricity bill noticeably. Most appliances other than the stove/oven (range) run on electricity; most stoves/ranges and sometimes the heat will usually be run by natural gas.

Other Utilities
It is uncommon for apartment buildings to include internet or cable television access as part of the lease/rental agreement. Telephone service never is. Depending upon where you live, you may have multiple or only one service option for cable television or telephone. Check with your landlord or the companies you are interested in, or ask other tenants in the building. Many providers are available for mobile (cellular) phone service.

Breaking, Subleasing, and Assigning a Lease

Once signed, the lease is a legally binding contract, and there are often significant costs, fees, and paperwork involved in the event you attempt to break your lease. If you attempt to break your lease or abandon the unit without the landlord’s agreement, you are still liable for your rent through the remaining term of your lease. To avoid this situation, it is best to work with your landlord to find another qualified tenant for the apartment. There are two options for this, subletting and re-renting.


You find someone to take over the apartment, and the rent, from you until the end of the lease. The original lease will remain your responsibility until the end of the lease term – that is, you would still be liable if the person you sublet to did not pay rent, or damaged the apartment.


Less commonly, you may arrange with the landlord to release you from your lease obligations. You and the landlord still need to find someone to rent your apartment, and they may be more open to this if you have someone interested in the unit. This option is less risky, but your landlord can charge you a fee for re-renting as well as any expenses spent during his/her search for a new tenant.

In addition, you may wish to sublease your apartment in the event you plan to travel for an extended period during the term of your lease. As noted above, in the event you do wish to sublet your apartment, even if only for a portion of the term of your lease, you will need you landlord’s prior written consent. In addition, you will remain responsible for any apartment damage or any rent not paid by your subtenant, so please choose any subtenant carefully.

Residents of Chicago are governed by a “Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance.” Most leases in the Chicago area are designed to follow the guidelines set in this ordinance. By identifying each party’s rights and responsibilities, it protects both you and your landlord. A summary of the ordinance can be found here at City of Chicago’s website.

Responsibilities of Tenants

  • Make the rental payments in a timely manner. Otherwise, you can be subject to late fees and/or eviction.
  • Follow the terms of your lease. Failure to do so may result in your eviction.
  • Take pictures and document any damage visually and in writing before you move in, and send copies to the landlord. Otherwise, the landlord has the right to charge you for any damage to the apartment when you move out.
  • Keep your apartment in good condition, and use all the appliances and facilities appropriately.
  • Maintain good relations with your neighbors – keep noise volumes at appropriate levels, and use shared spaces courteously.
  • Your landlord has the right to access your apartment if they have a good reason – maintenance, inspection, or showing it to a potential new tenant. However, you have the right to require at least one or two days’ prior notice from your landlord, except in the event of an emergency.
  • Give written notice about whether you want to terminate or renew your lease, usually at least 30 days before the end of your current lease.
  • Follow proper garbage disposal procedures, including recycling.
  • Notify your landlord of any maintenance needs as soon as possible, preferably dated and in writing. Most will have an online form allowing you to do this. If the landlord does not take care of any issues, you may have the right to proceed with other actions – review the terms of your lease carefully, along with the renter’s rights website, to learn more.

Responsibilities of Landlords

  • Provide the tenant with a safe apartment which is maintained in accordance with city health and safety regulations.
  • Return the security deposit if all the obligations of the lease are met. (Although security deposits must be refunded, move-in fees or other charges usually are not.)
  • Provide tenants with written notice at least 30 days in advance if a lease is being terminated or cannot be renewed.
  • Provide water with adequate water pressure and a reliable water heater.
  • Provide a heating system in good working order. There are specific rules regarding the temperature that must be maintained in the apartment if the landlord controls the heating levels.
  • Accept a reasonable offer for subletting the apartment without additional fees. Subleasing is legal under the “Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance.”
  • Provide a lease agreement that does not violate any laws. If a lease contains illegal clauses, they are not enforceable.