A Tenant's Guide to the Move-In Fee

What are move-in fees, and how do they differ from security deposits? Understanding these key differences allows prospective renters to accurately budget and evaluate potential apartments while avoiding surprise charges.

Nichole Stohler
Last Updated
February 5, 2024
A Tenant's Guide to the Move-In Fee

Renting a new home sparks excitement about decorating, hosting, and making a space your own. But first comes the reality of paying move-in fees, non-refundable costs the landlord might charge.

Sometimes called administrative or processing fees, these fees must be paid by incoming tenants before they're given the keys. Landlords rely on these payments to conduct screenings, process paperwork, change locks, make key copies, clean, and prepare the unit for its new tenant. 

Knowing the possible move in fees can help tenants financially prepare for their new rental home. Asking about all the costs associated with moving in before signing avoids any disruptive surprises to your budget down the road, allowing you to focus on settling happily into your new chapter.

What is a move-in fee?

Landlords often charge a non-refundable fee when you move into a rental property. The property owner keeps these fees, even after you move out, as opposed to a security deposit, which they return to you upon move-out.

The move-in fee helps the landlord cover the administrative expenses associated with onboarding a new tenant. Typical move-in fees can include:

Application fee

This covers the landlord's costs of running your rental application process, which includes reviewing your application materials, processing the paperwork, conducting background checks, and determining if you're approved to rent the unit. Application fees typically run somewhere between $30 and $75 per applicant.

First month's rent

Many landlords require tenants to pay the first month's rent upfront when signing the lease agreement and taking possession of the unit. Typically, this payment is used to secure an applicant's place in a rental unit, which is especially important when there are several interested applicants.

You'll need to pay this rental amount before the landlord hands over the keys and allows you to move in. Unlike the security deposit, this payment is non-refundable.

Pet fees

Landlords with pet-friendly properties often charge a one-time, non-refundable pet or animal fee when you're sharing your home with pets. This covers the additional wear and tear and potential damage that pets may cause. In addition, landlords might charge monthly rent for your pet

Utility connection

When starting service for cable, internet, electricity, water, and garbage, utility companies will most likely charge account startup fees. You'll need to pay any utility connection, activation, or account opening fees when establishing service.

Parking fees

If your property management company offers parking, they'll sometimes include it in your monthly rent. Alternatively, landlords may choose to charge an additional monthly parking fee for using spots on-site.

Depending on the location, parking can cost $50-$150 per month.  Parking fees may be paid monthly or as an upfront annual cost.

Storage fees

Some rental properties offer on-site storage lockers, closets, or rooms for an added fee. If you use these areas, expect to pay monthly storage fees or as a move-in one-time amount.

Holding fee

The holding fee reserves the unit for you and freezes it at the quoted price. It also protects the landlord in case you back out of renting the property. If your application is approved, ask for the holding fee to apply to your overall move-in costs.

How are security deposits different from move-in fees?

The key difference between a security deposit and move-in fee is that one is refundable, and the other isn't.

Security deposits are fully or partially refundable when the tenant moves out, as long as they did not damage the property or fail to pay rent. Legally, most states cap security deposits at 1-2 months' rent. In some states, landlords must keep security deposits in an interest-bearing account, and the accrued interest belongs to the tenant.

Move-in fees cover the landlord's administrative expenses when establishing a new tenant. They aim to defray upfront costs such as changing locks, processing paperwork, and pre-rental cleaning.

In summary, the tenant's security deposit helps to reimburse landlords for potential future damages or if the tenant fails to pay rent, whereas move-in fees cover past expenses related to tenant turnover.

Can landlords require both move-in fees and a security deposit?

It's perfectly legal for landlords to charge standard move-in fees plus a security deposit. Moreover, it's fairly common practice among large property management companies.

You may wish to consolidate the fees into a deposit, but landlords often view them as distinct costs that need to be handled separately, since move-in fees cover administrative expenses while security deposits cover damages. That said, there's no harm in negotiating to waive certain move-in fees if possible.

Negotiating move-in fees with landlord

No one likes paying non-refundable costs. As previously mentioned, ask landlords if any move-in fees are flexible or negotiable to avoid extra charges. In certain situations, you may be able to get them lowered.

The ability to negotiate will depend on factors like local supply and demand — the more competition there is for the apartment, the less likely the landlord is to budge on costs. Be reasonable in your request and understand that fees legitimately cover the landlord's costs.

Tips for negotiating move-in fees:

  1. Ask nicely: A polite, respectful request can go a long way. Explain your situation and why you're hoping to avoid non-refundable fees. Landlords may be sympathetic to financial constraints.
  2. Offer to pay more rent upfront: Propose covering last month's rent or 2-3 months upfront if the landlord will waive certain move-in fees in return. This provides them with more cash flow.
  3. Highlight positive rental history: Providing good references from past property managers showing you always paid on time and caused no issues can demonstrate you are a low-risk tenant.
  4. Apply and submit all paperwork early: Being the first qualified applicant showing interest may make the landlord eager to start your lease and more willing to negotiate.
  5. Offer to sign a longer initial lease: Landlords may be flexible on the first month's fees if you commit to a longer 2-year term.

Are non-refundable fees a rental scam?

Despite being frustrating, non-refundable move-in fees are standard practice and generally legal. However, some unethical landlords and property managers take advantage of extra fees to overcharge tenants.

Here are some signs a move-in fee could be a scam:

  • Excessively high fees beyond market rates: Check with multiple landlords to understand typical application fees in your local market. Non-refundable fees charged by landlords typically do not exceed the first and last month's rent.
  • Refusal to provide documentation: Scam landlords may not want to put fees in writing or leave a paper trail.
  • High-pressure tactics to pay immediately: Unethical landlords may employ hard sales tactics to get payment.
  • Inability to visit the unit in person before paying: Fraudsters may make excuses as to why you can't see inside before paying fees.

Move-in fee apartment costs

Don't let move-in fees be an unwelcome surprise. Knowing the types of fees and their purpose can help renters budget accordingly. With knowledge of standard charges, tenants can avoid potential scams and prepare questions to ask about minimizing costs.

Being an informed tenant is key to securing the best possible deal when starting a new rental. With reasonable expectations about non-refundable payments required by landlords, you’ll be off to a good start in your new home without break-in surprises. Keep the insights from this guide in mind during your rental search to set yourself up for success.

Move in cost FAQs

Can the landlord raise the move-in fee cost between when I apply and sign the lease?

The landlord cannot increase the move-in fee beyond the initially disclosed amount when you applied. The fee documented in the lease agreement at the time of signing is the amount you are obligated to pay. The lease finalization process protects tenants from unexpected cost increases.

Can I pay the move-in fee in installments?

While the standard practice is that the move-in fee is typically paid in full upfront, tenants may have the option to negotiate with the landlord for a more flexible payment plan. You can discuss with the landlord the possibility of paying the move-in fee in installments, potentially making the initial financial burden more manageable.

Will all landlords charge a move-in fee?

Most property management companies charge move-in fees as part of their leasing process, but some private landlords may choose not to impose these fees, offering a potential financial advantage to renters.  

When searching for your rental home, explore a variety of options. You might find properties where the move-in fee is either significantly lower or not required at all, providing more flexibility in your housing budget.

Nichole Stohler

Nichole co-founded Gateway Private Equity Group, with a history of investments in single-family and multi-family properties, and now a specialization in hotel real estate investments. She is also the creator of NicsGuide.com, a blog dedicated to real estate investing.

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