Everything you need to know before signing an apartment lease

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Regardless of how you feel about apartment hunting, signing a lease is a necessary step to complete before moving in. It’s important to know what to look for in an apartment lease, how to potentially negotiate terms, and what kind of paperwork you’ll need—because the last thing you want is to feel taken advantage of by a landlord or Realtor.

After all, a lease is a legally binding contract and lays out the rules agreed upon by the landlord and by you. It’s meant to protect both you and your landlord, so make sure everything reads correctly. Signing it not only means you agree to all of the terms, but you could also be held responsible for additional costs if those rules are not upheld. Ask questions, and make sure the answers are documented in writing (preferably right in the lease itself!) so that you can refer to them should any issues come up.

“The best advice I can offer a tenant when signing a lease is to make sure they understand the language in the lease and what is expected of them as a tenant,” says Miami-based real estate broker Jose Laya. “Most people rush through it and sign without asking any questions, and that’s a big mistake [that] could end up costing them a lot of money down the road.”

Here are a few questions you might consider asking your real estate agent or new landlord before signing on the dotted line.

1When is rent due?

Lease terms usually dictate that rent is due on the first of the month. But if you have to mail a check to the property management company or wait for a bank transfer to go through, it’s helpful to know when rent is considered “late.” Most times, landlords will allow a grace period before you’ll be penalized for submitting rent late, so check to see if there is any wiggle room.

2How is rent paid?

Speaking of paying rent, make sure you’re fully aware of how your landlord collects it each month. Do they have an online portal where you can check on your payments? Do they require a physical check mailed or dropped off at the management office each month? Find out this information in the beginning, and try to keep receipts of all your rent payments for your own documentation as well.

3Does the rent include utilities?

It’s not uncommon for your monthly rent price to include basic utilities, like heat and hot water, but be mindful that this is not always the case. Read your lease agreement to see what (if any) utilities are included in the price, then contact your real estate agent or landlord to find out how you can set them up. For example, you may have to call the electric company and create your own account. Occasionally, apartments will be advertised as “utilities included” or “all bills paid,” meaning you pay one lump sum that includes rent and a flat fee for basic utilities.

“Based on your state practices, you may need to question certain terms [when it comes to utilities],” says Compass real estate agent Tricia Lee. “For example, in N.Y.C., it’s very common for heating to be included in the cost of the rent as it is provided for the entire building. However, many new development buildings have modern HVAC systems that primarily run on electric power and are subdivided by the unit to their meters.” When it comes to utilities, Lee says “Don’t assume anything. Ask and make sure you know what you will be paying for.”

4Is renters insurance required?

Some landlords require renters insurance just in case something in the building that’s out of your control causes damage to your unit or personal items. This includes events like fire, theft, vandalism, or water damage. It can also protect you from damages caused by negligence from the landlord. Whether or not your landlord requires you to have a policy, it’s a good idea to have one. Prices can vary by state, liability limits, and the personal property values you want to cover, but, thankfully, a basic policy for renters insurance can cost only a few dollars a month.

If your landlord does require you to obtain a policy, our experts say you’ll usually have to show proof of it before moving in, so make sure to gather all of the documents beforehand just to be safe.

5What are the move-in fees?

Move-in fees usually include first and last month’s rent and security deposit, which covers any damages caused by the tenant to the common areas of the building for the duration of the lease, explains Laya. Of course, this can vary from state to state. You may have other required fees due prior to move-in, like administrative fees, elevator rental fees, or other specific move-in-related costs. Check with your landlord to make sure you’re not hit with any surprises when moving day comes around.

6What is the policy on pets?

Whether you have a pet prior to moving in or are thinking of getting one in the future, it’s better to know where your landlord stands on this matter before you sign your lease. Be aware that if you do have a pet or plan to get one, your landlord may charge an additional pet deposit or a monthly pet fee.

“Most importantly, do not move a pet into an apartment without permission,” says Holden Lewis, home and mortgage expert at NerdWallet, as some leases specify that this is grounds for eviction.

7What is the policy on personalization?

“People who like to personalize their space will want to look for any terms concerning improvements or alterations to the apartment,” advises licensed real estate agent Justin Havre. Some places may give tenants more freedom to paint or change their space than others, while some apartments may require returning a unit to its original condition at the end of the lease.

“On this same note, look to see if the current color paint is noted in the lease,” he says. “If it’s not, ask for it. When the time comes to move out, you’ll know what to get if you need to do any touch-ups.”

8How are maintenance requests handled?

“One of the most important questions I suggest ask[ing] before signing is who is going to be responsible for repairs—whether it’s for a [broken] door lock, lost key, or something as big as an appliance,” says Laya. He explains that, most times, the property management company has a handyman or superintendent who is in charge of handling these requests, but occasionally, the responsibility may fall to you, the tenant. This would be a good time to also ask if your landlord or property manager lives nearby, in case they’re the one who handles these requests.

9What does the renewal process look like?

A year-long lease can go by fast, so make sure you know if your landlord requires notice before you renew. Landlords and management companies aren’t always reliable about reminding their tenets when it’s time to renew, so be proactive early on and get this in writing. That way, if you do want to renew the lease, you won’t miss out. After your initial lease term is up, you may be able to renew it for the same period of time (for example, a one-year lease) or switch to going month-to-month.

10What happens if the apartment lease is broken?

Things happen, and sometimes you have to move out before your lease is up. According to Rent.com, the severity of consequences may be up to your landlord. Depending on your reasons, your landlord could be sympathetic and not penalize you. However, breaking a lease without legal grounds to do so may result in you being required to pay the rent for the remaining months on your lease. It could also result in legal action from your landlord or a negative mark on your credit report, should you owe any unpaid debt.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal or financial advice. Renting laws and tenant rights may vary by state. 

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