When searching for an apartment, many renters fall into the same trap: They get swept away with visions of painting the walls and arranging the furniture while forgetting the particulars like landlord rules and fees.
Before you sign your lease, take time to ask yourself and your roommates a series of essential questions, because they will have a large impact on your renting experience and potentially your bank account.
Here are our top 13 questions to ask before renting an apartment:
1. Will I need to find a co-signer?
Landlords may require tenants to pass a credit check and meet a pre-set income standard. If you don’t meet these standards, then you’ll need a co-signer (aka guarantor) to sign the lease and accept to take the hit if you don’t make rent. Before your search begins, find a parent or family friend who’s willing to act as your co-signer. And note that landlords often charge a fee to run a credit and background check on this person.
2. Am I allowed to decorate the apartment?
Leases may stipulate that when you move out, the apartment must be restored to the same condition you received it in. Some landlords actually have a clause in the lease that says you need their written approval before decorating or painting. Putting up wallpaper, hanging artwork, driving nails into the walls... all of that might need to be pre-approved and reversed when you move out, or you may risk losing your security deposit.
3. Where will I park?
In buildings with parking, you’ll likely get a spot assigned to your rental unit, be sure to ask how that works and how much it’ll cost. In some buildings, you’ll encounter those annoying parking spot hogs who store an extra car in a spot reserved for any guests. Find out how reporting it works: Will the security guards deal with it, or is up to other tenants to report the violator?
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4. How much will I pay in up-front costs when I sign the lease?
Your landlords may ask for a month’s rent paid up-front for a security deposit against any damages, as well as the first and last month’s rent. That’s three months’ rent that you’ll have to give when you sign the lease. There also may be a fee for running your credit check and an application fee, which can cost anywhere from $25 to more than $100 for each person on the lease. Before paying this fee, ask if it’s refundable if you don’t get approved. And, if you DO get approved and sign a lease, find out if the fee can be applied toward your security deposit. In some competitive markets, landlords may also charge a fee for taking the unit off the market while your application is being processed.
5. Are any utilities included? If so, which ones?
Some utilities may be incorporated in the rent, and others may not be. Ask if cable, electric and gas and trash removal are covered. Is there Wi-Fi in the building, and how much does it cost to use? Some of these questions require calls directly to the utility providers, but they’re worth making.
6. Are pets allowed? If so, is there a fee?
Some landlords forbid dogs and cats, while others are more case-by-case: They may allow small dogs but not your massive Great Dane. Check the policy, and check the lease for fine print about animals. If your landlord does allow pets, you may have to pay a pet security deposit, which you’ll want to factor into your up-front apartment costs. Also, inquire about having pets visit: When your friend comes with her golden retriever, is she allowed inside?
7. Are there fees for using communal spaces?
Find out if there are any fees associated with using common areas like pools, gyms, or laundry rooms.
8. Are there future plans to make any updates to the apartment complex?
This is important for two reasons: 1) If improvements are being made then you may have to put up with construction noise, and 2) updates could add to the amenities, enjoyment, and appeal of your apartment.
9. Under what circumstances will my security deposit not be refunded to me?
Not cleaning the apartment sufficiently could be enough for the property manager to withhold a portion of your security deposit. If you want to get the full deposit back, a good rule of thumb is that with the exception of normal wear and tear, your apartment should be left the way it was when you moved in.
10. How do you handle emergency repairs?
No one wants to deal with a burst pipe at 2 am on a Wednesday morning, but it’s a repair that has to be handled immediately. Before deciding on an apartment, it’s important to know how all kinds of repairs are handled, particularly in emergencies.
11. How much notice do I need to give before moving out?
In most instances, you’ll have to give notice 30-60 days in advance of moving out. If you don’t give the required notice, your lease could automatically renew, and you could lose your security deposit.
12. What would it take to break the lease?
What happens if you need to move when you’re only 5 months into your year-long lease? Before signing, find out what the penalties are for breaking the lease under extreme circumstances. And remember that verbal agreements aren’t the same as written ones, so ask for any agreements in writing. Breaking a lease is a severe business that could adversely impact you: Not only will you forfeit your security deposit and any monies the landlord holds in your name, but you'll burn a bridge for future rental references. Also, if your parents co-signed your lease agreement, they could be held liable for any balance of the lease.
13. What is the guest policy?
Having a friend stay with you should be fine, but many communities have policies against guests staying longer than two or three weeks, or require that you notify the property manager if you’re going to have a longer-term guest. The policy should be in your lease, but make sure you know the rules so that you don’t violate your lease.
The facts about renters insurance.
Renters insurance provides low-cost affordable coverage for your personal belongings, so you can recover from a loss, damage or theft. It also covers your personal liability. Your landlord’s policy will cover the building and grounds, but will not reimburse you for the costs of your personal items in the event of a loss, or cover the costs of damage or injuries that happen inside your apartment. If you do not have such a policy, you will need to recover from your loss out of pocket.
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