You've found the perfect apartment. Before you commit to that rental lease, be certain you know what you're getting into. What to know before you sign.

It’s tempting to sign a lease on a new apartment while largely ignoring most of its provisions or any potential related issues. You might reason that they don’t matter because it’s only a temporary arrangement anyway. But any factor that you ignore could be a problem later. For that reason, there are ten things you should know before signing a year lease.

1. Is the property condition documented?

Imagine you’re about to rent a car that has a dent the size of a bowling ball in the driver’s door. You wouldn’t sign the rental contract without documenting the pre-existing damage. An apartment is no different: Don’t sign the lease until you’re satisfied the property is in good shape inside and out.

Most home buyers hire a professional to do a home inspection before closing, but this never occurs to many renters. You may not want to shell out several hundred dollars to inspect a building you’ll live in for a few years, but don’t assume that inspecting the unit is unnecessary or unimportant. Even if you’ll do the inspection yourself, you should approach this effort with all of the seriousness that you would if you were buying the place to own it.

There are three reasons for doing this:

  • To make sure everything in the home works
  • To determine if there is any pre-existing damage
  • To make written note of such deficiencies so you won’t be charged for them later

Your landlord can provide you with a list of components in each room of the house or apartment. It should include an itemization, such as carpeting, electrical outlets, light fixtures, doors/locks, windows/locks, and even painting and wall-covering. The kitchen should also list appliances and other components, while the bathrooms list sink, toilet, tub, shower.

You should make sure that each of these components is in good condition, and in good working order. Those that are not must be reported to the landlord, and completed before you move in.

If the landlord does not provide you with a formal list, then you must create one and complete it yourself. Any deficiency in the property, not listed and reported to the landlord prior to occupancy, can later be interpreted as damage caused by you.

2. Can you have roommates?

Just because it’s common to live with roommates in apartments and rental houses does not mean all landlords allow it. Even if you’re signing the lease with a roommate, there may come a time when that person will move out and you’ll want another roommate to move in. Don’t assume that this is OK to do, as many landlords will want to approve any new roommates—or may not allow them at all. Find out what the rules are upfront and make sure they are specified in the lease.

The same goes for subletting. A sublet can save you from breaking your lease in the event you need to move before your lease is up, but you’ll need to know what the terms will be, and how it will affect your monthly rent. If subletting is not an option, you will want to know that from the very start.

3. How’s the neighborhood after dark?

Most people do their apartment hunting by day, but you should check out both the complex and the neighborhood after dark. That’s when most everyone is home, and the true personality of a building or neighborhood becomes more obvious.

You want to pay attention to how many people enter and leave the building, any unusual noise, whether people typically congregate in the immediate area, as well as what types of vehicles are on the property. You may also want to take note of any police activity in the area. All of this could indicate the safety of the property.

This is an opportunity to see what life will be like in a complex or neighborhood, and whether or not it will be agreeable with you.

4. Are there landlord inspection clauses?

Nearly every lease includes some sort of provision that enables the landlord to perform an inspection of the property after you move in. However, the terms of that requirement can vary widely.

Be on the lookout for language that entitles the landlord to make unannounced inspections, and especially any that provides for unlimited visits. You should do your best to make sure that the inspections are performed on a limited basis, and always with proper and reasonable notice. Most states provide substantial rights to tenants of rental dwellings; you want to be on the lookout for any provisions written into a lease that seek to unfairly restrict those rights. A landlord seeking an open invitation to enter your home is one such example.

5. Who’s responsible for what?

In most rental situations, the landlord will provide certain services and the tenant will be responsible for the rest. Generally speaking, the landlord will provide only those services listed in the lease. If there are any others you want included, you’ll have to negotiate those before signing the lease. That may require a higher rent, and you’ll have to determine if it’s worth the extra cost.

Some services to be aware of include:

  • Utilities
  • Pest control
  • Repairs—there’s often a dollar threshold over which the landlord will pay, but below which will be your responsibility
  • Lawn maintenance
  • Snow removal

6. Don’t overlook parking!

Especially in urban areas where space is tight, parking disagreements can be a headache for many tenants. You will need to know how many vehicles you can park in a driveway or parking lot. You’ll also need to know the local laws regarding on-street parking. And if you’re renting a place in winter in a northern climate, be sure to ask about what happens when it snows.

You may also be interested in knowing what types of vehicles you can park on or near the premises. For example, if you own a trailer or commercial vehicle, such as either a service specific truck, or a vehicle that has commercial markings, you’ll have to find out if that is permitted for parking purposes.

7. How can the lease be terminated?

It’s hard to think about moving out when you haven’t even moved in yet. But it’s still important to know what’s expected, and if those expectations are reasonable and doable.

Some factors you will need to be aware of include:

  • How many months notice you will need to provide
  • If there will be any automatic reductions in your security deposit (such as pet fees, repainting, or cleaning fees)
  • Cleaning requirements (most leases require that a unit is left “broom clean”, but find out if there is anything more specific)
  • How long you will have to wait to get your security deposit back

Knowing what the lease termination requirements are from the beginning can help you to both be prepared for the event, but also to maintain the property in a condition that will make that exit easier. Remember that squabbles over security deposits are common. Again, it’s typically the case that a landlord will have to provide substantial proof of damage giving them claim to your deposit, but some will withhold it every time because they know some tenants won’t put up a fight.

8. What will it cost to break the lease?

This is another provision that is generally spelled out in the lease itself. It will usually be handled by you paying rent for a certain amount of months. Say for example you’re in a one-year lease, and after six months you’re forced to move due to a job reassignment. The lease may require that you surrender two months rent after you move out. This will give the landlord time to re-lease the property to another tenant while still receiving rent from you.

But you must be careful of stiffer penalties. Under extreme circumstances, a landlord may require that you pay out the rest of the lease term—even if the property is rented to another tenant before expiration. In the example above, that would be paying 12 months rent for a place you occupied for just six months. Some provisions may even require that you forfeit your security deposit in addition to the extra rent.

If such an arrangement will be a hardship for you, you must negotiate a better arrangement in advance. Which brings us to our second-to-last point.

9. Should you have renter’s insurance?

Anything you move into your rental is not covered by your landlord’s insurance. If the building burns down—or your unit is burglarized—your landlord’s insurance doesn’t do anything for you. Likewise, if you’re left homeless by damage to the building, the landlord doesn’t have to help you find another place to live. If you want such coverage, you’ll need to buy renter’s insurance.

Renter’s insurance covers your personal belongings from damage or theft and can provide relocation assistance if your home becomes uninhabitable. The good news? Renter’s insurance is pretty cheap.

Lemonade is a great up-and-coming insurance company that offers renters insurance starting at just $5 a month (but that depends on the plan you choose). They’re a peer-to-peer insurance company, meaning a group of people pools their resources by paying insurance premiums into a collective pot.

Another company to try out is Policygenius, which scours the online marketplace to find you the best possible insurance plan. The service is free, and it’s a great way to make sure you’re not overpaying for your insurance.

10. Everything is negotiable

Landlords frequently use standard leases which are just fill-in-the-blank documents. But just because a lease is standard doesn’t mean that you have to agree to everything, or that you can’t add custom provisions. A lease is a contract, and a contract can contain (or omit) any provisions that you and the landlord agree upon.

For example, just because the lease indicates a 12-month term doesn’t mean that’s the only option. You can ask for a month-to-month lease, or even an arrangement that includes an initial 12-month term, followed by a month-to-month arrangement thereafter.

As you negotiate, remember that it’s always easier to add non-standard provisions before you move into a property, than once you are in it.

Related: How to negotiate anything (even if you’re shy or afraid)

Finally, remember that if it’s not in writing, it doesn’t apply. Never assume that a provision applies, or that it will be covered on a verbal promise. If it’s not in the lease, it’s not enforceable in court.

Even if a landlord or property manager tells you that a given provision doesn’t matter or is never enforced, understand that it can become a factor. As long as it is included in the lease, it has implications that could later be turned into legal issues.

Summary

Most lease arrangements work out just fine most of the time. But you have a much better chance of a peaceful occupancy followed by a graceful exit if you know exactly what to look for before signing the lease and moving in.

Have you ever been burned because you didn’t read your lease carefully enough?

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About the author

Total Articles: 165
Kevin Mercadante is a freelance personal finance blogger and the owner of his own personal finance blog, OutOfYourRut.com. A recent transplant to New England, he has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry.

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