what to know before signing an apartment lease

What To Know Before Signing a Lease For an Apartment

There’s a lot to unpack before signing an apartment lease. Even if you’re the trusting type, don’t rush through the process without reading the lease agreement top to bottom, preferably alongside the property manager. Don’t get burned after the fact.

Read through the following helpful tips on what you need to know before signing a lease for an apartment. We promise it’s for your own good.

1. Prepare yourself

Before setting up any property appointments, make sure you and your finances are ready to proceed. First, set a budget. Experts recommend that no more than 30 percent of gross income go toward rent. Not sure how much that is? Check it with this rent calculator.

Next, take steps to correct your poor credit history. There are easy ways to bump a credit score up. For example, pay all bills on time, pay off credit cards in full every month and do not apply for any new credit cards. Consider a lease co-signer, if necessary.

Lastly, get personal documents in order. These include:

  • Photo ID
  • Proof of income
  • Letter of employment
  • Tax returns
  • Bank statements
  • References
  • Vehicle information
  • Pet information (if applicable)

All of these details (and likely more) will be necessary to proceed with a lease agreement.


2. Establish a good relationship with the property manager

Chances are, the lease agreement process isn’t the last interaction you’re going to have with the property manager, landlords or other employees. So, it pays to go about negotiating a lease with a sense of professionalism.

The way you conduct yourself during a property visit, in emails and in phone conversations is a reflection of you as a potential tenant. Never try to pull one over on a landlord in a negotiation as this could backfire and create tension. Worse yet, it could prevent you from signing a contract for the apartment of your dreams.

However, just as the landlord needs to trust you with their rental property, you also want to know that you can trust them to provide a safe environment. So, if you’re serious about moving into the unit, put your best foot forward, be open, ask questions and take the time to establish a good relationship with your future landlord.

Questions to ask during the first appointment

The initial visit is an important one. Make sure you understand logistical and practical issues by asking these important questions:

  • When will the unit be available?
  • Who handles turning on the utilities?
  • Are any personal items prohibited due to value or safety?
  • Is renter’s insurance required? If so, how much?
  • What are the local laws about noise?
  • How long is the lease term?
  • Are there any ways to cut rent costs, like move-in specials, paying rent up front, etc.?

3. Protect your security deposit and do your own inspection

Don’t look at a potential apartment through rose-colored glasses. Note any issues, inconsistencies or concerns on that first visit with the landlords. Thoroughly explore and inspect the apartment and the community with the landlord. It’s important that your new home meets all of your criteria for function, safety and comfort. At that time, or in a follow-up, ask the prospective landlord or property manager all of the pertinent questions to make sure you cover your bases.

The goal of the inspection is to identify all potential issues before signing the lease so that you can address these with the landlord before finalizing a contract. In the best case scenario, you point out a few issues and the landlords are amenable to addressing your concerns. Then, you can have modifications and improvements written into your lease agreement (or better yet, the landlord can make repairs before the move-in day).

Worst case scenario, you discover that the landlord will not or cannot resolve your primary concerns, giving you the option to walk away from an apartment that isn’t a great fit for you. If they’re that disagreeable before signing, who knows how they treat actual tenants?

4. Document any existing damage

Once the landlord processes your rental application and gives you the green light to rent the apartment, it’s time to put things on paper. Document any pre-existing damage by taking pictures before signing a lease. If there’s anything that the landlord did not agree to fix from your initial visit inspection, such as stained carpeting, broken blinds or missing tiles in the shower, make sure to document the damage in your lease as pre-existing. You don’t them to accuse and charge you for this damage later.

Make sure photos are time/date stamped and provide them electronically to the property management company. Then, retain copies for yourself. By documenting such damage, you’re protecting yourself from potential charges to your security deposit for which you’re not responsible.

reading contracts

5. Know the initial rental lease terms

Rental lease terms vary widely by property. Make sure you know yours upside-down and inside-out before proceeding with the lease signing process This is a legally binding contract, after all.

Lease agreement fees

There are a lot of costs related to renting. You should completely understand these before you sign anything, especially if this is your first lease. Is the security deposit refundable? If so, what are the terms for getting it back? Also, inquire about move-in fees, pet fees, if you must pay the first month’s rent and last month’s upfront, etc.

Some rental properties include utilities like cable, water and parking within the monthly rental cost, while other apartments do not. This can impact your monthly budget and make an otherwise affordable apartment not so affordable.

Renters insurance requirements

Also, some communities make renters insurance required. Get quotes from multiple recommended renter’s insurance sources, so that you have a firm grasp on how this will affect your monthly budget. An educated tenant is a happy tenant.

Rent payments

Ideally, tenants pay monthly rent on time, but sometimes, life gets in the way. Find out what the lease agreement states regarding a grace period for late rent. Is there wiggle room? At what point are late fees incurred? If you have credit issues, is a co-signer required for you to get the lease and move in? Most leases include all of this information.

Also, be sure you fully understand how you should make rent payments. Do renters submit rent online, complete with electronic signatures, or via old-fashioned check or money order? Get specific, especially if it’s the first lease.

Apartment amenities

Some properties might offer public transportation access, on-site health club memberships or discounts to local gyms, all of which could save a tenant money depending on the overall budget. Before signing a lease, ask your landlord exactly what’s included in the monthly rent rate and what fees are extra or add-ons, so that you’re clear about how this new apartment will impact your monthly budget and lifestyle.

Apartment services

Also, people in colder climates should inquire about services like snow removal. Find out when it’s done by a service, or if tenants are responsible for their own walkways, parking spots, etc. Stipulate this in the lease.

Next, find out how to report maintenance issues for your unit, especially during oddball hours, in case a water leak or some other catastrophe occurs in the middle of the night.

Also, inquire about the lawn care schedule. No one wants to live in apartments that are overrun with weeds or knee-high grass.

Long-term apartment maintenance

A tenant who sees long-term potential for renting in a specific community should ask about bigger ticket items. When will they paint the buildings again? Does the roof need replacing? What potential upgrades can renters expect to see? How will all of these affect tenants, and how much notice will you get before these things happen?

6. Learn if you can customize

Painting the walls, hammering big nails in the walls or installing your own lighting without permission could result in rental agreement termination or loss of your security deposit. If apartment customization is important to you, be sure to discuss it with your potential landlord before you sign the lease.

Find out what exactly your lease allows and what it doesn’t, like painting an accent wall or putting in a ceiling fan. Remember, if things break or are simply worn out they might qualify for maintenance requests. That’s always nice because then, you don’t have to foot the bill!

Most importantly, be sure to get any approvals in writing to avoid any disputes at the end of the lease. All renters want security deposits back.

pet policy

7. Confirm pet policy

Renters who have a pet (or who want one in the future) definitely need to know the details of the pet policy put forth by the management company. Many lease agreements prohibit certain breeds of dogs, for example, or they must fall under a specific overall weight to occupy a rental unit. Often, a lease includes a cap on the number of pets, so be sure to inquire about that, as well.

Also, find out specifically how having a pet affects your financial bottom line. Is there a non-refundable pet fee in the lease? Probably. Many landlords also tack on an extra monthly fee to the rent for the pet-owning privilege.

Also, how do they assess pet-related wear and tear upon move-out? Will they charge you extra at that time, or do the up-front costs cover it when the lease ends? Understand all of the pet-related details before signing on the dotted line.

8. Consider the commute

People who work virtually don’t have to worry too much about where they’re renting, but commuters (especially in traffic-riddled metropolitan areas) must consider location and other transportation-related factors before they sign the lease.

First, car owners need to clearly understand their amenities according to the rental agreement. Is there access to on-street parking, a deck or a parking lot? While you’re at it, find out the guest parking policy, as well as the number of cars you can have in the lot per the terms of your lease agreement.

Also, tenants should always find out what public transportation is like in the area. Even those tenants with cars might require such services from time to time.

9. Learn about lease renewal

All lease agreements come with a set lease term. Find out how much notice your management company requires if you plan to vacate the unit, per the terms of the rental agreement.

If you’re planning to renew the lease, find out if the monthly rent, renter’s insurance requirements or other fees will increase at that time. It always pays to make sure everyone’s on the same page, but politely ask to see it in writing. A verbal promise is nice when leasing, but doesn’t mean anything legally.

Read every word

Everyone, from a first-time renter to a seasoned expert, should examine a rental agreement from top to bottom before they sign the lease. That way, when you’re finally ready to finish and sign the contract, you’ll know that you’ve done your due diligence.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.


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