Asking the Right Questions

Find out key facts before signing that lease to avoid unpleasant surprises later

May 11, 2012

Before he signed the lease on his Van Ness apartment, which does not offer parking, Ryan Holeywell visited the area to see how hard street parking would be.

With three D.C. apartment rentals in about three years under his belt, Ryan Holeywell has learned that a good landlord is just as important as closet space or an updated kitchen.

Maybe more important. “If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, you can break it off with them at any time. But with a landlord, you’re stuck with them for a year, so you better make sure it’s a good relationship,” Holeywell says.

That’s why he always makes sure to ask how the landlord would handle things like a broken oven or leaky faucet.

“It needs to be clear what sort of maintenance responsibilities are those of the landlord and what are those of the tenant,” says Holeywell, 26, a staff writer at Governing magazine. “You should be confident that the landlord will take care of issues and won’t try to nickel-and-dime you if it’s their responsibility.”

Many frazzled apartment hunters rush to put pen to paper, taken in by a unit’s shiny hardwood floors or killer views. Then they find out about unexpected fees, prohibitive pet policies, or a lack of cellphone reception in their new apartment. By asking some key questions before signing a lease, renters can avoid these unpleasant surprises.

Start with the basics: Are pets allowed? Is smoking permitted? What happens when things break?

“All of these things sound like they’re so practical, but in the heat of the moment when you really like an apartment, a lot of the basic questions don’t end up getting asked,” says Mark Wellborn, editor in chief of UrbanTurf, a website that focuses on the D.C. area’s residential real estate market (Dc.urbanturf.com).

Inquire whether the landlord or renter pays for water, gas and electricity. “Get an understanding of who is responsible for utilities, and ask about average utility costs to include in your calculations to see if you can afford the rental property,” says Joseph A. Amatangelo, vice president of the Residential Management and Rental Service Center at Long & Foster Real Estate.

Don’t assume that you can carry out all your HGTV-inspired home-makeover fantasies in your new place. Find out what kind of “improvements” might mean saying goodbye to your security deposit.

“You need to know what you’re allowed to do in the property when it comes to things like painting, so that when your lease terminates you can say that you lived by the rules and get your security deposit back without any problems,” says Amatangelo.

If you have a car, find out if parking is provided or if you’ll be on your own when it comes to finding a space.

“The last two places I lived in had parking, but my new place only has street parking,” says Holeywell, who’s renting a condo in Van Ness. “So I made sure that I visited the area and talked to people I knew there to be sure that it wouldn’t be a nightmare every night trying to find a parking spot.”

Then move on to less obvious topics, like whether you can sublet your unit or if a mold inspection has been done recently. And make sure you know what to expect financially when your lease is up.

“One thing no one ever thinks about is how much the rent can increase year over year,” says Debbie Kaplan, chief operating officer of D.C.-area apartment-locater service Urban Igloo (877-445-6632, urbanigloo.com). “While the landlord or property manager can’t say that the rent will definitely increase 5 percent next year, they can provide a history of percentage increases, which gives you an idea.”

The bottom line? It’s better to be thorough than hasty. “Rent in D.C. is so high that you want to be on the excessive side when it comes to asking questions, as opposed to asking too few,” says Wellborn. “There really are no dumb questions that you could ask.”

 

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