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What to ask a prospective landlord before signing an apartment lease


In a competitive rental market, most people tend to rush signing a lease.

It is very understandable to feel that way, especially if you know there are three interested parties who want to rent that property if you do not move forward. It is important to take the time to review a lease carefully before you sign so that you know exactly what you are committing to for the lease term.

Here are some important questions to ask before signing a lease:

• What is the lease term? You should know what lease term you are committing to and know that you are able to commit to that lease term whether it is six months or one year. You will be responsible for the term of the lease, so you should be certain before you commit to the term.

• When is the rent due, and how do you pay the rent each month? You should know when the rent payment will be considered late. There will typically be a late fee if your rent is paid past the due date. You need to know what that fee will be for late rent payment. It won’t look good to future landlords if you pay your rent late, so ask what payment methods are available and choose the best method to avoid paying rent late.

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• What deposits are required? You need to know whether there is a security deposit and whether it is refundable as long as the apartment is in the same condition when you move out as when you moved in. You should have a walk-through inspection before your move so that the move-in condition can be noted. Always take pictures at that time and make sure there is a date on those pictures so that you have a record of the move-in condition to avoid being blamed for damage caused by a prior tenant.

• Are pets allowed? If you don’t already have a pet but are thinking of getting one, you need to know what the restrictions are and if there are fees associated with having a pet.

• What fees are not included in the rent? Many rental properties will charge parking, amenities, storage, move-in, administrative, trash-removal, pet and pet-rent fees. You need to know any additional fees that you might be charged, and if they are charged, do you pay them up front, monthly or annually?

• Which utilities are you responsible for and which utilities are included in the rent? Some apartments will include some utilities such as heat and hot water in the rent. Other apartments will include all the major utilities such as heat, electricity, water and air conditioning. This can provide a savings of about $50 to $200 monthly on average, depending on the size of the unit. With apartments that include all or some of your major utilities, you will most likely have a common laundry room rather than washer and dryer in the unit. Most properties will not include cable, Internet and phone. In any case, it is always best to know what expenses you will have to pay for on top of your rent so you know to budget for that and know whether those additional expenses will be manageable.

• What are you responsible for as a tenant? If you are renting a single-family house, you most likely will be responsible for lawn care, hedge trimming, cleaning the gutters and downspouts, and promptly removing ice and snow as necessary. If you are renting an apartment or a condo, you may only be responsible for changing the lightbulbs and changing the filter on the HVAC system. What utilities are you responsible for as the tenant? Are you responsible for cleaning the carpet at the end of the lease term? Is there a repair deductible charged to you each time a repair is requested? Are you required to get renters insurance to cover your personal belongings?

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• What is the landlord responsible for in terms of property maintenance? In most leases, a landlord will be responsible for all major appliances, plumbing, HVAC units, radiators or window air-conditioning units. If these items are not in working order, the landlord will need to have those items fixed or replaced. You need to make sure that is written in the lease.

• Who will manage the property? You should know who to contact and have a contact phone number in case something breaks and needs to be repaired.

• What notification is required for regular maintenance? There should be a notification procedure in place for a landlord, a property manager or maintenance staff to enter the property for items that need to be maintained regularly.

• Are there rules and regulations for the property? Many properties will have a requirement for noise control. If the property is a condominium, there will be rules for the condo. In an apartment, there might be rules about taking your pet down the elevator or whether they are allowed in the lobby. If there is a common laundry room, there might be hours when laundry can be done. You will need to know whether you are permitted to make changes to the apartment such as hanging a picture or a painting or what is allowed to be kept on a balcony.

• Will the locks be changed or fobs coded for a new tenant? You want to make sure your apartment will be secure. Only you and the landlord should have a copy of the key. If a landlord is not willing to change the locks, it is not typically terribly expensive to do so on your own. You will just have to have the landlord’s permission, and the landlord will need a copy of the new key.

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• When will you be notified about a rent increase? You want to know when you will be notified of a rent increase to be sure you have that on your calendar. It is best to know when to expect the increase so you can contact the landlord to see whether negotiation is possible or to compare prices with what your rent increase will be.

• Will the increase in rent be based on the current market rent? If you were offered a rent special, you want to know whether the rent increase will be based on a percentage of the market rent at the time or the current rent you are paying. You need to be aware of this especially if you are paying a lower rent because of a rent special offered at move-in. A rent special can be several hundred dollars under the current market rent, so a rent increase on a percentage of the current market rent can be much higher than you might expect.

• What is the notice to vacate procedure? If you decide you want to move out at the end of the lease term, you need to know when to give the landlord your notice to vacate.

Nancy Simmons Starrs is founder and president of Apartment Detectives, a D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia apartment-search service.