Remember, rent is rarely an all-inclusive number. Ask about any costs that may be associated with amenities, utilities or management services. (Richard Vogel/AP)

Whether you’re a millennial looking to move out of your parents’ house, a professional seeking adventure in a new city, or a baby boomer planning to downsize and work a few more years or travel, going through the rental process for the first time can be daunting.

The process often begins with a search for the perfect apartment with the right mix of amenities, price range, and access to transportation, shopping and entertainment. Then, once you’ve found your dream apartment, it’s time to sign on the dotted line. And unlike other terms and conditions that you may just skim, it’s important that you go over every section of the lease agreement before committing your signature.

Not sure where to start or what questions to ask? Here are five things to keep in mind before signing your lease:

Note the length of your lease and notice periods

Most lease agreements are for 12 months, to be renewed on an annual basis, but every property owner has their own standard and renewal policy. For example, some independent rental owners may offer a six-month lease or even a month-to-month lease for first-time renters. The cost per month will often be higher, but if your career or a relationship is in flux and you want the flexibility to move with little notice, it may be worth it. 

On the flip side, if you know you want to stay in the area on a longer-term basis, some owners offer a discount for committing to an 18-month or two-year lease. Ask what options are available so you can make an informed decision based on your individual lifestyle and goals.

Take note of the renewal and termination policy, as well — some leases automatically renew, while others require residents to give notice of 60 days if they plan to renew or move. Believe it or not, the majority of lease questions arise around notice periods — even more than security deposits.

 Estimate expenses

Remember, rent is rarely an all-inclusive number. Ask about any costs that may be associated with amenities, utilities or management services. While some properties roll these expenses into the cost of rent, others may price them out separately. The rental housing industry is trending toward the latter, facilitating transparency and allowing residents to see and decide where their money is going.

For example, there may be a nominal fee for parking (with the cost dependent on the number of passes you need) or to use the on-site fitness center. Other costs include water, air conditioning and trash pickup.

Don’t be afraid to ask — your leasing consultant will be glad to explain the breakdown. It’s better to consider how any fees may factor into your monthly total upfront so you can budget accordingly.

 Make sure the community is a fit

Have an Australian shepherd or a Persian cat you plan to bring along? Many communities are pet-friendly, but expect a few guidelines. Typically, there is as an additional security deposit for pet wear and tear. Most communities also have breed restrictions, as well as leash and supervision standards, which is a common courtesy of community living.

Another common-courtesy consideration: Most rental properties have designated quiet hours to ensure residents get the peace and quiet they need. It’s fine to have company over and turn up the music a little, but be respectful of your neighbors and note any specific community rules. Overall, apartments offer a great deal of freedom and convenience, as well as a unique opportunity to meet new people and build community.

 Ask about design changes

If you plan to make any design changes — painting the walls, hanging artwork or installing new appliances — check the conditions in the lease agreement. Most property owners are flexible and want you to feel free to make the space your own, so long as the original layout and structure of the unit remains intact.

If you paint the walls, you’ll likely need to paint them back before moving out, so you may want to stick with lighter colors that will be easier to repaint. You’ll also need to spackle and fill any holes from wall hangings or fixtures before you move out.

Purchase renters’ insurance

In the event of a fire, theft, vandalism or natural disaster, renters’ insurance protects your personal property and assumes responsibility for personal injury, similar to homeowners’ insurance. Most property owners now require residents to purchase renters’ insurance before moving in.

Fortunately, compared with homeowners’ insurance, renters’ insurance is very affordable with monthly payments starting around $8. You may also want to consider contents coverage in the event of flooding. It’s a separate policy, and the community’s flood insurance policy won’t cover your belongings.

Getting a new apartment is an exciting step, and a good lease will answer most of your questions about the terms of your apartment. Remember, your leasing consultant is there to guide you through the process and serve as a resource.

Just be sure to double-check that the lease matches what you’ve discussed.

Robert Pinnegar is president and CEO of the National Apartment Association headquartered in Arlington, Va.