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10 Crucial Things Renters Should Do Before Signing A Lease

things to do while apartment hunting
Make sure you know the full picture before you move in with all your stuff.

Finding the perfect rental can be a challenge — scouring listings, cramming multiple viewings into a single day, and embarking on a search that too often feels like finding a needle in a haystack. So it’s totally understandable that when you find that dream home in the perfect neighborhood with a reasonable monthly rent, you’re quick to pull the trigger.

But before you sign on the dotted line and score that perfect apartment for rent in Dallas, TX, there are a few things to keep in mind. Pay attention to these 10 details, and you’re bound to be a happy camper once you’re all moved in.

1. Read the lease — all of it

“Tenants should be reading the entire lease,” says Shannon Weiss, CEO of the Center for Renters’ Rights in Chicago, IL, adding that rental problems often arise from this very basic error. But you can take this one step further and make sure you’re signing the right lease for your city or state. “In Chicago, there really is only one lease that renters should be looking at. It’s called the Chicago Council of Lawyers lease. This one reflects the city’s ordinance, and many of the others don’t,” she says. Ordinances vary by city and state, so Weiss recommends calling your local government to find out local regulations for landlord-tenant law. Fortunately, there are nonprofit organizations like Weiss’ in most major cities, so a quick phone call to your local renters’ rights organization can help make sure you’re on the right track.

2. Remember: It’s a partnership

The landlord-tenant relationship can be harmonious, especially if it gets off to a good start. Present yourself well on viewing day and be as polite and professional as you would be for a job interview. They are probably showing the property to many prospective tenants — and you want to stand out in all the right ways. “A strong sense of open communication is extremely important to me as a landlord,” says Elizabeth Williams, a Chicago, IL–based landlord who rents out her three-family unit. “Beyond what’s on paper, I want to know that the candidate is a human being and that our relationship will be mutually respectful and beneficial.” Also remember that as much as your landlord is trusting you with their property, you are trusting them to maintain a safe and healthy living environment. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or request repairs and note the response. If they’re not willing to hear your concerns or write repairs into the lease, it could foretell problems down the road.

3. Visit the apartment at different times of day

Maybe the master bedroom gets gorgeous morning sunlight — but also sits right under a street lamp, throwing off even the best sleeper’s circadian rhythms. (Potential solution: blackout shades!) Or perhaps that quiet brunch spot on the first floor attracts a raucous crowd at 4 a.m. Visiting a unit more than once and at different hours will help you get a better sense of the space, from changing noise levels to noting the best hours for soaking up the rays. And while it’s not possible to stretch out your visits over multiple seasons, it’s always a good idea to ask the landlord about the apartment under different weather conditions. He or she may be able to prepare you for a loud radiator come winter or give you the scoop on a lifesaving cross-breeze during the summer months. (Capitalize on that insight when it’s time to create your summer fan strategy!)

4. Ask about alterations (no matter how small)

Most lease agreements will specify what changes you’re allowed to make to an apartment, but it’s always a good idea, before signing, to get specific. Whether you’re hoping to install patio stones in the backyard or just put some nails in the wall, be sure to bring up those enhancements at the first viewing. Landlords can differ greatly in what customization they will allow; taking it for granted that you can “make a place your own” could put your security deposit at risk. And if there are things you feel compromise the safety or integrity of the apartment, have your landlord agree — in writing — to make those repairs.

5. Understand the rules for subletting

Subletting can be a great option for renters who might need to move out early. Maybe you’re renting while planning to buy, and your dream home comes along midlease, or a job unexpectedly takes you to a new state. Subletting can help you avoid breaking your lease by letting someone else pay out the remaining months — but make sure your landlord allows it or would consider an exception to the rule. Penalties for subletting can range from a hefty fine to eviction, so best to be in the clear before passing off the keys to another renter.

6. Ask what’s included (and be clear on what isn’t)

Utilities and other hidden costs can add up if they’re not included in the monthly rent. Even if you determine that the basics like gas and electric come with the rental, be sure to ask about hidden fees like garbage pickup, on-site parking, or monthly pet fees. Or if the property hosts an on-site gym or free laundry, factor those savings into your household budget. If no utilities are included, try to get a ballpark idea of what they might cost and budget accordingly. Asking a neighbor or the previous tenant can help give you an idea of what others spend.

7. Consider energy efficiency

Before you jump for joy that the new place comes with an in-unit washer and dryer, Boston, MA–based sustainability consultant Irmak Turan recommends digging a little deeper. “Check all appliances for the Energy Star rating, a criteria set by the U.S. Department of Energy,” advises Turan. Although it might not be a deal breaker if your appliances aren’t Energy Star–certified, if they are, that could significantly lower utility bills.

Turan also recommends asking your landlord if your building has been properly weatherized: “That means doors and windows properly sealed and closed off and proper insulation,” she says. She recommends asking how old the windows are and if they’re double- or triple-paned. If your inspection reveals that there’s room for improvement, you may have some leverage in asking for efficiency updates. “A lot of states have incentives and tax rebates for homeowners to upgrade. They’ll get a tax break, and you’ll save money on energy bills. That can be something you negotiate before signing the lease,” Turan says.

8. Talk to your new neighbors

Get to know your neighbors, even before you sign. If they’re in the same building, you can get an expert opinion on the ins and outs of your prospective rental. They can let you know what utilities usually cost, weigh in on the dependability of your landlord or property management company, and tell you what to expect from the neighborhood. Ask how long they’ve lived in their apartment: It’s a good sign if your neighbor has found reason to renew their yearly lease. Neighbors can be good for so much more than a borrowed cup of sugar!

9. Beware of bedbugs

City life certainly has its perks, but it can come with a few extra considerations when you’re looking to rent. Pests like bedbugs are a very real problem in major cities like New York, NY, San Francisco, CA, and Chicago, IL. Fortunately, websites like allow you to search by address and see if bedbugs have been reported at a specific location. It can’t hurt to ask the landlord if bedbugs have been reported on-site, even if the building seems pest-free. If they have been found on the property, ask what extermination measures have been taken. Some landlords will pay for monthly pest control checkups.

10. Have your papers in order

Competitive rental markets like New York, NY, and San Francisco, CA, often see many qualified candidates vying for the same apartment. In these cases, the most crucial thing you can do before signing a lease is to be 100% prepared. According to New York–based broker Ben Diskant, that means showing up with all the necessary paperwork at the time of viewing. “If you fall in love with a place, the chances are high someone else is going to fall in love with it too,” says Diskant. Having your paperwork ready to go with your application will expedite the process and increase your chances of signing that lease. He recommends bringing a copy of your driver’s license, a copy of your passport or Social Security card, a letter verifying your employment, three most recent pay stubs, your most recent tax return, most recent W-2s, three most recent bank statements (checking, savings, and any investments you have), as well as three to four months’ rent to cover the first month’s rent, security deposit, application fees (typically $100 for each), and broker’s fee (15% of the annual rent). Whew!

What’s your best apartment hunting tip? Share in the comments below!