Before you declare an apartment as the “perfect place,” be sure to ask these crucial questions when viewing an apartment.

Once you’ve found the ideal place – in the right neighborhood, and at the right price — knowing the right questions to ask when viewing an apartment can be difficult when you’re wearing rose-colored glasses. And more often than not, there’s a hidden defect or a loosely written lease that you’re glazing over.

Before you jump into the lease agreement, dig deeper to make sure you’re not missing critical information about the apartment, or getting swindled by an unscrupulous landlord. Pause, consider these questions, and you’ll likely be thanking yourself later.

9 Questions To Ask Before Signing a Lease

  • Is this a legal rental unit?

    If you suspect that the great deal on that garage apartment isn’t really on the up and up, even though the landlord said it was, follow your instincts. Word to the wise: Don’t rent it! It might not pass a safety inspection.

    But if the legality of the dwelling didn’t occur to you until after you’ve been living there awhile, move on as soon as you find out it’s not legal. If the city catches wind of this space, you’ll need to leave anyway.

    Here are some telltale signs of an illegal unit:

    • Really low rent.
    • Basement, attic, or garage apartment.
    • No (or very small) windows.
    • Utilities are paid for.
    • You need to get your mail from a PO box.
  • What about previous damage?

    You could be blamed for damage from a previous tenant, even months or years after the fact. Test the faucets, heating and air systems, electrical outlets, toilets, etc., and document anything that isn’t up to par. That way, repair costs won’t fall to you when it’s time to move out.

  • What’s included in the lease?

    Never assume anything is part of the deal. Ask about parking privileges, utilities, cable television, and the like so you know exactly what your monthly check covers. Once you know what the rent includes, you can budget for whatever’s not part of the deal.

  • Can I make improvements?

    Ask the landlord or property manager how they feel about renovations such as painting, adding lighting, or installing a new doorbell. What you call property improvement your landlord may see as property damage.

  • What are the pet policies?

    Whether you own pets or just have a friend who occasionally stops by with theirs, find out what the pet policy is. You don’t want to encounter demands for a $300 pet deposit because your sister brought her new puppy along on vacation.

  • Does the lease automatically renew?

    This is important: It’s no fun to learn you’re out of a place to live when you’ve already planned (in your mind) to stay another year. Find out exactly when the current lease expires, what kind of notice to vacate you’ll receive, and what happens when the term is over. Some leases automatically renew for a second year or become month to month after the first year. Other landlords expect you to vacate immediately.

  • What is the termination policy?

    You probably won’t sign a lease with plans to abandon ship, but you never know what could happen in a year. A new job offer out of town, family health issues, financial problems, and other unplanned events often force tenants to break a lease. Know from the beginning what that entails and how much it will cost.

  • What is the policy for returning my security deposit?

    Some landlords never intend to give security deposits back, no matter how pristine you leave the place. The problem is so bad that some jurisdictions slap landlords with punitive damages if they wrongfully withhold your deposit.

    • If the landlord doesn’t return your deposit or send you an itemized list of why they’re keeping it within the period required by your state, the landlord waives any rights to keep it.
    • Write a letter. Tell the landlord that they need to return your security deposit immediately, as it is now past the legal period.
    • Use a security deposit return service or contact an attorney.

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