The more questions you asking before signing the lease for a house or apartment, the fewer nasty surprises you'll have later.
So you’ve decided to rent a home! You found a place you like in a neighborhood you love that’s filled with hip bars, restaurants, and convenient public transportation.
All that’s left to do now is place down whatever upfront costs are required and sign that lease. You’re currently taking out your shiny Jimmy Buffet novelty pen and pushing down the cheeseburger-shaped plunger. Now you’re bringing pen to paper. Now you’re about to sign your name in beautiful calligraphy that would make your third-grade teacher proud BUT WAIT! Not so fast!
Ask these questions before you finish signing! Your future landlord can wait another five minutes.
1. What does your rent actually get you?
You already know what you’ll be paying in rent. And if you don’t, then you may need to read an article about the actual process of finding an apartment rather than jumping ahead to the lease. But even if you know what you’ll be paying in rent, you should find out exactly what you’ll be getting for your money.
“What is included in the rent?” asked Holly McQueen, VP/Regional Property Manager at GMH Capital Partners. “Amenity packages, utilities, trash, parking, pet rent and deposit, and other add-ons are not always included in the advertised price and can add up quickly.
“What you see is not always what you get unless you pay up. Landlords should also be able to provide estimated utility costs based on previous tenant records.”
2. When was the building built?
While an older building may have a certain charm, it can also come with some unwelcome surprises.
“It’s important to note what year the home or apartment building was constructed before signing a lease,” urged home safety expert Colin Ruggiero. “Often times, structures built prior to the 1980s were built with hazardous materials, such as lead paint and asbestos insulation.
“Landlords are required to disclose information regarding potentially dangerous substances that are on the property; however, they are not required to abate these materials.
“As the future tenant, it is up to your discretion as to if you want to rent the property, but you should keep in mind the health risks involved. Exposure to carcinogens like asbestos could lead to respiratory illnesses later in life.”
3. Are pets allowed?
Some apartments allow pets. Some apartments do not allow pets. You really want to be certain which kind of apartment the place you’re moving into is—especially if you already have a pet.
“Are pets allowed?” inquired Daniela Andreevska, marketing director at Mashvisor. “This question is important regardless of whether you own a pet or not. Why you need to make sure that pets are allowed is obvious in case you own one.
“However, if you have any allergies or other health conditions, it is good to know if the apartment has been previously inhabited by a pet.”
4. Can you take pictures?
It would be nice to be able to ask your landlord if they’re a bad landlord before you sign the lease. But even if you could, they wouldn’t be likely to answer honestly. Which is unfortunate, because you don’t want to risk losing part of your security deposit because of damage that was already there when you moved in.
That’s why you should ask to take pictures of the current state of the apartment.
“When you move into a property, you should take extensive photos of the condition of the property prior to moving anything into the unit,” advised Shawn Breyer, owner of Breyer Home Buyers.
“Make sure that you send an email containing the photos to your landlord to document the condition. This will provide you with evidence and date and timestamp on the photos.
“Ask what records they have of the turnover from the previous tenant’s move out that they have kept. Also, ask if you can send them an email file with the pictures that you take of the property.
“When you move out, your landlord will try to recoup all of the money that they can for repairs, even if the property was damaged prior to you moving in. These charges could deplete your entire security deposit.
“Your landlord could even place a lien against you for compensation of the damages. You could potentially find yourself in court proving that the damages were not your fault.
“Your landlord could have done renovations on the property three years earlier and taken extensive photos. If these are the only photos of the property, it’s hard to prove that the tenant between you and the renovations caused the damage.
“If you have a timestamp proving that the damages were in the property prior to you moving in and that you made the landlord aware of the damages, then you will never have to worry about losing these disputes.”
5. Will there be construction nearby?
You don’t want to be woken up by jackhammer noises at 7:00 AM every morning. Or, at the very least, you want to know in advance that you’ll be woken up by jackhammer noises each morning.
“Noisy construction can last months or even years,” warned McQueen. “It is important to be aware of how the environment you’re signing up for now may change in the months to come.”
6. How does renewal work?
Right now you’re probably focused on the stresses of moving and figuring out how you’re going to get all of your stuff from the old place to this new place. But you should also give some thought to what’s going to happen at the end of this new lease.
“What is the renewal process?” asked Andreevska. “Don’t assume that the lease is automatically renewed at the end of the agreement term or that it is automatically canceled. Ask to be on the safe side.”
If you know you’ll be in this home for multiple years, it’s worth asking if you can sign a multi-year lease. This could allow you to lock in the initial rent you’re agreeing to without having to worry about rent increases each year. And you might even be able to get a discount!
“If you’re planning to stay in the unit for longer than the typical year lease term, it doesn’t hurt to ask about an extended lease discount,” offered McQueen. “Most landlords would prefer to have a guaranteed tenant and will adjust the price to ensure less vacancy in the future.”
7. Can you sublet?
Subletting can be a great way to make up some of your rent money. As such, it’d be good to know if that’s an option.
“With the prevalence of Airbnb, VRBO, and other subletting platforms, it’s easy to sublet your apartment when you’re out of town or a spare room as an extra source of income,” advised McQueen.
“However, many landlords strictly enforce a no subletting policy and can use it as grounds to terminate a lease if violated. If your intention is to use the unit as a sublet (whether it be a room or the whole unit) you should know what the policies are before committing.”
8. When is rent due?
Basic questions can still be important questions!
“Make sure you understand by what date precisely you need to pay the rent every month,” urged Andreevska. “Not knowing that is an easy way to get in trouble with the landlord right away.”
9. What happens if you have to break the lease?
Some questions are better asked in more subtle ways. Maybe not even to the landlord directly so they don’t worry that you’re planning to break the lease. But it’s still important to know the answer to those questions, just in case.
“It’s important to know what penalty fees apply should you have to leave the apartment before the lease is up,” explained McQueen. “Though you may not have the intention of terminating the lease early, life can throw curveballs in many forms—a job relocation, growing family, etc.—and it’s always best to know what you’re facing should something come up.
“Knowing the termination fee, advance-notice window, and how ownership handles showing the apartment to prospective tenants while you’re still living there are all important.”
10. How do repairs work?
Things break. What happens next?
“If the pipe bursts in the middle of the night, you have to know whether to call the landlord or property manager or a handyman preselected by the landlord,” offered Andreevska.
It would also be good to know what kind of timeline you should expect when it comes to repairs.
“Some buildings offer 24/7 service schedules, while others may take several days to respond to a service request,” warned McQueen. “Delayed response to an issue in your unit can be stressful and disruptive to your everyday life.”
OK, got all your answers? Let’s sign that lease and pump up the Margaritaville to celebrate!
If you’re not careful, housing-related costs can become a big money suck.
Shawn Breyer started Breyer Home Buyers with a mission to empower people to enjoy life by simplifying and solving their property issues. He and his wife flip 35+ homes in the metro Atlanta area every year.
Holly McQueen is the Vice President/Regional Property Manager of GMH Capital Partners. Mrs. McQueen is responsible for the company owned multi-family assets and retail component of student housing, multi-family and 3rd party commercial assets. She joined the company in 2001, opening our Jacksonville, FL office. With over 25 years of experience, Mrs. McQueen has managed a number of our multi-family properties totaling over 1,100 units with another 400 under development. Mrs. McQueen received her Bachelor’s of Science in Real Estate from Florida Atlantic University.
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