Whether you’re looking to rent a house or apartment, signing a lease is one of the most important decisions you can make. It’s also one of the most complicated—every rental contract has enough fine print to give you eye strain, making it easy to miss some very important details. And if you don’t pay attention to said details, you can end up in a world of hurt.
Getting into a bad lease can threaten your sanity, health, finances, and peace of mind, so it pays to be prepared before you sign on the dotted line. Here are seven things to check out when searching for new digs; they'll help save you time, money, and stress.
Take a Look Around
Before we start getting into the weeds for things to avoid when signing a lease, let’s start with the most obvious: How does the property look?
A little wear and tear is to be expected, but if you see obvious areas of neglect or damage when getting the guided tour, this is when the alarm bells should start going off.
If things look sketchy from the get-go, say thanks but no thanks.
And this goes beyond your immediate dwelling—how are the grounds? Is the parking lot lit safely at night? Is the landscaping kept up? Does the pool look inviting or more like a hive of bacteria? Best give all of it a look while you’re there.
This is also the time to gauge your landlord’s behavior: Are they approachable? Cold? Argumentative? Do they make you feel at ease with their demeanor and transparency? This is just as important as the cosmetics of your surroundings, and should be of special concern if you feel they’re invasive of personal boundaries. Remember, they’ll have access to your dwelling, so you need to feel safe knowing they won’t come by unannounced (or put you under surveillance).
Always remember, when a landlord is giving you the guided tour, they’re presenting the best version of themselves and their property, so if things look sketchy from the get-go, say thanks but no thanks.
Talk to Other Tenants
If you just ask the landlord about their rental property, their job is to make things sound idyllic, so be sure you find out from a non-biased source if you’re getting a good deal. The best way to do that? Talk to the folks whose opinions matter most: current tenants.
Perhaps you know a friend who lives there (by the way, asking a friend where to find a good place to live is always a great idea), or they know someone who does. Or just chat with someone you meet while checking out the prospective property. We admit this can be awkward, but it’s worth the effort.
If talking to someone out of the blue in person just feels too uncomfortable, you can always turn to Yelp, apartmentratings.com or rent.com to see user reviews—but keep in mind some negative reviews could be from competitors or individuals with unrealistic expectations, so gauge accordingly.
Make sure you have your questions ready, including the following: Is it a safe location? Is the landlord reputable? Are the neighbors courteous? Any noise issues? Do repairs get fixed in a timely fashion? The more locals you can talk to the better; it will help you get a good feel for the property and the people in it.
Get Everything in Writing
If you ever need to lodge a complaint or legal action at your dwelling, the devil is truly in the the details.
Keep every single record you think you might need in a worst-case scenario. Knowing the protocol for maintenance repairs and breaking/renewing a lease is crucial (we’ll talk more about that in a bit), so make sure everything is crystal clear in the paperwork. If you have any burning questions or concerns, make sure they’re mentioned beforehand and are addressed in the contract.
If there are any strange addendums that look fishy, they probably are. Any notice of extras fees or numerous hoops to jump through to resolve issues are all red flags.
Have a family member or a friend accompany you (bonus points if you know someone in the property business) so they can give the paperwork a second look and see if they catch anything you might have missed.
You can never be too careful, so don’t allow yourself to be bullied or rushed into signing anything you might regret. Any landlord worth their reputation will give you some breathing room before you sign on the dotted line.
Ask What Maintenance Repairs Are Covered
One of the major plusses of renting vs. buying is repairs. Fixing appliances and property damage can be expensive on your own, so getting those done for free is always a perk. But all landlords are not created equal in this regard.
Yes, they are expected to do maintenance repairs in most cases, but this is where reading the fine print in any lease contract really pays off—you need to find out what all they’ll cover, and what they won’t.
Realtor and property manager Tracey Norris says this is one of the most important aspects when signing a lease: “Any prospective tenant should know what the owner (landlord) is going to repair if appliances break ... because some won't replace fridges or washer and dryers.”
So make sure you’re getting the most value for your dollar and that any and all repairs (in reason) will be covered by the property owner and not by you.
Know Your Legal Rights as a Tenant
If you want to avoid being taken advantage of by a landlord, knowing your rights as a renter is an absolute must. As a tenant, you’re covered by a variety of general protections, but there’s a catch: each state, city, or county may have differing rights, so if you’ve moved across state or county lines, don’t expect what worked in your former rental to work in another. This can be confusing (and upsetting) if you’re not prepared.
You're your own best advocate.
It’s best to do your homework on what your rights are as a tenant are before you even consider looking at a lease; most states offer a tenants' rights handbook (many of which are available on the internet). Also, be sure to look into any legal aid resources you can turn to in case things sour between you and your landlord.
And keep in mind that your rights may differ if you’re renting an apartment instead of a house, as leases for each are handled through different associations with different guidelines and regulations.
Remember, you’re your own best advocate when signing a lease. Being educated on your rights will lower any chance of being taken advantage of, and will scare off any landlord out to do you harm. Knowledge is power.
Learn the Requirements for Breaking the Lease or Vacating the Property
One way you can tell if a property is on the up-and-up is if they have a clear and fair process in case you need to break their lease. Sometimes breaking a contract simply can’t be helped, so if it seems too costly and has an overly complicated process to renege, walk out the door of the leasing office and don’t look back.
Always trust your gut.
Norris emphasizes that every prospective tenant needs to have this clearly explained before you get wooed by how great the property looks and all the other wonderful perks you’ve been sold on: “You really need to make sure you know how to give your notice to vacate and how many days beforehand is required before your lease ends.”
We can’t emphasize enough how crucial this step is in the leasing process-- if you don’t know the details you could be in severe financial stress for months or more.
Figure Out Acceptable Methods of Payment
Nothing will get you off to a bad start with your landlord like having a delinquent payment. Rent money is expected to be paid on time every month, so make sure you know the proper channel for delivering the funds.
Norris emphasizes that “you want to make sure your lease states where you pay rent and who you pay rent to and what method is acceptable: can you pay online? Are cash or money orders acceptable, or do they only accept checks?”
In addition to knowing all of the above details, make sure to find out if there’s a cut-off date before any late fees begin to incur in case of late payment. Not getting this clearly explained (and in writing) could become very costly in the long run, not to mention cause bad blood between you and your landlord. While you should always intend to pay on time, sometimes extenuating circumstances can rear their ugly head. Best to know the repercussions beforehand.
These are the primary things to keep in mind when signing a lease, so make sure to keep these factoids handy when searching for your next apartment or home rental. And if anything ever seems unusual or out of the ordinary when you’re looking for a new home, always trust your gut.
If something looks too good to be true, it probably is, and if something doesn’t feel right, you should avoid it. Common sense is the ultimate barometer to guide you to the rental property that best suits your needs.