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Ten Questions Every Renter
Should Ask Before Signing a Lease

If you talk to most seasoned renters, they’ll almost certainly share a story (or ten) about lessons they learned the hard way: “Make sure you document every single dent and scuff in the initial walk-through.” “Don’t put nail holes in your walls unless you’re sure it’s okay with the landlord.” Etc.

There’s just one (big, glaring) problem for new renters: You don’t know what you don’t know. “How to be a savvy renter” isn’t a class that’s taught in school!

“I’ve experienced my fair share of renter’s regret, and I know how frustrating it is to be stuck in a lease that’s making you unhappy,” says Jonas Bordo, CEO and cofounder of Dwellsy, a comprehensive free marketplace for renters and landlords that offers over 13 million verified residential rentals. “Unexpected rules, responsibilities, and expenses – not to mention disruptive neighbors or an apartment that doesn’t resemble the listing photos – can all make a seemingly sweet rental turn sour.”

While you’ll probably never find a rental that’s 100 percent perfect, there are certain things you can check into up front to ensure you’ll be comfortable in your new home. First, you’ll want to research a potential rental’s price, size, location, and amenities. After you’ve confirmed that the basics work for you and your budget, here are ten important questions to ask:

What condition is the rental in? Even if you’ve toured a model unit or watched a virtual tour, ask to walk through your own future living space before signing a lease. Are there any stains, cracks, or chips? Do you see any mold, mildew, or pests? Are there any unpleasant smells? Do the appliances and locks work? How well can you hear what’s going on next door?

“Rentals can look very different from what model units or listing photos would have you believe,” says Bordo. “By scheduling a walk-through, you’ll be able to identify any concerns or deal-breakers before it’s too late. If you do notice any issues, be sure to point them out to your potential landlord and document them with photos or videos.”

Will I be responsible for any maintenance? In general, landlords are responsible for repairs (such as a broken appliance or leaky faucet) and pest control. Often they’ll take care of yard work and snow removal too – but not always! You might be in charge of minor tasks such as changing the air filters every few months, or filling in nail holes before moving out.

“Be sure you understand what’s expected of you up front,” advises Bordo. “For instance, you may not want to rent a townhome where you’ll be responsible for lawn maintenance if you don’t own a mower and have no desire to purchase one.”

Are there quiet hours or other rules that may affect me? Some rental communities enforce quiet hours or restrict pet ownership. Landlords may prohibit overnight guests, or limit how long they may stay. Painting walls or hanging pictures could be off-limits. Rental properties might even regulate unit temperatures and which cleaning products may be used.

“Usually, rules for renters are understandable and expected, but at times they can be downright bizarre ¬– especially where private landlords are concerned,” Bordo shares. “I’ve heard of landlords who won’t allow guests on their property – period – and who limit the hours when tenants can cook. It’s best to know these things up front!”

Is there an HOA? Bordo says rentals in communities with homeowners’ associations, or HOAs, deserve their own mention. That’s because HOAs almost always have rules and restrictions by which landlords, and by extension their tenants, must abide. Be sure to read all of your prospective HOA’s bylaws before signing a lease to make sure the community is a good fit for your lifestyle.

“HOA rules might limit what kind of vehicle or how many vehicles you can have, what kinds of plants can be grown outside, whether you can install satellite dishes or clotheslines, how you can decorate for holidays, and even how and when your trash should be picked up,” Bordo says. “HOAs are somewhat notorious for regulating what may seem to non-residents like small, insignificant details – and they are usually sticklers for enforcing the rules!”

What fines or fees might I be responsible for? If you do break a rule or damage the property, you will probably be on the hook to pay a fine or fee – and that money may or may not come out of your security deposit. You may also be charged a fee if your rent payment is late or if your check bounces. Know beforehand what missteps will literally cost you, so you can avoid them.

“Even if you never break a rule, you may still be responsible for paying pet fees, parking fees, utility fees, move-in and move-out fees, and even elevator fees,” says Bordo. “If you aren’t prepared, they can come as a shock when it’s time to pay that first rent check.”

Are the amenities as advertised? The reality of advertised amenities may not match your assumptions. Maybe the “fitness center” consists of two old treadmills and a handful of mismatched free weights. Or the laundry facility is “under repair” more often than not. Or the “on-site parking” is street parking, not dedicated spaces for tenants. Or the “24/7 maintenance” consists of your landlord, his toolbox, and DIY YouTube repair videos. You get the idea.

“Again, check out facilities for yourself when possible and ask questions about any amenities or services you think you’ll utilize,” advises Bordo. “For instance, your landlord should be able to tell you what the typical response time to a repair request is.”

How noisy will it be? “I’ve talked to so many renters who said they really like their apartment, but it’s a block away from a train track, or across the street from a construction site, or next to a nightclub,” Bordo shares.

“If possible, I recommend walking around your potential neighborhood at different times of the day so you can get a sense of any possible disruptions before you move in.”

Will all my furniture fit? If your couch can’t navigate the hairpin turns in the stairwell of your walk-up, or if you’ll need Vaseline to fit your dining room table into the breakfast nook, it’s best to know those things up front. Ask to measure any key spaces before signing your lease if you would be reluctant to part with any of your larger possessions.

“Don’t trust your eyes to estimate how much space you’ll have,” advises Bordo. “An empty apartment generally looks bigger than it actually is, and even an inch or two can make the difference between your desk ending up in your living room or in the online classifieds.”

What will my utilities and other monthly expenses cost? Many new renters are unpleasantly surprised when they find out that their monthly rent is just the tip of the financial iceberg. Before committing to a rental, Bordo says it’s imperative to crunch the numbers on other expenses you’ll encounter.

“You’ll probably be charged some one-time fees like an application fee, a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, and/or a move-in and move-out fee,” he explains. “You should also factor in recurring expenses like renter’s insurance, energy and water bills, trash pickup, Internet, parking, storage, pet fees, etc. Trust me – you don’t want to be subsisting on a diet of ramen and cereal because you didn’t consider how much your monthly bills would eat into your budget.”

Will I get along with my landlord (or property manager, or super)? This may not seem like a big deal at first, but your quality of life can depend on the relationship you have with your landlord or property manager. This is the person who will be responsible for maintenance and repairs. They may enter your apartment periodically for inspections. You may even need to meet them in person to deliver your rent check. (Yes, even in the digital age, some landlords require this!).

“Whether or not you are able to meet your landlord during the apartment-hunting phase, you can look online to see if they have a social media presence,” suggests Bordo. “If so, does it match the things they’ve said? You may also come across reviews of your landlord or property management company, but take these with a grain of salt. Unlike higher-traffic businesses like restaurants and stores that have hundreds of potential reviewers each day, rental units typically have only one resident per year. As a result, reviews of landlords are either non-existent or they represent the worst day a renter had in a 365-day lease.

“Finally, I also recommend talking to your future neighbors if possible,” he adds. “If someone says, ‘My pipes froze last winter and it took three weeks to fix the problem,’ or, ‘The landlord wants unlimited access to the property,’ you should take that seriously.”

“You may get hit with a curveball no matter how much due diligence you put into confirming that your rental will be a great place to live,” says Bordo. “But in the majority of cases, you can feel confident moving in if you have read and understood every single word of your lease (no skimming!), and have had the opportunity to see and ask questions about the property in person.”

Services like Dwellsy can also be a big help when you’re looking for an apartment or other rental that fits your lifestyle, preferences, and budget. Dwellsy has the largest selection of current, accurate, and fraud-free residential listings in the U.S., as well as the most diverse set of affordable listings. And since it allows you to filter searches by features and amenities, you’ll be able to zero in on properties that work for you, fast.

Editor’s Note: Jonas Bordo is the CEO and cofounder of Dwellsy, the free residential rental marketplace that makes it easy to find hard-to-find rentals. Dwellsy has more than 13 million residential rental listings – more than any legacy classifieds site – as well as the most diverse set of listings, including single family rentals, condos, and apartments. For more information, visit Dwellsy.com.

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