If you're looking for an apartment, the monthly rent is probably your most pressing concern. But the answers to other key questions can make the difference between a dream home and a rental nightmare.
Why is this apartment vacant?
"If this is a property with a high number of evictions, that tells you the landlord isn't careful choosing tenants or running the business," says attorney Janet Portman, co-author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide" and managing editor of NOLO, which publishes do-it-yourself legal guides. "These people are going to be your neighbors."
Who is responsible for which maintenance and repairs?
"Generally, under state law you have a right to a habitable place — the landlord can't refuse to fix your plumbing," says attorney Stephanie Rahifs, manager of digital strategy and social media for FindLaw, which offers legal information and community help. "Who does the day-to-day repairs, such as a tear in the linoleum and other cosmetic issues? In my situation, the landlord replaces light bulbs because I live in a green, energy-efficient home. If you live in a snowy area, whose responsibility is it to remove snow from the driveway and front steps? In a single-family home with landscaping, who is responsible for landscaping?"
What can the security deposit be used for? How and when is it returned?
State law governs how the security deposit is collected, what it can be used for, and how and when it's returned, but you want to get those terms specified in your lease also, Rahifs says. Understand what your landlord considers "normal wear and tear," she says: Holes in the wall from hanging pictures? Carpet or replacement after a specified amount of time? "The laws are not always written with our common understanding of certain words," she says.
What are the policies and fees for pets?
Even if you don't have a pet now, you may want one later, Rahifs says. "You may be able to have a dog, but not a pit bull and not a dog that weighs more than 30 pounds," she says. "You may be able to have a cat, but not two. There may be a restriction on aquariums." Some landlords may allow pets, but charge an additional deposit and higher rent.
How safe is the rental?
Are there smoke detectors in units? Is the parking lot lit? Is the parking lot secured or gated? Are hallways lit? Is there security on premises? "Safety is critical, but those are fundamental things we may forget when we go in to sign a lease," says Barney Fadal, CEO of the National Renters Association, an advocate for renters.
Can I get out of this lease if I get transferred, and what's the penalty to do so?
"You may be interviewing for other jobs or get transferred," Fadal says. "It's always OK to ask that question."
Is the date the rent is due even a little bit flexible?
"If your rent is due on the third of the month and you get paid on the first Friday of the month, you can tell your landlord the situation and ask him or her to work with you," Fadal says. "Get it in writing in a special provision."
What are the rules on noise?
Whether you're the potential noisemaker or the one who needs quiet, noise limits and how they're enforced will greatly affect your quality of life. There may be restrictions on when you can run the dishwasher, washer and dryer, Rahifs says. You may not be allowed to play loud music during certain hours. "If you have a job that requires you to be up at 4 in the morning, it makes sense to look at a community that has those restrictions in place," she says.