10 essential questions to ask before signing a lease

Rental musts before you sign

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Bob Phillips

Personal Finance Writer

Bob Phillips is a personal finance writer whose expertise in insurance and investments has been developed through over fifteen years as an advisor/tr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

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Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

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Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

The impact of a new lease

Whether you're moving into your first apartment, transitioning to a new city, or simply seeking a change of scenery, signing a lease is a significant commitment. It's a decision that can impact your finances, lifestyle and overall well-being for the duration of the lease term. Before putting pen to paper, it's crucial to ask the right questions to ensure you're making an informed decision. 

Here are ten essential questions to ask before signing a lease agreement, along with explanations of why they're important and what the ideal answers should entail.

1. What is the lease term and renewal policy?

Understanding the lease term and renewal policy is vital for planning your future and avoiding any surprises down the road. Make sure you're clear on the duration of the lease, whether it's a fixed term or month-to-month. This is also a good time to inquire about the process for renewing the lease when it expires. Ideally, the lease term should align with your long-term plans, and the renewal policy should be transparent and reasonable.

2. What is included in the rent?

Beyond the base rent, it's essential to clarify what additional expenses, if any, are included in the rental amount. Sometimes rent may also cover:

  • Utilities (or just some of them, for example: heat but not water or electricity)
  • Parking fees
  • Maintenance costs
  • Building amenities like gym access or internet service. 

Never assume something will be included without asking. Understanding the breakdown of expenses helps you budget effectively and avoid unexpected financial burdens.

3. What are the terms for the security deposit and move-in fees?

If this is your first apartment, you may be surprised to find out that the price you pay to move in is usually much higher than the amount you will be paying monthly.

Security deposits and move-in fees are standard requirements when leasing a property, but the specific terms can vary. Inquire about the amount of the security deposit, the conditions for its return at the end of the lease and any move-in fees associated with preparing the property for occupancy. Clarity on these terms can prevent disputes and ensure a smooth move-in process.

4. What is the pet policy?

If you have furry friends or are considering adopting a pet during your tenancy, it's vital to understand the property's pet policy upfront. Ask about any restrictions on pet breeds, sizes or quantities, as well as any additional pet deposits or monthly fees. Clear communication regarding the pet policy helps avoid conflicts and ensures a pet-friendly living environment.

5. What changes can you make?

Many tenants want to personalize their living space by painting walls, hanging artwork or installing fixtures. Before making any alterations, it's essential to clarify the landlord's policies regarding such changes. Ask about any restrictions on alterations, decorations, or modifications to ensure compliance with the lease agreement and avoid potential disputes upon move-out. Remember, that forest green paint may be chic now, but if you're required to paint it white when you move out, better stock up on the primer!

6. What are your maintenance responsibilities?

Understanding your maintenance responsibilities as a tenant is critical for maintaining the property in good condition and addressing any issues promptly. Here are some routine maintenance tasks you might be responsible for that you should inquire about:

  • Lawn care
  • Snow removal
  • Pest control

You will also want to ask about the things you won't be responsible for. Say the toilet breaks or the roof is leaking. What is the process for reporting and addressing maintenance issues or repairs?

7. How is rent payment handled?

Clarifying the rent payment process ensures a smooth and hassle-free experience throughout your tenancy. Ask about the accepted forms of payment, such as online portals, checks or money orders, as well as the due date for rent payments and any late fees or penalties for overdue rent. Understanding the rent payment procedures helps you budget effectively and avoid unnecessary fees.

8. What are the rules regarding guests and subleasing?

Understanding the property's policies regarding guests and subleasing is essential for maintaining a harmonious living environment and complying with the lease agreement. Inquire about any restrictions on overnight guests, the duration of guest stays and the process for subleasing the property if necessary. Many rentals expressly forbid using the property as a short-term rental.

9. What is the policy on renters insurance?

While few property owners or managers require renters insurance, carrying it for your protection is advisable. Inquire about the property's policy on renters insurance and whether it's mandatory for tenants. Even if not required, investing in renters insurance can provide peace of mind, knowing your you are protected in the event of a catastrophic event like a fire or theft.

What does rental insurance cover? For an average of $19 a month, renters insurance usually protects:

  • Your liability 
  • Your personal property
  • Your additional living expenses (should your home become unliveable)
  • Medical payments to others

The above will only be covered if damages result from a covered peril named in the policy.

10. What is the process for lease termination?

Even if you love the rental, chances are you won't live there forever. Understanding the lease termination process is important for planning your exit strategy and avoiding potential penalties or disputes. Inquire about the notice period required for terminating the lease, any early termination fees and the process for returning keys and scheduling a final walkthrough. Clarity on the lease termination process ensures a smooth transition out of the property.

Wrapping up

Asking the right questions before signing a lease agreement empowers you to make informed decisions and ensures a positive renting experience. By addressing key aspects such as lease terms, expenses, policies and responsibilities, you can enter into the lease agreement with confidence, knowing your rights and obligations as a tenant. Remember to communicate openly with the landlord or property manager to clarify any uncertainties and establish mutual understanding and respect from the outset.