What to know before signing a lease for a house or apartment

what to know before signing a lease

When you find a new place you love, you can finally breathe a sigh of relief. But, before you get too comfortable, take a careful look at your lease paperwork.

As easy as it may be to assume your future landlord will hand you a standard lease, remember that this paperwork lays out the rules for your home life for at least several months. It’s always safest to know what to look for before signing a lease, so keep an eye out for these six things.

1. The basics

It may seem too basic to deal with, but one of the first things to look for before signing a lease is to check to make sure that your lease includes the correct tenant names, addresses, contact information, and—most importantly—monthly rent amount. Does the lease list all of the amenities and utilities that are included in your rent? Whether an error in any of these spots is a typo or a misunderstanding of some kind, it’s important to make sure this most essential information is accurate. This could save you an unfortunate surprise later.

2. Late fees

Most landlords charge their tenants some kind of late fee if they fail to pay their rent on time. Check that your lease is clear about the renters’ responsibility regarding how much any late fees will cost you, when you’re at risk of incurring a fee, and whether the late fee policy is in agreement with any state laws that might apply to you. If, for example, your state imposes a monetary limit on late fee penalties, the amount on your lease should be lower.

3. Tenant rights and responsibilities

Make sure you understand what your renters’ responsibilities are in maintaining the apartment, as well as what rights you have in making the space your home over the next several months. Is there language that clearly answers the question, What are the tenants’ responsibilities for repairs?

Your landlord may also detail in the lease the ways they expect their tenants to maintain a pleasant apartment building, such as lawn care, noise restrictions, limitations on decorations or furniture, and so on.

For example, some landlords are more open than others to tenants making small alterations to an apartment, like painting, but the lease may not be clear on whether your responsibility as a tenant is to repaint the walls to their original color before moving out. The lease may also include information on whether the landlord allows you to sublet any part of your apartment, or clearly state a limit on how long any visitors can stay with you.

Another question to consider regarding tenants’ rights and responsibilities: Does your landlord allow pets? Even if you don’t have a pet upon move-in, it’s a good idea to know the lease rules before signing in case you decide to own a pet in the future.

4. Insurance

While not all landlords and leases explicitly require you to sign up for some kind of insurance, it’s a good idea to understand to what degree you and your belongings are protected by your landlord’s insurance.

Generally speaking, your landlord’s insurance won’t cover your belongings in the event that something is stolen or damaged. Make sure your lease is clear about what kind of incidents your landlord’s insurance does cover, and if you are required under tenants’ rights and responsibilities to sign up for your own insurance in order to cover yourself more fully.

5. Landlord’s rights and responsibilities

Your landlord is accountable to you for some things as well. While your lease may hold tenants responsible for repairs and some maintenance, landlords are generally required to make sure at the bare minimum that your apartment is safe and habitable.

So, yes, paying someone to remove the wine stain your friend left in your carpet is on you. But, if there’s no hot water in your apartment for a full week, that may be on your landlord.

Also, check your lease for information about any rights you have regarding when and how often the landlord or other non-tenants are allowed to enter your apartment.

If your lease doesn’t specify important details like how much advance notice your landlord needs to give you before entering your apartment, ask for some clarification.

Something to know before signing a lease is to look for any language in the lease that states that your landlord has the right to change the terms of your lease at any time. This may seem obvious, but make sure you have a very clear understanding of what this means if this language does appear in your lease. If it means that your landlord can change minor things, like whether you’re allowed to put glass in the garbage chute, that may seem fine. But if this language gives them free reign to change any lease items without informing you or receiving your consent, it’s worth raising the issue.

6. Details of lease termination

Do you understand what will be expected of you if you decide to leave your apartment at the end of your lease? Does it specify what you’re financially responsible for if you’re terminating the lease earlier than expected? How long will you need to wait to get your security deposit back? Check all of the termination language in your lease, which is often relevant a number of months before and after your official lease end date.

For example, your lease may state a date by which you need to inform your landlord that you intend to either renew or terminate your lease for the following year, and how. So, if your lease states that you need to touch base with your landlord 60 days before your lease ends and inform them of your decision in writing, be clear about whether “in writing” means a letter, an e-mail, or a text message.

If your lease includes an automatic renewal clause, and you give notice too late, you may get stuck with an angry landlord and a fee. On the other hand, some leases might include language that states that if you don’t give notice to your landlord, but stay in the apartment, your lease will convert to a month-to-month lease, which may or may not be desirable to you.

Make sure you know what to look for before signing a lease regarding your renters’ responsibilities, whether you’re terminating the lease early, staying another year, or leaving for a new space. This will help you make a smart decision and avoid a stressful conversation with your landlord.

No matter how excited you are about a potential new apartment, it’s important to know what to look for before signing a lease and to treat your lease like the legal document it is. If you read any leases carefully before signing, it not only helps you avoid any landlords that might have rules you’re uncomfortable with, but also sets you up to be a better tenant. And if the lease restricts you in ways you don’t like, it’s better to know now and lose any holding deposit you placed on the apartment than to be stuck with unexpected charges or an unhappy living situation for the next year.