The 11 Questions You Need to Ask Before Signing a Lease

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By Niccole Schreck

If you've found your dream apartment and you're getting ready to sign the lease, all of your biggest questions should have already been answered. You don't want to agree to live somewhere without knowing how much it's going to cost you per month and whether all the appliances are working properly, right?

But there are a number of questions you'll want to ask before you sign your apartment lease, which is a legally binding document and shouldn't be taken lightly. Ideally, the property manager or landlord will walk you through the process. When they do, keep these 11 questions in mind:

1. How do I pay rent? This is something that differs from company to company and landlord to landlord, so it's an important question to ask every time you move somewhere new. You may have to send a check to a specific address or P.O. Box, but some apartment communities will have you drop off a check in a box at the main office. Others will let you pay online. Make note of the preferred payment method for your new apartment.

2. What utilities should I take care of? Some apartments include utilities in the rent and some don't, so make sure you know which ones to handle independently, including electricity, Internet, cable, water and gas. You'll have to call each company and set up an account for the apartment under your name. You should also see if the building already has deals with any of the providers. Cable and Internet companies often make deals with property management companies, which usually means the residents get cheaper monthly bills.

3. What Is the late rent policy? Is there a grace period? Many landlords allow residents until the third or fifth of the month before they deem the rent to be "late," but make sure you know your apartment's specific policy so you don't end up paying additional fees.

4. Is renters insurance required? Renters insurance is always a good idea, and it typically doesn't cost that much per month. However, some management companies require residents to have a policy, so double check with yours.

5. What happens if I have to move out early? It may not seem like it, but 12 months is a long time to commit, especially if you think you may move for your career or family in the near future. So, what happens if you need to leave before your lease is up? Ask if getting out of your lease early is possible, how much notice you need to give and whether you're allowed to sublet. If moving out early isn't an option, make sure you know the fee for breaking the lease.

6. Can I make changes to the apartment? Some landlords couldn't care less if you painted the walls black and the trim purple, while others would dock your security deposit if you tacked a poster to the wall. If you're planning on decorating your place, make sure you double check the apartment's policy for making changes to the space. If your landlord says you can paint or make changes that aren't spelled out in the lease, be sure to get everything in writing.

7. How do I submit a maintenance request? What if it's an emergency? Is there a maintenance staff member on-site 24/7? If not, what happens if your heat stops working in the middle of winter, your pipes burst, your toilet floods or some other unimaginable maintenance issue arises? Ask for an email address or phone number for basic requests (like if one of your burners stops working or your faucet drips) and if there is separate contact information for emergencies. Some apartment communities even have online maintenance request systems.

8. What can I expect when lease renewal time rolls around? It's a good idea to find out upfront what to expect when it comes time to renew the lease. Are you allowed to extend the lease on a month-to-month basis? Will the lease automatically renew if you don't give notice of move-out? Is the rent going to go up? And if so, by how much? Knowing the answer to these questions now will prepare you better when it's time to decide between renewing and moving out.

9. What is the pet policy? Say you don't already have a pet (if you did, you should already know the pet policy way before signing a lease). If you think there's even a slight possibility you'll want to adopt a furry friend within the next year, find out now if pets are allowed. If they are, discuss how much more you'll be paying each month and if there are any deposits or fees involved.

10. Can you document any current damage in the apartment? If your landlord or management company doesn't bring it up, make sure you do a walk-through of your apartment to make a detailed list of any scratches, holes or other damage currently in the apartment. That way, you won't be blamed for damage you didn't do.

11. What are some reasons you wouldn't refund my security deposit? Finally, it's a good idea to find out the circumstances in which you wouldn't get your security deposit back. Some wear and tear to the floors and walls is normal and shouldn't affect your deposit too much, but how does the management define damage that's beyond normal?

The answers to these questions will hopefully leave you with all the information you need to make the move-in process a success.

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