Never Sign an Apartment Lease Without Doing These Things First

Everything you need to know about renting your first apartment.

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May 23 2018, 4:52pm

Photo by Getty Images

Unless you’re a spoiled rich kid whose parents bought you a place, you’re going to be entering adult life paying a substantial portion of your paycheck to a landlord. (A good rule of thumb is to spend no more than 30 percent on housing.) Given that where you rest your head is a major factor in your quality of life, there are quite a few things to know before signing that lease! Here are the most important ones:

1. Peep the locale

You probably already know not to sign a lease without seeing the place in person. (No, a Skype tour doesn't count.) While you're there, be sure to do a thorough check. Is there chipped paint? Are there signs of rats or roaches? Is there a hole in wall? How's the water pressure in the shower? Whether or not these are deal breakers depends on you, but these must be noted to the landlord before move-in. Take photos of everything so they can’t claim that you made that hole or brought in those rats when you’re trying to get your deposit back.

Also, attending an “open house” on a sunny Saturday afternoon isn't enough. You don't really know what you're getting into until you take a gander during other parts of the day. Does the block turn into a free-for-all bar scene until four a.m. on weekends? Do you share a wall with a SoulCycle that blasts jams at eight in the morning? Do you personally feel safe walking home alone after dark? Make sure you are comfortable with the answers to all these questions before making a decision.

2. Scout the landlord

You may have met the landlord during your walk-through, but what do you really know about them other than their firm handshake and shiny grin? Do they own just this building? Are they planning on moving back in? Are they part of an investor group that only sees you in terms of profit creation?

“If they’re a speculator, chances are they’re up to something,” says Tommi Mecca, director of counseling at the Housing Rights Committee in San Francisco. For Bay Area residents, Mecca recommends consulting the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to get more information about your prospective landlord. Meanwhile, the Public Advocate of New York has a list of the 100 Worst Landlords in that city. But often, enough information is just a few Google searches away.

More importantly, don’t be bashful about reaching out to other tenants who live in the same building. Depending on the size of the city you live in, you can try asking your social circles on your various social mediums for connections. Or come back in the evening without the landlord or super around (when you're checking out the vibe on your own anyway) and connect with a current tenant. What do they think about the landlord? Are they responsible? How do they handle repairs? What shady shit have they done? It’s the same general conceit as getting the inside scoop from other employees before accepting a job offer. Always know what you’re getting into before you sign.

3. Learn your rights

Tenant rights are a fickle beast since they’re subject to the whims of both your state and municipal legislatures. The Department of Housing and Urban Development's website isn’t the greatest resource, but it can help point you in the right direction. The main questions you want to answer are: (1) Is this unit at all “rent controlled,” i.e., pure manna from heaven that means you’ll never get a huge rent hike and, therefore, never want to move out? (2) Do you have eviction protections?

Living in a unit that has “rent control” or is “rent stabilized” (the difference is subtle, but important, and informs what percentage the landlord can raise your rent per year) is always preferable because it means your landlord can’t jack up your rent to an untenable amount whenever they want. The trick is finding one. Because tenancy laws are so piecemeal, their availability and protections depend on the state and municipality in which you reside. For instance, in California, no single-family homes or anything built after 1983 can be rent controlled, so often you’ll have rent controlled buildings right physically next to those that aren’t. If you’re renting in L.A., consult this tool; in N.Y., consult this page; anywhere else, check in with your local tenants rights group.

Eviction protections are equally all over the place. Many cities have none, meaning that, once your lease is up (usually one year), your landlord can give you a 30-days “notice to vacate” for any reason at all. Other states and jurisdictions are protected by a “just cause” ordinance (sometimes called “good cause”) which forces the landlord to have one of a number of reasons before they can evict you. Generally, if you live somewhere with “just cause,” (like San Francisco and Oakland; New York landlords on the other hand don’t need to offer an explanation), and if you pay your rent and follow the terms of your lease, you will have the right to stay put despite what your landlord might say. In short: Don’t trust your landlord when it comes to informing you about your rights as a tenant!

4. Work out details with roommates

This depends entirely on your arrangement, but to avoid the problems that will for sure come up in the future, be very clear with roommates about costs (utilities, internet, garbage), space (the parking spot, communal areas, room in the fridge, dates spending the night!) and cleaning (should you rotate or hire someone to do it) are dealt with. It’s fine to do this verbally, but absolutely better to write out an email or separate roommate agreement signed by everyone just so there’s no confusion down the road.

5. Read the damn lease!

This seems obvious, but isn’t. Leases are getting more and more complicated, and they may not seem not worth your time after chatting with your new landlord. But this is a horrific mistake.

“Everything in that agreement is binding, so you have to carefully read it,” says Diana Alonso, a tenant organizer in the San Francisco chapter of Causa Justa. “Is there some type of move-in inspection happening? Then both parties should be in agreement about the conditions of the unit. Many times there are disputes about who should be making the repairs.”

If English isn’t your first language, ask for a lease you can read easily. When you get it, consider if there any innocent-looking terms in there that would allow the landlord “just cause” to evict? Are guests allowed to stay over? How often? Are you allowed to park your bike outside? What about sublets and pets? When will the deposit be returned when you move out?

Negotiations with landlords are often hard, depending on the market, but not impossible. If you have a concern, ask them if they’d agree to a sentence or two being removed. If you want more clarity, see if they’d add further description. If you’re at the point where they’re offering a lease, the landlord may be willing to negotiate rather than run another credit check on someone new. However, depending on the competitiveness of the market, there may be pressure to sign on the spot, so it'll be up to you to risk taking the extra time to study it (or ideally, run the agreement past a lawyer) or lose the place to someone who asks fewer questions.

Once you both agree on additions or subtractions, sign your initials next to the changes, make a copy or two, keep a copy of any deposit paid (say, a cancelled check or receipt for a cash deposit), and congratulations on your new apartment! Now, it’s time to start preparing for your inevitable landlord/tenant dispute.