Before You Rent, Do Your Homework

Maybe you're a college student looking to rent your first apartment; or a downsizing homeowner reentering the rental market for the first time in decades. Whatever your situation, there are many precautions you should take before renting any property. The last thing you want is to be saddled with a 12-month lease you can't afford or to be stuck in a neighborhood you've come to detest.

As one who's been there, let me share a few tips for renting a home:

Before you even start looking, know how much you can afford to spend. Housing is the biggest monthly expense for most people so if you miscalculate what rent is affordable, your budget will suffer from the get-go. Besides rent, don't forget such additional expenses as a security deposit, utilities (gas, electric, water, trash), cable/satellite and Internet access, parking, storage space, renters insurance, laundry facilities and one-time move-in expenses like window treatments, appliances or rugs. When comparing properties, note which amenities are included in their leases.

Scope out the neighborhood. Determine how safe you feel walking around, especially if you'll be parking on the street. Come back to see if the neighborhood's character changes at night or on the weekend -- there's a fine line between "vibrant restaurant scene" and "all-night partiers." Ask a few neighbors about their impressions of the building's upkeep and neighborhood safety. Also note the proximity to parks, schools, grocery stores, public transportation and busy commuter routes.

Thoroughly inspect each potential rental:
  • Consider total useable space -- sometimes a smaller unit with a well-designed floor plan is more desirable than a larger space with a poor layout.
  • Use a tape measure to measure each room to determine whether your furniture will fit. Also, measure doorways -- a friend learned the hard way that modern couches don't always fit through early 20th century entry halls.
  • Ensure there's sufficient closet, cupboard and storage space.
  • Look for safety features like deadbolts and peepholes on exterior doors, well-lit corridors, stairwells and parking structures, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and bars or other security features on first-floor windows.
  • In multi-unit buildings, note the condition of common areas -- that's a clue how attentive the owner/manager is regarding upkeep.
  • Note the condition of appliances (stove, refrigerator, water heater, dishwasher, air conditioner, furnace or other heaters), plumbing fixtures (sinks, tub/shower, toilet), floors/carpeting, electrical outlets and switches, light fixtures, walls and windows. If you spot damaged or worn items, ask whether they'll be replaced. If not, make sure they're noted in the rental agreement.
  • Check the water pressure and hot water quality.
  • Make sure there are sufficient electrical outlets and phone jacks.
  • Check seals around doors, windows and vents; if leaky, they can boost utility bills. (Another hint: An aging refrigerator might cost you an additional $100 or more a year to run compared to a newer model.)
  • Look for evidence of previous water leaks and mold under sinks, around toilets and on ceilings, walls and floors.
  • Check for soundproofing, especially if there are adjoining apartments. Do the walls seem hollow or solid when thumped?
Once you find a suitable place, read the rental agreement carefully. Leases are legal contracts and can be very difficult to break, so make sure you fully understand all terms and conditions. Don't hesitate to ask a lawyer or more experienced friend to review it. If not spelled out in the lease you may want to ask the landlord:
  • How much is the security deposit and what are the requirements for getting a full refund?
  • How are rent increases determined?
  • What happens after the lease term ends? Often, it'll convert to a month-to-month rental agreement where you can leave anytime with proper notice (usually 30 days).
  • How many tenants are allowed?
  • What are building policies for things like houseguests, noise curfews, maintenance and repairs, pest control, smoking, lost keys and pets?
  • Can you sublet the unit before your lease expires (in case you have to move for a job, for example)?
  • Can you hang pictures on walls without penalty?
You might also want to ask why the previous tenant moved and what, if any, major repairs or renovations are planned -- you may not choose to live through months-long construction noise unless the end result will be pleasing.

Renters insurance is a must. Landlords typically only insure the building and any fixtures they own, so renters are responsible for their own possessions that get lost or damaged in an accident, burglary or other disaster. And, if someone has an accident in your apartment, you're liable.

And finally, be aware that many landlords check references and credit reports of potential tenants and may even run criminal background checks. Before you start looking, check your own credit report so there are no surprises. You can order one free report per year from each of the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. (Order through; otherwise you'll pay a small fee.)

Bottom line: A few precautions taken upfront can save you from being trapped in a bad lease and having to look all over again.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.