10 Questions To Ask Before You Sign Your First Lease

Signing a lease is a big step toward adulting, but you need to step carefully.
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Congratulations! You are about to rent your first apartment, most likely with friends or at least strangers you hope will become friends. But before you start shopping for furnishings, stop and ask yourself ― and your future roommates ― these questions.

1. Who will be the master tenant?

When renting a unit to more than one person, landlords may prefer that one of you be designated the master tenant. The master tenant is the one whose name is at the top of the lease. That person is ultimately financially responsible for the rent being paid on time and assumes responsibility for damage to the unit, no matter who caused it.

Typically, perks that come with being the master tenant include claiming dibs to the biggest or nicest bedroom. In some cases, the master tenant may pay proportionately less rent to compensate for the added responsibility.

If you aren’t the master tenant or if your state doesn’t recognize master tenants, you are an “occupant” or “subtenant” who is essentially subletting from the master tenant. In a way, the master tenant acts like your landlord, collecting your share of the rent and making sure you abide by the rules set forth in the lease. Even if you aren’t the master tenant, you are responsible for upholding your lease obligations.

Not all landlords ask for a master tenant. Some leases list everyone as a tenant, although in practice what happens is that one tenant bubbles to the surface as the person who deals with the landlord.

2. Will I need someone to co-sign my lease?

Your prospective landlord will expect you to pass a credit check and have a source of income (aka a job) to show you can meet your rent obligation. Whether you will need a co-signer ― someone with a stronger credit record and more assets who assumes responsibility should you miss a rent payment ― depends on the landlord.

Most landlords require all tenants to meet a preset income standard. In cities like New York, Chicago and Boston, this can mean a landlord will require you to have an annual income of 40 times the monthly rent. If you and your roommates don’t meet these standards, then you’ll likely need a co-signer or guarantor to sign the lease and agree to take the hit if you don’t make rent.

Even before you begin your apartment search, line up a co-signer in case you need one. A credit check will also be run on your co-signer.

3. Do I need a rental agent to help find a place?

This depends on where you want to live. Best answer: Ask around. Some big-city landlords prefer to work with a rental agent. In many cases, the apartment owner will pay for it. There are multiple services and apps that will help you find an apartment. In New York City, the app Nooklyn both finds available apartments for you and matches you up with potential roommates.

The exact fee that rental agents charge varies by city. The typical range is from two weeks rent to more than a month, but often the agents are paid by the owner of the rental property. If you want to wing it, you can get help from sites like Apartment List, Rent.com or Apartments.com. Many apartment-finding apps and sites curate listings from multiple sources. They vary in degree of up-to-the-minute accuracy but are a good place to start.

If it’s just a roommate you’re after, try the app Roomi, which has been called “a Tinder for roommates.”

4. How much will I need for upfront costs when I sign the lease?

Most landlords will collect an upfront amount equal to at least one month’s rent as a protection in case you fall behind on paying the rent. Some want the first and last months’ rent up front, and still others want that plus a security deposit ― a flat amount to be held against possible damages to the property. That could mean you need to pony up three months’ rent when you sign the lease. There also may be an application fee and a charge for running your credit check. Ouch.

5. What does my rent include?

Will you be paying extra for parking, gas and electric, water, cable, WiFi, trash pickup, use of the building’s amenities? Some apartments include utilities and others don’t. Zillow and Move.org suggest budgeting $200 a month for utilities per unit. If you run the air conditioner 24/7 in the summer, expect higher bills. And note that this doesn’t include phone service.

6. What appliances will be provided?

This may come as a shock, but in some states, landlords are not legally required to supply refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, microwaves, or washers and dryers. They may choose to do so anyway to enhance the appeal of the unit and collect a higher rent, but they are not obligated. Most first-time renters will not want to ― or be able to afford to ― outfit their first apartment with all the appliances they will need. If your landlord does supply those appliances, it should be listed in your lease. Check the small print for who is responsible for repairs.

7. Can I decorate the apartment the way I want?

Most leases require that when you move out, the apartment must be restored to the same condition it was in when you moved in. Some landlords even add a clause to the lease that says you need written permission before painting or decorating. Putting up wallpaper, painting a wall red, hanging artwork that requires you to drive nails in the wall may all need to be pre-approved and/or reversed when you move out, or you risk losing your security deposit. Remember, too, that any improvements to the unit you make and pay for ― like replacing the carpet with hardwood flooring ― will be on your dime and stay with the unit.

8. Can my boyfriend move in if he’s not on the lease?

Some leases stipulate the number of guests you can have at once and how long they may stay per month. Short answer: No, he can’t. At least not legally. In the same vein, you cannot list your room on Airbnb unless your lease says you can.

9. Are pets permitted?

Some landlords straight up forbid cats or dogs. Others may review it on a case-by-case basis. Generally speaking, if a landlord does allow a pet, you’ll be charged an additional security deposit against pet damage. It’s also wise to check what the building’s pet rules are, whether there is an area for walking the dog, whether a pet is allowed near the complex pool, etc.

10. What happens if I break the lease?

Life happens, and sometimes changes mean you can’t or don’t want to stay put. What if you get a great job offer in another city or decide to move back to your parents’ home to save money and you’re only six months into your yearlong lease? Before signing, find out the penalties for breaking the lease under extenuating circumstances. Breaking a lease is serious business that could cost you your security deposit and any money the landlord holds in your name. Plus, if your parents co-signed your lease agreement, they could get stuck for the balance of the lease. So if you are actively looking for another job or anticipate leaving the area for any reason, think twice before you sign.

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