Facades of typical cast iron buildings with fire escapes along Greene Street in the Soho Cast Iron Historic District, Manhattan, New York City

Ask whether the landlord or apartment manager lives nearby before signing on the dotted line. (Getty Images)

Once you've found your ideal apartment or house, the next step is signing a lease. But before you commit to the terms in the contract and go through the lease-signing process, you'll want to understand your rights as a tenant. After all, a lease protects both tenants and landlords, and the landlord-tenant model has worked well over time. In fact, 43.1 million Americans lived in rented properties in 2017, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

But problems can crop up, regardless of whether you're a novice or an experienced tenant. Here are a few steps to take before signing the dotted line and considerations and questions to ask before renting an apartment or a house.

[See: The Best Places to Live in the U.S. for Young Professionals.]

Considerations Before Signing an Apartment Rental Lease

Before signing a lease for an apartment, take these factors into account.

  • Agree on the details – and get them in writing. Regardless of whether you're leasing an apartment or house, you'll want to read the fine print carefully. If there's a part of the contract you'd like changed, make sure you get it in writing rather than relying on a verbal promise somebody gives you that may be forgotten later. Sometimes the lease isn't detailed enough, which could spell trouble if expectations aren't discussed and spelled out beforehand.
  • Understand all associated fees. You want to know if there's any wiggle room if you're late with a rent payment. Typically, there is a grace period of a few days, says Daniel Tenenbaum, a founding principal with Pacific Crest Realty in Los Angeles. He is also the chair of the California Apartment Association of Los Angeles. "While most leases have rent due on the first and are late on the second, there is typically a grace period until after the third or fifth of the month, after which a late fee is assessed," he says.
  • Account for utilities. Keep in mind, "sometimes they are included in the rent, and sometimes they are excluded. The lease should specify this," Tenenbaum says.
  • Discuss any changes you plan to make to the apartment unit. "Most leases prohibit changes to the interior of the unit. However, this is something that can often be negotiated," Tenenbaum says. "Whether it is painting an accent wall or changing the carpet to wood laminate, a landlord may be willing to do so if it adds value to the unit or if a higher security deposit is negotiated to cover the cost to bringing the unit back to its original condition for the next resident."
  • Conduct plenty of research. Before you sign the lease, look at enough other apartments so you feel confident that you're making a sound decision. For instance, in some cities where demand is high, apartment buildings will use dynamic pricing, where the rent is actually higher if you look for a home during the weekend versus the middle of the week when fewer people are searching for an apartment. Before you commit, it's best to take time to carefully think about the place.
  • Ask if your landlord or property manager lives nearby. You'll also want to know whether your landlord or manager lives near you, in case there's a problem you need solved by him or her. You also should do some digging into your landlord online. In other words, just as your landlord will want to know about your background and may ask to do a background check, you should conduct your own research. You might also want to see if there's a review on the site, ReviewMyLandlord.com. You may also want to review how much access your landlord has to the apartment or house you're renting. Generally, a landlord can come into the property but has to give notice first, often 24 hours, says Falen Cox, an attorney with Cox, Rodman, & Middleton, LLC, in Savannah, Georgia, a general practice that specializes in many topics, including contract law. "If the lease allows the landlord to enter but does not include a notice requirement, the tenant should insist on including one," she says.
  • Avoid deductions from your security deposit. Be sure to think about moving out, before you move in. If you're going to sign the lease, you probably are going to pay a security deposit, which is often a full month's rent. So before you sign the lease, take a tour of the property with the landlord and take photos, Cox suggests. "Tenants should be sure to note things like stained carpet, windows that don't open or close, doors that don't open or close, whether the appliances are working correctly, whether the air filters and vents are clean, whether the oven is dirty and so on." Otherwise, when you move out, your landlord may blame you for that stain on the carpet, which means you will forgo your security deposit, she says.

[Read: Should You Use a Real Estate Agent to Find Your Next Rental?]

Considerations Before Signing a Home Lease Agreement

If you're preparing to sign a lease for a house, here's what you need to factor into the signing process.

  • Take stock of any necessary repairs. "An important item to look for in your rental lease is who pays for what types of repairs," says Robert Taylor, a real estate rehabber who has owned and managed rentals in the Sacramento, California, area for 15 years. "If your toilet backs up because of personal items or too much toilet paper, your lease may require you to pay for the plumber." While that may sound reasonable, "on the other hand, if it's caused by tree roots or other mechanical failures, then it should be the responsibility of the landlord," Taylor says.
  • Read the fine print pertaining to pets. If you're renting a house, your first priority may not be checking if there is a clause in your lease about pets – but it should be. Dogs and cats can do plenty of damage to a house, just as with an apartment. "A tenant may be evicted for not following provisions as it relates to pets," Cox says.
  • Check if there is room for negotiation. Cox says that you may be able to negotiate with a landlord. "For instance, the tenant could volunteer to pay a non-refundable pet deposit, agree to have the carpets professionally cleaned at set intervals or upon move out, or even agree to replace carpeting upon move out," she says. She adds that "tenants should keep in mind that pets, in addition to dogs and cats, also include other animals such as rabbits, reptiles and birds."

[See: 10 Ways Millennials Are Changing Homebuying.]

  • Understand your responsibility for maintaining appliances. "State law may not require a landlord to provide appliances, however, local ordinances may. As a result, tenants should make sure that the lease is clear as to who is responsible for maintaining and repairing major appliances," Cox says, referring to appliances like stoves, air-conditioning, washing machines and dryers and the refrigerator. "The general rule," she says, "is that if the landlord supplies the appliance, he or she must repair it."

  • 7 Secrets You Can't Hide From Your Landlord

    Pulling one over on your property manager won't work.

    (Getty Images)

    Your ability to communicate with your landlord or property manager as a renter is key to living happily and in peace. When you fail to notify your landlord of problems you encounter – or try to hide guests or other things that may not be permitted in your lease – the relationship is often compromised. Especially in instances when you’ve brought in an unauthorized pet or let a maintenance issue get worse due to not reporting it, you may find yourself having to pay your landlord extra, losing your security deposit or even getting evicted.

    Stay in touch.

    Stay in touch.

    (Getty Images)

    Any good landlord will encourage tenants to be in communication often, which makes it easy to request maintenance or ask a question about what the lease allows. Property management companies often offer multiple forms of communication, from face-to-face conversation with a receptionist or leasing agent to contact via email or an online resident portal, says Lynn Edmondson, regional manager of Wendover Housing Partners, a property management company based in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Once you send a request, the property manager or landlord will then “communicate in writing about what’s going on and what needs to be done,” Edmondson says. Read on for seven things you shouldn’t – and likely won’t be able to – hide from your landlord.

    A new roommate

    A new roommate

    Group of friends on the sofa watching TV

    (Getty Images)

    Living with a roommate is a great way to save on housing expenses, but your landlord has to know about said roommate – and approve. It may be a matter of simply revising the lease once you notify your landlord of the desired addition, but your landlord also has the right to run the potential roommate through the same vetting process as with every other tenant, which can include a credit check, employment confirmation and previous residence referrals. If you sneak a roommate in, your illegal co-tenant could be evicted. One exception is when you have a dependent, which can be a child, elderly parent or an adult relative you legally care for. Laws in certain states clarify that “you’re not allowed to ask an applicant if they have any dependents living in the unit with them,” says Nat Kunes, vice president of product at AppFolio, a full-suite property management software company. Check your state's landlord-tenant laws, which should be available online, for more information.

    A sublet

    A sublet

    Renter in apartment

    (Getty Images)

    Just like a roommate, sneaking a sublet tenant into your rental will likely be found out by a landlord, and it can have devastating consequences. Always review your lease first for a subleasing policy. The landlord may not allow sublets at all or could require the subtenant to go through the same vetting process all residents go through when applying to live there. Also check your state laws on subleasing, which may give you more or less leeway depending on how detailed the law is. In South Carolina, for example, the law states a sublease agreement isn’t valid unless the landlord has signed off on it. An illegal sublet could result in your eviction for violating the lease, as well as the subtenant’s eviction for residing there illegally.

    A pet

    A pet

    Photo Taken In London, United Kingdom

    (Getty Images)

    A dog or cat won’t help you pay the rent, but millions of Americans love adding to the rental family by bringing a pet home. Again, however, your landlord has the right to establish a no-pets policy or place restrictions on the pets allowed, such as the type of animal, size and breed. “If the pet [is] qualified to live there, it’s just a minor thing of changing the lease to add that and collect the appropriate fee,” Edmondson says. If you get caught keeping a pet in your place when the landlord hasn’t approved it, you’ll likely have to fork over the fees anyway. But if the place doesn’t allow pets, you’ll likely either be asked to move out or rehome your pet.

    Pet damage

    Pet damage

    A messy ruined stained carpet in a modern house

    (Getty Images)

    Outside of properly notifying your landlord or property manager of a new pet, Edmondson says damage to a rental caused by a pet is one of the more common issues she sees residents try to cover up. Whether you struggled to housetrain a puppy or your cat loves scaling the blinds, the best course of action is to own up to the damage before moving out. “I’ve had that happen several times, when [cleaners] go in to clean the carpet and they come back and say, ‘We can’t clean it, there’s too much pet damage,’” Edmondson says. You’ll have to pay for the repairs regardless, but it keeps a more positive interaction between you and the property manager if you’re honest. Trying to get away with damage could also lead to a negative report from the property manager if any future landlord calls to check on your residential history.

    Maintenance problems

    Maintenance problems

    insurance claim

    (Getty Images)

    Whether it’s a backed-up toilet, a leaky roof or fire damage in the kitchen, any problem should be reported to your landlord or property manager as soon as you become aware of it. “A lot of those types of maintenance issues that over time get much, much worse,” Kunes says, noting a leak can lead to extensive water damage and mold. Edmondson says there are tenants who simply don’t report such issues for fear of having to cover damage they caused: “They think after they move out they will not be responsible for those damages.” Of course, any damages outside normal wear and tear will come out of your security deposit, and you can additionally be billed for damages exceeding that amount.

    Broken appliances

    Broken appliances

    (Getty Images)

    If the fridge, dryer, garbage disposal or any other appliance stops working properly, you have the right to report it and expect it to be fixed. There’s a good chance the landlord will replace an older appliance at no charge to you. If the appliance is relatively new or was damaged from particularly hard use, the landlord may look to you to cover it. If you move out before notifying the landlord, it will be discovered, and you’ll be expected to pay it, Edmondson says.

    A pest problem

    A pest problem

    Pest control technician using portable spray rig

    (Getty Images)

    Pests can get into a rental property in a variety of ways: Rodents could be stirred up by construction next door, or maybe other tenants have a habit of leaving food uncovered on the counter or table. Either way, it’s imperative you notify your landlord immediately about a pest problem so it can be taken care of. Most large apartment complexes have standing relationships with pest control companies, which consistently work to keep pests from accessing any rental homes and limit the spread of those that do get inside. If you don’t start communicating with your property manager early on, the problem could become worse – and the blame may fall on you as a result. “That could be a tenant-caused issue that the tenant could be responsible for to pay,” Kunes says.

    Read More

    Updated on April 23, 2019: This story was previously published on July 25, 2014, and has been updated with new information.

    Tags: real estate, renting, housing market, housing

    Geoff Williams has been a contributor to U.S. News and World Report since 2013, writing about a variety of personal finance topics, from insurance and spending strategies to small business and tax-filing tips.

    Williams got his start working in entertainment reporting in 1993, as an associate editor at "BOP," a teen entertainment magazine, and freelancing for publications, including Entertainment Weekly. He later moved to Ohio and worked for several years as a part-time features reporter at The Cincinnati Post and continued freelancing. His articles have been featured in outlets such as Life magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cincinnati Magazine and Ohio Magazine.

    For the past 15 years, Williams has specialized in personal finance and small business issues. His articles on personal finance and business have appeared in CNNMoney.com, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes.com and American Express OPEN Forum. Williams is also the author of several books, including "Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever" and "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America"

    Born in Columbus, Ohio, Williams lives in Loveland, Ohio, with his two teenage daughters and is a graduate of Indiana University. To learn more about Geoff Williams, you can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow his Twitter page.

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