Renting your first apartment is an exciting—and only slightly scary—step. After all, there are new areas to navigate, a big monthly bill and a slew of questions you need answered ASAP.
But according to Doug Culkin, president and CEO of the National Apartment Association, it’s normal not to know it all when it comes to renting your first place. “First-time renters often go in blind,” he says.
While you’re probably O.K. if you don’t know the ins and outs of creating a lease agreement, there are a few things you should know up front before signing on the dotted line. Culkin breaks it down:
1. You should get renter’s insurance
Sure, you’re not exactly thrilled to take on another monthly bill. But renter’s insurance can be a lifesaver if there’s a fire in your building, a natural disaster hits or your place is burglarized.
“Many renters incorrectly assume that a landlord’s insurance policy will cover their personal property, but this is not accurate,” says Culkin. Think about how much stuff you own: Can you really afford to replace all of it out of pocket? Luckily, renter’s insurance isn’t much—it’s usually $10 or less a month—and many landlords now require residents to purchase it.
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2. You don’t have to rent for a full year
While most people sign a one-year lease, some landlords are more flexible and offer a six-month or month-to-month lease. Which should you opt for? Culkin says it all depends on your needs. If you’re not set on staying where you are or you want to try out a particular neighborhood before committing to staying there for a year, consider a six-month lease. If a move to another city or state is a possibility in the near future, a month-to-month setup might not be a bad idea. Just know this: Month-to-month leases can be more expensive.
3. …But you can often save by signing a longer contract
Some landlords offer a monthly discount for renters who sign an 18-month or two-year lease, says Culkin. Why? Finding new tenants is a hassle for them, so they often want to keep renters in place.
4. There are things a landlord can’t legally ask you
These mostly involve questions about race, gender, religion, age and sexual orientation—but they vary by location. However, your state or local government should spell everything out online. Search for “[your state, city or county]” and “tenants’ rights” to learn more (the result you’re looking for will likely end in .gov).
5. Your monthly housing payments are more than just rent
Ask the landlord how much utilities typically cost for tenants, as well as whether there are any fees for amenities, and factor that in to your budget. While Culkin says there’s no hard and fast rule for how much you should spend on housing each month, it’s smart to know what you’re getting into before you sign a lease.
6. Utilities might be covered under your rent payment…or not
Some landlords will include utilities like heat or electricity in the base rent. Others require that you pay for that separately. That’s why Culkin says it’s a good idea to find that out what your situation is before you sign a lease (and before you crank up the heat, only to get a surprisingly huge bill).
7. Knowing your community rules is more important than you might think
Some apartments have policies regarding quiet hours, visitors and pet restrictions—and you can be fined if you don’t follow them. So ask. “Apartments do offer a great deal of freedom, but you have to make sure you’re up to speed on potential policies,” says Culkin.
8. You should know how much it’ll cost you if you have to break your lease
While Culkin says it’s best to avoid breaking a lease early, he acknowledges that sometimes things come up. Check out the lease-breaking policy in advance so you’ll know what to expect in the event that you have to move out sooner than you thought.
9. Your lease might automatically renew
Some leases automatically renew, while others require residents to let the landlord or property manager know whether they plan to renew the lease or move, often within a set period of time before the lease is up. Failure to do so can leave you with a hefty fine.
10. What you’re told might be different than what’s on your lease
Often landlords just want to get someone in and paying rent, and they may make promises or sell you on things that aren’t on the lease. That’s why Culkin says it’s important to confirm that the terms of the lease match what you’ve been told.
“Ask for clarification regarding anything you don’t understand,” he advises.
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11. You may not be allowed to add a new roommate
Culkin points out that some places won’t allow you to add a roommate before your original lease is up. If you’re planning to get a roommate in the future or know your current roommate isn’t planning on staying for the full lease, it’s important to ask.
12. Blowing off the initial apartment inspection can cost you down the road
It’s crucial to thoroughly inspect the place for scratched floors, walls or appliances before you move in because you’ll be liable for any problems when you move someplace new.
“If you notice any damage, take pictures and ask the property manager to put it in writing,” says Culkin. “Otherwise, you could be charged for the damage or lose your security deposit when you move out.”