Renting an apartment doesn’t involve quite the same financial commitment as buying a house, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a big deal. And right now, finding an apartment is harder than ever, given rising prices and a lack of vacant units in many cities.
The number of renters is growing in many U.S. cities, according to a 2015 study by New York University’s Furman Center, but supply isn’t keeping pace with demand. When a rental market is tight and there’s pressure to act fast, it’s easy to make quick decisions that can come back to haunt you later. Yet picking a place without doing due diligence beforehand can leave you living in a home that’s unsafe or that doesn’t fit your needs, or locked in a battle with your landlord over issues that could have been avoided.
Ultimately, choosing the wrong place to live can be draining, both emotionally and financially. The average in-state move in the U.S. costs $1,170, according to U.S. News & World Report. That’s a big expense to shoulder when you’re not planning for it. Making a mistake when renting can also mean losing your security deposit, having to pay to replace damaged personal property, or even getting caught up in a lawsuit. Not fun.
Whether this is your first rental or your fifteenth, it pays to know what you shouldn’t do when choosing an apartment. Steering clear of these five big errors will save you money in the end.
1. Not reading the lease
Once you finally find the perfect apartment, it can be tempting to sign on the dotted line as soon as the landlord hands you the lease. Don’t. Signing a legal agreement you haven’t read is a recipe for disaster. While you may be able to get out of a bad lease, doing so can be a big hassle and may come with financial penalties.
“A landlord may try to rush you into signing a lease. She may say that all leases are ‘standard’ and that you shouldn’t bother reading it … Don’t let a landlord intimidate you or stop you from reading the lease,” advises MassLegalHelp.
When reading your lease, it’s especially important to make note of the length of the lease, when the rent is due (don’t assume it’s the first of the month), penalties for late payment, the amount of the security deposit, rules about subleasing, and who pays for which utilities. While many landlords use standard leases, watch out for additions or special clauses, such as restrictions on the number of overnight guests or types of pets you can have.
2. Not getting renters insurance
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your landlord’s insurance coverage will protect you in the event something bad happens. If your personal property is stolen or damaged (say, in a fire), your landlord probably won’t be responsible. Also, if someone is injured while they are in your apartment, you might be held liable. Renters insurance protects you in both situations.
Plus, renters insurance is relatively cheap. The average policy costs just $187 a year, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, or a little more than $15 a month.
3. Not understanding your rights as a tenant
Landlords are free to impose certain restrictions on what happens on their property, though their specific rights vary from state to state. Depending on where you live, your landlord may be allowed to restrict certain breeds of dogs from the apartment complex, prohibit smoking in common areas or within the apartment itself, or prohibit guns on the property, among other things.
But tenants have rights as well. There are federal laws that protect renters from discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, religion, family status, or handicap. Individual states may have other laws that protect tenants, such as clarifying when a landlord may evict a renter, enter an apartment, and be required to make certain repairs.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides links to information about tenant rights in all 50 states.
4. Not documenting existing damage
If you hope to hang on to your security deposit, be sure to document any damage or problems that existed before you moved in to the apartment. Prior to unpacking all your boxes, you and the landlord or property manager may go through the unit with a checklist, which is one way to document problem areas. Make sure both you and your landlord sign this document and that you get a copy of the completed checklist.
You may also want to take photographs that document any damage or problem areas in the unit. The photos should include a time stamp. If your landlord agrees to make repairs, get that in writing before you sign the lease.
5. Not checking out the landlord, building, or neighborhood
Before he agrees to rent to you, your landlord is probably going to run a background and credit check. You should exercise the same caution before signing a lease. A little bit of digging could reveal big red flags with either the building or the landlord.
Simply searching your building’s address or landlord’s name might turn up some useful information, such as reviews of the property, police activity at the address, zoning violations, or small claims filings against the landlord. In some cases, you might need to contact specific local agencies to find that information, such as the department of buildings. Some cities, including New York and Chicago, maintain lists of known slumlords, which are well worth checking out before you rent.
Finally, make sure you get a sense of the neighborhood before you move in. Research crime statistics, commute time to your job, and local amenities so you can be confident the area fits your needs.
Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS