Renter Beware: 15 Questions to Ask Your Landlord Before Signing that Lease

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Apartments in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

I remember fondly the day a few years ago I got the keys to the new house I was renting.

I carefully unpacked, decorated and got settled into my new place.

I loved that house.

I was so happy.

Six weeks later to the day, my landlord called to tell me he was selling the house and I had 30 days to leave. (What?!)

Oh, and did I mind he’d be bringing potential buyers around starting the next day? (Yes!)

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll give you a good reference.” (Gee, thanks!)

I was crushed.

I thought I’d covered every detail before signing my rental agreement, but it never occurred to me to find out if the homeowner planned to sell the house any time soon. If I had, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble.

Fortunately, in the end I found an even better place. (Ha! Take that, former landlord!)

However, the experience taught me a valuable lesson: Ask a lot of questions before you sign that rental agreement.

15 Questions to Ask Your Future Landlord

This list is by no means exhaustive — there will always be things to consider that are unique to your rental situation — but these 15 questions are a good place to start.

1. How soon is the rental available to move into?

Ask this upfront to make sure your moving time frame is compatible with your future landlord. If not, you won’t waste each other’s time or risk becoming emotionally attached to an apartment that won’t be available when you’re ready to move.

2. What are the monthly rental, application and move-in fees?

Make sure to also ask about late fees and whether certain forms of payment come with a processing surcharge. For instance, you don’t want to get hit with a $10 charge every time you pay by check.

3. Are utilities included?

This is a really important question. A place with low rent may seem like less of a deal once you factor in fees for electricity, water and trash pickup.

On the other hand, a rental arrangement that includes utilities can help you budget your fixed expenses more easily each month.

4. What cosmetic changes can I make inside?

Landlords expect tenants to hang pictures and new drapes, but make sure you understand upfront what you’re allowed to change before you paint a bright blue accent wall in the living room.

5. What kind of outdoor decorations are permitted?

Your new home might be located in a deed-restricted area that limits the type or size of outdoor decorations.

Many apartment buildings also have strict policies on what renters can display on doors and windows that are visible to public areas.

6. What’s your pet policy?

There are a number of questions to ask about pet policies, including what types of animals are allowed and what breeds are permitted.

Be sure to ask about pet deposit fees and where on the property animals are allowed to do their business.  

7. Is renter’s insurance required?

Renter’s insurance may seem like a frustratingly unnecessary expense, but it’s actually a really good idea whether your landlord requires it or not. It only costs about $20 a month to insure your stuff against fire, flood or theft — and the peace of mind is priceless.

8. What happens if I want to break my lease?

While you may be planning to stay put for a while, life has a way of throwing curve balls we don’t see coming.

Find out what happens if you want to break your lease and if you’re able to sublet so someone else can take over the rental contract until it expires.

9. Who handles emergency repairs?

Landlords are typically responsible for repairs and maintenance, but what happens if the air conditioning conks out during a holiday weekend?

Find out if you’re allowed (or expected) to pay for emergency repairs out of your own pocket and get reimbursed by your landlord.  

10. What’s the parking situation?

Ask if your rental comes with a designated parking place and if there’s an additional fee to use it. Don’t forget to get details on guest parking before you plan your housewarming party.

11. What’s the laundry situation?

If you’ve ever lived in a place without a washer and dryer, you know how much it sucks, so this is probably one of the first things you’ll ask a potential landlord.

If you don’t have a washer and dryer in your rental, ask where the closest laundry facilities are. Don’t assume they’re somewhere on the property, only to find out you have to drive your dirty jeans all the way across town to get clean.

12. Is my deposit refundable when I move out?

Security deposits are usually refunded to tenants when they move out — assuming the place doesn’t look like an aging rock band threw a party in the place.

Get details on how to get your deposit back when you move out and be sure to document any existing damage before signing your lease.

13. What’s the policy for maintenance personnel or property managers entering my home when I’m not there?

There will be times when your landlord or a maintenance worker may need to enter your apartment when you aren’t there (a monthly pest control visit, for example).

Ask your future landlord how much advance notice you’ll get before someone comes into your apartment and under what circumstances you can delay or refuse the visit.

14. Have the locks been changed since the last renter?

You don’t want to have total strangers out there walking around with a key to your place. If the locks haven’t been changed, negotiate that into your rental agreement if you can.

15. What’s the long-term rental outlook for this apartment or house?

Take it from me — if the landlord only plans to rent for a short time, you’ll want to know that up front.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She once rented a studio apartment above a funeral home. It was weird, but it was also a really effective conversation starter.