Many people sign their name to a rental lease without giving it much thought. If you've moved around a lot, you may have gone through the process numerous times and might find it all quite routine. While most leases are fairly standard, this is no reason to skimp on proper care and caution. Don't forget to take these important steps before you sign.
Be Thorough in Your Walk-Through
Image via Flickr by pmarkham
A walk-through is one of the first things you'll do before choosing a rental unit. Don't wait until you're days away from leaving your current home to begin looking for a new one. Give yourself enough time to complete a walk-through of several different properties so you can find the home that's right for you.
As you're inspecting the unit, make sure you look at the little details. Open cabinets to look for signs of mold, mildew, bugs, and rodents. Test towel bars to make sure they're secure. Flush toilets, and turn on faucets. Open the windows, and inspect the window locks and screens. If you spot something that's amiss, make sure you get written documentation stating that the landlord will repair it in a timely manner.
Make a Late-Night Visit
Before you settle on an apartment complex, pay a visit to the neighborhood at night. Drive through the area and see how it looks after daylight hours. Ideally, you'll find that the neighborhood is quiet and safe. However, you may realize that you'll deal with rowdy parties next door, loud teenagers roaming the streets, or unexpected traffic from a late-night restaurant or bar in the area. It's important to see what your home looks like at all hours before you commit to a year or more living there.
Read All the Fine Print
Many landlords will walk you through the lease, pointing out all the pages that need a signature as you go. While this is helpful for understanding some of the legalese in the document, it shouldn't take the place of actually reading through the lease. Don't be embarrassed about the extra time it takes you to actually read through the document. It's your right as a tenant to make sure you understand everything you're agreeing to. You can always call upon a legal professional to help you sort through the lease before you sign.
You should pay particular attention to issues regarding privacy. Your lease should specify when and how your landlord may enter your unit. Landlords are typically required to give notice before entering unless there's an emergency situation. If you request any changes to the lease, make sure all agreements are reflected in writing on this document. Never settle for a verbal agreement or assume that a handshake will hold up in court.
Know What to Pay for and When
Once you've signed the lease, you're obligated to make timely rental payments, but do you understand exactly what these are? Make sure you know the following:
- How much rent is
- When rent is due and whether there's a grace period after it's due
- What happens when rent is due on a weekend or holiday
- How you can pay rent (for example, by check or money order or online)
- What utilities you're responsible for
Your landlord may require a deposit before you sign your lease. Make sure you check your state's laws regarding security deposits to make sure the requested amount is within legal limits. You also have rights regarding the return of your deposit, which should be detailed in your lease. For example, in Colorado, your lease may specify a period of time up to, but not exceeding, 60 days for the return of your deposit.
Understand How to Break the Lease
Few tenants go into a lease planning to break it, but unexpected events can occur. It's important to understand the process for breaking your lease should the need arise. In some cases, you'll have an option to buy out of your lease for a specified amount. In other cases, you'll have to pay rent for the unit until it's occupied by a new tenant. You may have to pay rent through the end of your lease term whether you're living in the unit or not.
There are, however, some situations in which breaking your lease is justified. These vary by state. In Colorado, you may break your lease if you're starting active military duty, are a victim of domestic violence, or are living in a rental unit that's unsafe or that violates health and safety codes. You may also break your lease if your landlord harasses you or violates your right to privacy.
Once you've signed the lease, you're legally bound to abide by its terms. Take caution and act wisely any time you're making this kind of commitment. When in doubt, contact a professional to further review a lease before you sign.