Whether you’ve been renting for decades or are looking for your first apartment, leasing a rental property can be a daunting experience. Leases are legally binding contracts, so you want to make sure that you’re aware of the requirements and expectations of tenants before you sign.
Here are some of the questions that you should ask every leasing agent before you enter into a rental agreement:
What is the monthly rent and how long is the rental contract? These questions may have been answered in the advertisement you responded to, but you’ll still want to confirm them verbally or in writing. When you’re searching for a rental, it’s easy to confuse one property with another, plus people do make mistakes in their ads. Just ask up front and save time and frustration later on.
Are any utilities included? How about lawn care and snow removal? This is an important fact to know right off the bat. The cost of these items can add up fast and take an affordable rental out of your budget pretty quickly. If utilities are not included, ask the leasing agent for estimated monthly costs to help determine if this rental fits into your personal budget.
And don’t forget to ask about lawn care and snow removal. If you are responsible for these, it can be a significant cost to purchase / maintain / store the equipment you’ll need to get the job done. You can also hire someone to do the work for you but you’ll want to build that into your budget as well.
When is rent due and how do I pay it? You’ll find most rents are due on the 1st of the month but that isn’t always the case. Also be sure to ask what the penalty is for late payments or if they have a grace period. Many landlords will have a grace period up to 5 days, but others will slap you with a $25 late fee after the 1st. Not only do those fees add up, they can hurt your rental reference down the road.
Rent can be paid in a lot of different ways – how does this landlord handle payments? You’ll find some will only take cash or money order, while others want post-dated checks for the whole rental term. Other encourage or require electronic payments or direct deposit into their bank account. If they use electronic payments as we do here, you may want to ask if there are any fees involved. For example, there is no cost to our tenants for electronic payments if they are using a bank account. However, if they use a credit or debit card, the service fee charged by the processing company is substantial.
Are pets allowed? If you’re already the proud owner of a pet, you’ll want to know immediately if your little companion is allowed in the rental. Many landlords have very strict no pet policies, banning anything with fur, feathers, or scales. Others may allow pets but you may have to pay additional pet rent. Even if you don’t have a pet today, find out what the policy is in case you want to add one later on. This is also an important question to ask if you have animal allergies. Pet hair can be hard to fully remove from a home. So if you have severe allergies, you may not want to move into a rental that has had a pet in it in the past.
Is parking available? Don’t take for granted that the garage out back is for you — it’s not uncommon for landlords to keep garages for their personal use or rent them separately. If you need parking and off-street spaces are not provided, ask what the parking requirements and regulations are. Some areas do not allow long-term parking, or in the case of snow, you may have to move your car to the opposite side of the street on certain days. Be sure to know what is expected of you before you park your vehicle at your new home to avoid problems (or parking tickets!) down the road.
Are there any building or unit rules to be aware of? Entering into a lease, you probably expect a set of standard rules: keep it clean, no wild parties, and pay your rent on time. But in this litigious day and age, your landlord may have a slew of other rules and regulations that may affect your level of interest in the property. Our leases have around 50 general “rules” for all properties, which may seem excessive but guess what? If it’s in the lease, it probably happened to us or another landlord that we know. You wouldn’t think we need to tell tenants not to put indoor furniture outside, but down the street from our office there is a recliner on the roof of someone’s rental home. No lie. So if there’s a rule that you find odd, trust that there’s probably a good reason for having it…
Aside from your general rules, like no candle burning or keeping pets on a leash, the building or unit you’re looking at may have special rules that only apply there. For example, we have two neighborhoods in our management portfolio with restrictive neighborhood covenants. The rentals on those streets cannot have recreational vehicles, campers, yard signs, or more than two pets — and those rules come from local government, not the owner or management company.
Best practice is to ask about any oddities like this up front — that way you’re prepared and can make an informed decision about signing the lease.
How is maintenance handled? If you’re renting from a private owner with only one property, chances are that maintenance requests are pretty simple — you contact the owner and they’ll take care of it. But even then, how do they want to be contacted? Phone? Email? Text? These are important questions to know up front because you may have a maintenance emergency down the road and will need to know how to contact the landlord.
Larger agencies, such as ours, may want you to submit your requests online for regular maintenance but have a different procedure for emergencies. You will also want to ask what they consider a maintenance “emergency.” While no hot water may seem like an emergency to you when you have a head full of shampoo and only cold water to rinse it with, but chances are that the landlord will only consider that an emergency if it is more than two days to the next business day.
You’ll find most issues really can wait until the next business day but you should still report them and know the proper procedure for doing so.
Are you allowed to alter the property or add personal touches outdoors? When you own a home, you are free to paint, remodel, or place decor wherever you choose. In a rental property, you may be very restricted as to what personal touches you can put on the home. Can you have a pool or a garden? Are bird feeders or outdoor decor allowed? Can you paint or put nails in the walls? These are very important questions to ask before doing any work in the home. Violating the policy can be very costly and in some rare cases, can even get you evicted. Make sure you know what you’re allowed to do before making any changes to the property inside or out.
What happens if you have to break the lease? Unexpected things can happen that may cause your rental needs to change. A new job opportunity out of the area, a new baby, and any number of other issues may arise, necessitating a move to a new home. You should find out if subleasing is allowed and what costs are involved with breaking your lease just in case. Choose your words carefully — you don’t want the leasing agent to write you off as an unreliable tenant. Be up front and explain that while you absolutely do not intend to move prior to the end of the lease term, you are just being thorough.
Some agencies may also have special conditions that will allow tenants to break their lease without penalty if they are buying a home from them. Our company is proud to have a licensed real estate broker, agents, and a custom home builder on our team. Therefore, when one of our tenants decides to build or buy a home with us, we can make the transition seamless and without additional costs for breaking their lease. The agency you work with may have a similar policy so be sure to ask!
Of course this list is not all-inclusive. You’ll want to ask questions that are relevant to you, your situation, the rental agency, the neighborhood, and specifically about the property. We love tenants who do their homework, so if you’re in our neck of the Wisconsin northwoods, please be sure to check out our available rentals or contact us with questions. Whether it’s an apartment rental or a custom home build, we’re always happy to assist in finding the perfect home.