15 Questions Apartment Hunters Should Ask Themselves Before Renting

July 15, 2019

It wasn’t until recently, when my spouse and I sold our home and became apartment hunters once again, that I realized just how difficult renting an apartment has become. The housing market has changed significantly since the last time we moved and that, in turn, has severely impacted the rental market. WOW it has become difficult to find exactly what you’re looking for without completely breaking your budget.

After weeks of obsessively stalking Zillow and Craigslist, and crying every time we applied for a home but someone beat us to the punch, we finally sat down and got real about our housing priorities. We realized that there were a lot of things we would love to have in our new rental, but that we needed to decide which of those things were deal-breakers and which we could sacrifice for the sake of affordability. We also felt like no one had warned us just how much harder renting a place would be after we became parents.

One thing that turned out to be really helpful was jumping online and doing some research. Since it had been well over five years since the last time we signed a lease, we were a little in the dark on the most important things to look for in a rental. We realized that some things definitely deserve to be prioritized, while others can definitely be considered extras. These are fifteen things all apartment hunters should look out for before signing a lease.

1. Can I really afford this rent?

Be honest. And once you’ve determined your target monthly payment, stick with it.

It’s tempting to think you have more financial wiggle room than you actually do, but a maximum monthly rent payment should be a hard and fast rule for apartment hunters. Personal finance experts suggest that, in an ideal world, a rent payment should be no more than 30% of the renter’s gross monthly income, or what you’re making each month before taxes. Do the math, write down that number, and don’t let anyone convince you that you’ll be able to shuffle things around and make a higher rent payment work.

2. What utilities will you be paying for each month?

In apartment complexes, some utilities are covered by the landlord while others are split between residents.

Get a good understanding of your financial responsibility before committing to move in because utilities will factor into your budget–big time. Some utility companies or landlords may be able to offer a ballpark estimate of what has been spent in the past on utilities like water, heating, and cooling. Keep in mind that personal finance experts recommend spending only 5 to 10% of your income on utilities.

3. What is the neighborhood like?

Don’t get so focused on what is inside the apartment that you forget to take a good, long look at its surroundings.

Landlords may not know or care to share what the neighborhood is like with apartment hunters, so it is your responsibility to get to know the neighborhood before signing a lease. To get the inside scoop, we suggest jumping online and looking for threads on Reddit or checking out Facebook’s neighborhood groups. But the best source of information is always going to be the neighborhood itself, and Zillow suggests visiting your potential home at all hours of the day and asking neighbors how they feel about where they live.

4. Are your pets allowed to live there?

More and more landlords are adopting a no-pet policy or have restrictions on size and breed.

Don’t waste your or the landlord’s time on walk-throughs if you’re not aware of the pet policy, because you can actually get evicted for bringing a pet into a no-pet apartment. Before scheduling a visit, find out if pets are allowed, how many are allowed, and if there are weight or breed restrictions that could affect your furry friends. This is a good time to discuss pet security deposits and pet rent, as well.

5. Do you even qualify to rent the apartment?

There are typically credit and income requirements in place that are used to screen potential residents.

Let’s face it, a landlord’s ultimate goal is to make money off a renter, and leasing to someone who may miss rent or come up short each month is never ideal. Each apartment complex or property manager may have different guidelines for income and credit requirements, so be sure to ask about these early in the process to make sure you are a qualified renter.

6. Are there signs of infestation?

Learning that there are pests in your new home after moving in can cause major headaches, but these clues can help indicate if there is a problem in the apartment.

Even in a spotlessly clean apartment, signs of an infestation can still be hiding in unlikely places. Don’t be afraid to really poke around, checking in cabinets and behind furniture for pests, dead or alive, and their fecal matter. Mice and cockroaches actually stink, so pay attention to what your nose is telling you while you wander around. Lastly, it’s better to play it safe and ask what kind of pest control is included with the lease. Is the landlord regularly sending a company out? If not, would they be willing to add it to the rental agreement?

7. How’s the water pressure?

During a tour of an apartment, it may not cross your mind to turn on the faucets–but you really should.

Learning about a water pressure problem after unpacking can be incredibly frustrating, as this is something that really does impact your everyday life. Taking a shower, washing the dishes, and even just getting a drink of water quickly becomes more frustrating when it takes twice as long. Take a walk through the house, turning on faucets and letting them run for a few moments to see how the water is moving, and while you’re at it give the toilet a good flush, too–no one likes a forever-running toilet!

8. Do all the appliances work?

Don’t just assume that the refrigerator, stove, and washer-dryer work as they should.

Find out from the get-go if working appliances are a part of the rental agreement. If they are, closely inspect them yourself and then ask about the function of each item. Take things a step further and ask the landlord to document, in writing, that they are working, as well.  This will protect you if you move in and find appliances aren’t actually functioning as promised.

9. Is this apartment a safe place to live?

Most landlords will make checking fire alarms and carbon dioxide alarms a part of their move-in checklist.

As a renter, you want to be certain that security devices and alarms are performing this part of their job. A working fire alarm is a matter of life and death, so test them yourself when you tour and again at move in to make sure they are working well. Report missing or broken alarms immediately to ensure you and your loved ones stay safe.

10. Can you make changes to the decor?

Every lease is different and some landlords might have super strict rules about what can and can’t be done to the apartment.

While some landlords are chill about tenants who paint or hang artwork, make sure you’re clear on the rules of the lease. Even aesthetic changes could justify the loss of your security deposit or eviction with only a few days’ notice. If you have big plans for turning your apartment into a home, make sure you understand the terms of the lease before signing.

11. What are the terms of the lease?

Things change. Even if you feel you’re committed for the long term, find out upfront what the penalties are if you need to move out early.

The typical lease is 12 months, and many renters prefer not to move anymore often than that. However, a job change, big move, new child, or even illness could affect a tenants ability to make it through the end of their lease. Carefully read the lease to find out what you will need to pay if you suddenly need to break your lease and if you can offset some of that cost by finding a new tenant.

12.  What happens if something breaks?

Don’t assume that repairs are on the landlord, ask for a written explanation of who is responsible for repair costs.

While many landlords expect to pay for the cost of making basic apartment repairs, make sure you’re very clear on the details. Will all repairs be covered by the landlord? Is certain items exempt from repair if they break? What if something breaks and it is technically your fault? How are after-hours, emergency-maintenance problems handled? These are details you want to hammer out before you find yourself facing a major maintenance issue.

13. Can guests stay the night?

Occupancy laws or landlord preference may prevent you from hosting friends or family for an extended period of time.

The occasional overnight guest likely won’t be a problem for a landlord, but it doesn’t hurt to check! If you’re in a relationship and plan to have a significant other stay with you frequently, you’ll definitely want to be aware of the local occupancy laws because some states limit how many people can occupy a certain size space. If a friend or family member stays more than a couple weeks, you’ll probably be asked to inform apartment management and the person staying with you many even be asked to submit to a background check.

14. Where will you park?

As you settle into daily life, it’s nice to have a reliable, nearby parking spot.

Some apartments have designated parking, but others may expect renters to use street parking and that can be a major pain, especially if you’re moving into a busy neighborhood. When you ask about parking spots, don’t forget to ask if there is a limit to how many spots you can use and where guests need to park if they stop by for dinner or movie night.

15. What happens if another tenant becomes a problem?

We all hope to get along with our neighbors, or at least to be able to successfully ignore them.

Unfortunately, some tenants don’t follow the rules about noise, smoking, and pets. Don’t be afraid to ask if the tenants above, below, and besides you have been reported for noise complaints or smoking. Also ask for clarification on how the property manager proceeds when they learn someone is disrupting neighboring renters with noise or smells.