If you’re new to renting, you’ve probably been asking your friends, family, and coworkers questions like, When do you sign a lease for an apartment?
This question is nuanced. You need to know how far in advance you should be looking for a place, and what criteria should be met before you sign on the dotted line.
You may be so excited about having a place to call your own or you’re so desperate to leave your current place that you haven’t even considered the semantics of it all—but you should. Resist the urge to jump into a lease too quickly and take the time to look into the details of your future apartment.
Whether you are searching for empty units or fully furnished apartments, this guide will outline everything you need to know about the lease signing process, and the 10 things to look for before you sign the lease.
When to Make a Decision
It may not seem like it, but signing a lease agreement is a huge commitment. Of course, it’s possible to break your lease later on, but it comes at a price. Whether it’s because of an oversight on your part or the unpredictable behavior of someone else, the process of how to get out of an apartment lease causes a lot of stress and usually results in a financial burden.
Maximize your finances and happiness with your living situation by paying attention to both:
- When you should look for an apartment
- When you should make a decision
The Ideal Time Frame
Renters need to strike a balance between jumping into a lease too quickly and holding out until the last second. If you move too quickly you could get scammed, but if you move too slowly you could miss out on your dream apartment. The ideal time to make a decision is 20 to 24 days before the move-in date.
Searching for an apartment too early won’t show units available for when you want to move in, but once you hit the two-week mark before your ideal date, you might not have a lot of options. Even worse, you won’t have the time to make sure the apartment is everything you want it to be.
The Exception: Month-to-Month Rentals
The only exception to the 20 to 24-day time frame is rentals with month-to-month leasing. Apartments that lease on a month-to-month basis can be ready for move-in in a matter of days and are much less of a commitment.
Look for a reputable company with flexible leasing, so you’re sure your quick decision will still be a good one.
10 Things to Consider Before Signing
You should start thinking about your new move around a month before your preferred move-in date, so you have enough time to go through this checklist. That said, here are the 10 things to consider before signing a lease.
1. Length of the Lease
Apartments typically require a year-long lease, at minimum, and trying to break that lease is a grueling, stressful process that usually comes at a high price. If you don’t feel comfortable making a year-long commitment, try looking for a six-month or month-to-month lease.
Usually, if you don’t stay for your full lease term you’ll be forced to forfeit your deposit and pay your remaining rent in your signed lease until a new tenant moves in.
2. Utilities: Are They Included?
Ask your landlord if utilities are included in the listed rent price, and what the utilities are available in the first place, such as heating and air conditioning.
Here are the specific utilities and fees you should ask about:
- Trash and recycling pick-up
- Building maintenance
- Pet deposits and recurring fees
3. Amenities: What’s Offered and at What Cost?
Some apartment complexes offer more than others. Don’t get too hung up on amenities and overlook a great place, but still make it a point to look into what amenities are offered at the apartment’s location, if they’re optional, and whether or not they’re included in rent.
Common amenities include:
- Fully furnished units
- Built-in appliances
- Fitness facilities
- Community pool
- Cleaning service
- Maintenance and repairs
- Concierge service
Having an on-site or on-call maintenance person, property manager, or concierge service that you can count on 24/7 is an underrated amenity to ask about.
If there isn’t, renter’s insurance is a good way to help cover living expenses should an incident temporarily force you out of your apartment. But even Esurance, a leading insurance company, says that if you don’t have someone on-site or on-call at all hours of the day, you might want to consider finding another place to live.
4. Security Deposit Terms
In general, it’s illegal for a security deposit to be non-refundable, and is just meant to cover damages beyond normal wear and tear or if you break your lease. Your security deposit could be a portion of your monthly rent or multiple months of rent, so be sure to check if the amount of the security deposit is within your price range.
5. Interior Design Changes
Most apartments don’t allow major alterations like painting walls, and some don’t even allow you to make holes in your walls—other places are fine with holes in walls, but will deduct money from your security deposit if you try to repair the damage.
Rather than wait to find out whether or not that’s allowed when your security deposit is returned, ask upfront so you know exactly what customizations are okay.
6. Rent Payment and Late Fees
Landlords and leasing companies usually like to be paid in one of three ways. Ask which way you’ll be expected to pay and when—on the last day of the month or the first day of the month.
Here’s what you need to know, and ask about when it comes to the three major methods of monthly rent payment:
- Check – Most people don’t carry around checkbooks these days. If your landlord wants to receive rent via check, you need to be prepared by ordering checks from your bank ahead of time.
- Wire transfer – Using wire transfer as a means to pay month’s rent can leave you with extra expenses. Outgoing wire transfers can cost up to $35 for each transaction, which adds up quickly when you’re paying rent every month. Ask if your landlord has factored the cost of the transfer into rent, or if they are willing to.
- Property management portal – Online payment systems are definitely the easiest way to make rent payments, and usually offer an auto-pay feature that will keep you from paying rent late.
Even though you plan on paying rent on time, without the ability to use auto-pay, you may accidentally pay rent late—be sure to ask your landlord what the penalties are for late rent. Every state has its own laws about late rent fees, so don’t be afraid to look yours up if you feel your rental’s late fee is unreasonable.
7. Know Your Rights
In addition to late rent laws, every state has its own landlord-tenant laws that both you, and your landlord, need to abide by. For instance, if you sign a long-term lease, your state laws will outline what to expect if you find yourself needing to get out of your lease.
8. Long-Term Commitments Mean In-Person Visits
It can be difficult, and not to mention risky, to commit to a long-term lease in an apartment you haven’t seen in person before. If you’re familiar with the area—not just the city, but also the neighborhood—you may feel comfortable never having seen the unit in-person. But if you’re moving to a totally new city you’re not familiar with, you should think twice before signing a lease that isn’t month-to-month.
9. Get Everything in Writing
When do you sign a lease for an apartment if it’s an oral lease? Hopefully, never. It might be surprising, but verbal rental agreements are recognized as valid by most states, and “lead to ambiguity about the obligations of each party,” according to the legal site FindLaw.
Getting a detailed, written lease is always a much safer bet. Having an agreement in writing keeps you and your landlord accountable, and is a good reference for later if you end up needing to break your lease or have a disagreement about the terms of your security deposit.
10. Account for All Fees
If it isn’t clear by now, renting a new apartment has tons of moving parts that can each cost you money. Here’s an overview of all the potential fees from earlier in this guide, and some additional hidden or unanticipated fees you may need to account for.
- The listed price of the unit
- Application fee
- Renter’s insurance
- Wire transfer fees
- Late payment fees
- Security deposit
- Penalty for breaking the lease
Adding up all of these fees for each unit you’re considering will help you see the true cost of an apartment rental—a more expensive apartment with more amenities could very well be the cheaper option in the long-run.
Hassle-Free Living in Landing
With flexible month-to-month leasing, fully-furnished units, and immediate lease approval, Landing will get you settled in a perfect apartment—no risks and no strings attached. You won’t have to worry about any unnecessary costs like application fees or security deposits. Plus, with 24/7 in-app concierge service, you can easily pay rent, schedule cleanings, and repairs, and manage move-in and move-out dates.