12 questions to ask a landlord before signing your lease

After weeks of searching and finally finding a beautiful new apartment to call your own, you're probably jumping at the chance to move your stuff in ASAP. But first, you need to find out exactly what you're signing up for.

Your lease isn't just a piece of paper (or in some cases, several pieces of paper, like with tiny print, asterisks galore). Fact is, it's a legally binding contract. That's why the best time to get essential info from your landlord and negotiate certain details isn't while the ink is drying — it's before you even get out a pen.

Here are 12 important questions to ask your landlord before you sign the tenancy agreement.

1. how long is the lease term?

A lease is often a year, sometimes 6 months. A short-term rental is typically 6 months or less, or month-to-month. It's important to know the length of your term because you're locked into that time frame once you sign a lease.

You should also find out what the penalties are for breaking your lease in an extreme situation, like if you're offered a job across the country halfway into your 12-month agreement. Even if you negotiate an early-release clause, you could end up forfeiting your security deposit and be on the hook for the rest of the rent.

Is the rent pro-rated?

In case you're hoping to move in or out mid-month, you might want to ask your landlord if that month's total can be reduced.

2. are utilities included?

The types of utilities paid by landlords vary considerably, so it's best to factor them into your rental budget. That means finding out what you're responsible for and what your landlord covers, like water, electricity, heat, internet, cable, trash pickup, and more.

Be sure to ask about any additional fees, too, such as parking, building maintenance (like a cleaning service or gardener), and storage.

3. are pets allowed?

If you have a pet or plan to get one, always ask your landlord about their pet policy beforehand. Landlords are often wary of anything that could damage a unit or the building, so yours might say no right away. But some landlords allow all pets, ask for a separate pet deposit or "pet rent" (a monthly fee for having a pet), or accept pets up to a certain weight (or other stipulations).

Service animals are different though. Landlords aren't legally allowed to deny you a service animal (in your unit or building), as long as you have documentation. Generally, you don't need to provide proof of the pet's certification, just proof that the pet is a medicinal requirement for you. Pet rent can't be charged for service animals, though you could be liable for any damage done to the apartment by your pet.

4. when is rent due and how do i pay it?

Whether your landlord lives in an apartment below yours or you actually send a check to a property management system, it's important to find out when and how payment should be sent every month.

And even if you don't think you'll be late with rent, it's wise to ask your landlord when a payment is considered late, and if there are any charges. In many states, a late fee shouldn't apply until the rent is at least 3 days overdue.

5. is the security deposit refundable?

By law, all security deposits are refundable in nature. Your landlord can withhold part of your deposit for damages incurred on your behalf (damages exceeding normal wear and tear) or if you break the lease. But in general, any security deposit referred to as "non-refundable" in a lease is illegal.

6. is there 24/7 maintenance if i have an emergency?

Depending on your rental situation, your building might have on-site property management. In any case, before you sign the lease, it's good to know whether you can count on your landlord to take a midnight phone call if your bath tub overflows. If the answer is no — or your landlord tells you up front that he or she travels frequently — you might want to consider finding another place (and another landlord).

In case there's ever a covered incident that temporarily forces you out of your apartment, renters insurance can be a real lifesaver. It helps cover incremental living expenses like your hotel bill and meals until you can return to your place.

7. what are the rules for personalizing my apartment?

If you want to paint your bedroom walls or install curtain rods in the living room, you'd better first discuss what kind of customizations are okay and which are likely to be vetoed with your landlord. (Getting it all in writing can avoid potential headaches further down the line).

In most cases, you're expected to leave your apartment in its original state when your lease is up. If you make some unapproved cosmetic changes, a portion of your security deposit could be withheld in order for your landlord to restore the apartment.

8. how much notice will you give before entering my apartment?

Your lease should also include details about the etiquette for entering your unit. Most laws specify that a landlord is required to give at least 24 hours' notice before coming over. Depending on your home state, your landlord is typically only allowed to enter at reasonable times (not, for instance, late at night) or during business hours as well, unless there's an emergency.

9. how often are the locks changed?

Be sure to ask your landlord how frequently the locks (to your building, apartment, and any other communal areas, like a garage) are changed, especially if your building has several units or experiences a lot of turnover.

10. what is the guest policy?

Some landlords go so far as to refuse any overnight guests, while others will allow visitors for any length of time (so long as you're not disturbing other residents). But always check with your landlord before your sister comes to stay for a month. The same goes for moving a significant other into your place; your landlord may want to run a background check on them, too.

Subletting is another potential issue. Many landlords won't allow you to sublet for liability reasons and basic uneasiness (they've likely screened you, not the person subletting your apartment). But that's not always the case, so it's worth discussing with your landlord in advance.

11. is there any construction planned for the building (or nearby) in the near future?

There are few new apartment nightmares worse than waking up to the sound of hammering … every morning for 6 months. The best way to avoid this? Ask questions before you sign the lease.

Noisy construction might keep an apartment on the market for a while, so be sure to investigate the future of your building (and neighboring ones) as well as its recent rental past. If construction is imminent but you can deal with the noise, you might be able to get a better deal for a great apartment or neighborhood than you normally would.

12. what will you do to prepare the apartment before i move in?

Previous tenants don't always leave apartments in the best of states. Your landlord is supposed to make a clean, livable unit for you before you move in. And if he or she has promised extras, like having your carpets steam cleaned or the track lighting updated, get it in writing so you have something to refer back to.

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Learn more about all of your rights as a renter with our helpful guide to tenant rights.

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