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When my husband and I were looking for our first home, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
After deciding we wanted to rent for a few years before purchasing a home of our own, we toured houses with broken windows, missing bathrooms, and ceilings so low my husband—who stands at a solid six-foot-four—couldn’t stand up straight. Along the way, we learned a thing or two about what was essential for us to have and what we definitely didn’t like—and I even made a list of the pros and cons of each place we visited.
But what I’ve found after nearly three years of renting is that while features like ample parking for guests and in-unit washing machines are nice to see, there are some parts of renting that a simple house tour can’t tell you. Whether you’re looking at a shiny new apartment or an old family farmhouse, here are 15 questions to ask the landlord before signing a lease:
1. What payment methods will you accept for rent?
This is a question that is often overlooked, but that you’ll want to clear up way in advance. If you’re renting from a small landlord with only one or two properties, you’ll likely need to pay via check—and if you don’t already have a checkbook on hand, you’ll want to order one as soon as possible. Alternatively, if you’re renting from a real estate agent or company, you may be able to pay online via credit or debit card. In some situations, you might even need to pay in cash, but if that’s the case, make sure you always get a receipt!
2. Are we allowed to hang photos and/or outdoor decorations?
Any project with nails involved should be approved in writing before you do it. That means before putting up nails for your Christmas lights or hanging that family photo, you need to make sure it’s OK with your landlord (and if it’s outside, perhaps even the neighborhood’s HOA). You don’t want to end up losing all or some of your security deposit over something that could have been avoided with a simple Command strip, so do your due diligence ahead of time.
3. Can we document any existing damage and do an inventory?
The answer, of course, should be yes. You’ll want to note any current damage so that the landlord can’t withhold your security deposit later for a hole or scratch that was already there.
It’s also a good idea for you to walk through and do a quick inventory of the rental. Make note of any appliances or decorations left there by the landlord that don’t belong to you, like microwaves and washing machines, shelves and closet organizers, or even clothes hangers and shower curtains. Having a physical list of everything that needs to be present when you move out will help you avoid losing part of your security deposit later, as well as mitigate any disputes that may arise over allegedly missing items.
4. Are there any HOA rules that we need to know about?
When my husband and I were looking at houses, we found out that a lot of communities had seemingly arbitrary HOA rules. But whether you agree with the regulations or not, you’ll still have to follow them if you move in. Don’t get your landlord in trouble by failing to keep your trash cans out of sight or remove snow from your front sidewalk!
5. What is included in the rent?
Some utilities might be included in the rent; on the other hand, you may have to—or be able to—pay extra for services like lawn care and trash pick-up. We also found that some rentals required extra deposits and even tacked on additional monthly fees for pets. Each property is different, so be sure to clarify this before your first rent check is due.
6. What utilities do we need to have turned on?
If they aren’t included in the rent, it can cost money to have utilities like cable and internet or gas and electric services turned on. If the landlord keeps these things going from tenant to tenant, however, you may be able to avoid this fee. Either way, it’s nice to know upfront!
7. Can you hear the neighbors through the walls?
Living in an apartment, townhouse, or duplex? Then this is an important question to ask! A lot of places have quasi-soundproof walls, but if they don’t, that could be a deal-breaker for you.
8. What’s the neighborhood like?
Who lives around here? Is it mostly college students? Older couples? Families? You may also want to ask who lives next door, especially if it’s an apartment, townhome, or duplex. Knowing what to expect going in can help ease the transition into your new community.
9. Are there any HOA perks we should know about?
Will you get access to a pool, dog park, or playground? Is there a list of available pet sitters or baby sitters in the neighborhood? You can’t take advantage of opportunities like these if you don’t know about them, so don’t be afraid to ask.
10. How should we let you know if there’s a problem?
You’re likely responsible for incidentals like light bulbs and clogged toilets, but if there’s a leaky faucet, a broken air conditioner, or a burst water heater, that’s stuff that the landlord should handle, and in a timely manner! Find out how the property manager wants to be contacted in case of a maintenance problem or emergency. And if they’re out of town (which always seems to happen at the most inconvenient times), then who should you call?
11. Who usually does the repairs?
Does the property manager hire a maintenance worker/contractor for each individual problem? Do they use a company? Do they do the work themselves? It never hurts to know what to expect.
12. Do you do regular inspections?
In most states, landlords need to give you some notice before they enter your house or apartment, usually at least 24 hours. That said, if they plan on doing an inspection once every few months, it’s good to know ahead of time.
13. What is the plan for when the lease is up?
Will you transition to a month-to-month residency? Will you need to renew your lease? Will you need to leave? Your or your landlord’s situation may change by then, but you’ll want to nail down a rough plan so you both know what’s coming.
14. What is the crime rate for this area? How are the schools?
This is something you can look up yourself, but the landlord or your realtor may know, too.
15. Did you change the locks since the last tenant stayed?
The answer should be yes! You don’t want anyone showing up uninvited.
Whether you’re moving into your first rental or your fifteenth, moving is always an exciting experience—so congratulations! Don’t forget to share any extra tips and tricks you may have for those looking for houses to rent in the comments below.
This article was last updated July 7, 2020.