Most people sign a lease agreement before asking important questions. Once how much is the rent? how many bedrooms and bathrooms? what utilities are covered? and can I keep my dog? have been answered, the dotted line far too often gets signed. No doubt these are good questions, but there are many more that can save you disappointments and/or thousands of dollars. I provide a few here, though there are many more. Most of these questions are the result of calls I receive from wronged tenants whom I could not help because they failed to understand their lease.
1. For what maintenance am I responsible?
Few apartment leases allocate significant maintenance responsibilities to tenants. However, what maintenance is required is important to know upfront. Because there is no statute governing the allocation of maintenance responsibilities, tenants need to be very familiar with their maintenance responsibilities. For example, a lease may cut off the landlord’s responsibility for de-icing at a certain point. Should someone slip on ice in front of your door, you could be liable for the injured party’s damages.
2. From what maintenance am I forbidden?
On the flip side, some types of maintenance, usually maintenance that requires professional servicing or maintenance that could significantly affect the value of the premises if done improperly, is off limits to the tenant. Suppose something goes wrong, and you don’t want to fill out a work request and wait several days for the problem to be fixed. You decide to fix the thing yourself, but your shoddy attempt ends up causing further damage. Especially if the lease agreement forbade you to engage in the particular maintenance at issue, you can expect to be liable for any additional damage you caused.
For that reason, it’s also important to know what happens when unforeseen damage makes your apartment unlivable for a while. If the landlord isn’t willing to provide for ways to make you whole, such as suspending rent payments or making available vacant space, politely ask: “Do you expect this apartment to be unlivable?”
3. What happens when something goes wrong?
Let’s say your stove malfunctions or water leaks. Some leases are VERY particular about how and when to report these things. The last thing you want is to be on the hook for damages that you didn’t report timely. Know when to make a report, who to report to, what to include in the report, and what things require reporting
4. Has this apartment been weatherproofed?
Especially if the apartment is older, you want to have an idea of what your energy bills will run you. Depending on the size of your apartment and its weatherproofing, energy bills can vary wildly. Move in during the winter, and your first set of bills could be significantly more than you were expecting.
If the apartment is old and has never been weatherproofed, you can expect high utility bills.
5. What television and internet options are available?
You may love your current internet or television service, but apartments don’t always have every service available. That could mean being forced to use DSL when you wanted cable, or vice versa.
6. How often are locks changed?
If your landlord doesn’t change locks between tenancies, you are running the risk that a previous tenant has a spare key to your apartment. Requesting that the landlord change the lock to your door is perfectly reasonable, and you will learn a lot about the landlord from their response.
7. What if my roommate doesn’t pay his half of the rent?
The answer to this question is almost always the same: You and your roommate are jointly liable for rent. That means if the landlord doesn’t receive 100% of the rent owed each month, regardless of whether you paid your half, you both can be evicted. Still, it’s important to clarify what happens when very clearly only one tenant is not living up to their contractual obligations.
8. What happens at the end of the lease term?
Some lease agreements require a separately signed contract to enter into a second lease. Others automatically start a new full lease term unless a notice has been given to the landlord. Finally, some convert the lease to a month-to-month arrangement. None of these arrangements is necessarily better than the other, but the important thing is to know what happens when your lease ends so you can plan and act accordingly.
Of course, most lease contracts have what many lawyers call a “merger clause.” A merger clause essentially states that in the event of a conflict between the terms of the written agreement and the terms as told to you orally, the written terms trump the spoken terms. This means that after asking the right questions, you must review the contract itself to see if it accurately reflects the discussion you had with the landlord.
This is where I can be very helpful. I charge very reasonable rates for this kind of contract review—work that can save you thousands of dollars by avoiding mistakes.