5 Things to Know Before Signing a Rental Lease

by Ann Johnson

For most renters the first question they ask when looking at potential properties is the rent amount, and when the rent might increase. If they have pets, the second question is typically the property's pet policy and pet deposit fees. Before signing the lease, the prospective renter should read the lease agreement carefully to determine what the property owner allows regarding the use of the property, such as guest, noise and decorating restrictions. You should also familiarize yourself with the rental laws and tenant rights of your state, as laws vary from state to state. In this way you'll know your rights and whether any are being violated in terms of the lease.

Future Consideration: Moving Out

Before you actually sign the lease or move in, understand the terms of the lease about moving out. If the lease is for twelve months and you decide to move out exactly twelve months after you've moved in and don't notify the property manager, you might lose your deposit or face additional fees. Rental agreements typically specify when the tenant needs to notify a property manager that you intend to vacate the property. It might be a thirty-day notice, or another specified number of days.


Ask for a walk-through with the property manager to document any property defects before moving in. This prevents the property manager from charging you for damages that occurred prior to your tenancy in the property.

Additional Expenses

Identify additional expenses associated with the rental, to understand the true cost of the rental prior to signing the lease. Some utilities might be included in the rent, and others will be a separate expense. The unit might come with essential appliances, or you might need to supply your own stove and refrigerator. The unit might have a washer and dryer, or there might be a laundry room with coin-operated machines. The complex might charge additional parking or garage fees.

Maintenance Costs

Ask about your responsibilities regarding maintenance of the rental, as they can vary. For example, you might be responsible for maintaining and irrigating the landscape of a rental home, whereas another property might place that responsibility on the owner. If the property owner intends to maintain the landscaping, yet expects you to pay the water bill for irrigation, that could become an unexpected additional expense.

Functional Issues

The rental might look nice, but take a closer look. You might find issues with the unit that the property owner cannot or will not remedy. For example, check the size of the water heater, and find out how many units it services. Question if the air conditioning or heating unit is adequate for the size of the apartment or home. Determine if cell phone service is available inside, and if cable or Internet service is available. Consider the possibility of extreme noise during certain times of the day, which might occur if the property is located near a fire station, railroad or airport, or on a busy street. Check out the smoke alarms, if they exist, and look for any potential fire or safety hazards. Check the law on smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms in your state to see if installation is mandatory, and whether it's the property owner's or your responsibility.


  • "Every Tenant's Legal Guide"; Janet Portman, Marcia Stewart; 2009

About the Author

Ann Johnson has been a freelance writer since 1995. She previously served as the editor of a community magazine in Southern California and was also an active real-estate agent, specializing in commercial and residential properties. She has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from California State University, Fullerton.

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