7 Things You Need to Know Before Signing a Lease

If you’re tired of dorm life and are considering moving into an apartment, it is easy to get carried away by the prospect of finally having your own place. Although living out your Pinterest-inspired DIY decorating fantasies and moving in with your best friends sounds like a dream come true, there are important details that are easy to miss when you’re finding the best accommodations for yourself. That’s why Her Campus talked to Richie Gill, a real estate broker and owner of Longhorn Leasing, to simplify the often intimidating move from on-campus to off-campus housing. Keep the following tips in mind as you embark on your apartment hunt!  

1. Location

One of the biggest mistakes students make is only looking at the most well-known complexes. Don’t exclude complexes just because they aren’t heavily advertised or directly in the campus area! “I would suggest students do their research and understand the options out there,” Gill says. “Don’t just look at the larger complexes. Oftentimes the smaller complexes, such as condos and town homes, [are] the better deal.”

Although living a larger complex that’s closer to campus is convenient, you’ll probably spend a ton of money for that convenience. If you have a car, consider commuting! Waking up 30 minutes earlier in order to pay half as much rent will be worth it in the long run when you have extra spending money in your pocket. No car? Check out local bus routes.  If you are willing to give up being within walking distance from campus, this is a great way to save TONS of money and avoid jacked-up rates.

Another item to consider is the neighborhood. Scope out the surrounding area at nighttime and on the weekend to see how lively and safe the area is. Be sure to check out the demographic of the apartment complex as well—will you be surrounded by families and young professionals, or will your neighbors mostly be other college students? While it’s nice to be in party central, it’ll bite you in the butt when you have to wake up early to take three exams in the morning and there’s still a rave going on in your neighbor’s apartment.

2. What’s included in the monthly rent

Garbage, water, electricity, Internet, gas, phone and television fees can add up if they each have to be paid separately. Know whether they’re covered in the rent or if they need to be paid through a third party. This will vary from apartment to apartment, but Gill says that most large apartment complexes will include water in the monthly rent, while electricity and cable/internet are usually paid through the city and/or private companies.

The leasing agent at the apartment complex can also give you an estimate of how much utilities usually cost for tenants on top of the monthly rent, and whether or not they can be paid through the apartment complex. “The estimate can really help you make your choice!” says Ashley McDonald, a sophomore at Central Michigan University.

Unfortunately, most apartment complexes will not split up the utility bill for the unit. If you are moving in with multiple roommates, websites such as SimpleBills are useful resources that can be used to bill each roommate separately and ensure that everyone pays his or her own share!

3. Extra fees

Most complexes charge extra for parking and pets. If you plan to have a pet, make sure you understand the apartment’s pet policy. Often apartment complexes will charge more for you to have a pet. If you’re leasing within walking distance of campus, consider not bringing your car to save on monthly parking fees.

While those fees are usually difficult to contest, keep an eye out for red flags in contracts that entail extra costs that seem unjustified. “Realtors are known for ripping students off with late fees, subleasing fees and admin fees,” Gill says. “Look out for what fees they’re charging. The fees are negotiable… a lot of times students make the mistake of thinking they’re set in stone.”

4. The condition of the appliances

If you get to see the unit before you move in, make sure everything in the apartment works! Check for everything: stains on the carpet, broken tiles, holes in the wall, functioning faucets and toilets, the shower pressure and the A/C and heater. Make a checklist and take pictures of anything that you could be up-charged for, and give them to your landlord along with the evaluation form of the complex as soon as possible after moving in.

 “When filling out the unit evaluation form for the apartment, write down every single thing, even if it’s a small hole in the wall!” says Elizabeth Chavez, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. “I kid you not, I saved $200 because they tried charging me for a stain that was there before I moved in. Details count!”

If you are unable to see the unit before you actually move in, the best way to protect yourself from low-quality appliances is to state exactly what you want in the lease, such as, “I want to make sure all appliances were built and installed after 2012 and are stainless steel.” Gill suggests bringing this up before you sign the lease and submit the application.  

5. Outlets

If you get to see the unit beforehand, when you’re walking through the apartment, make a mental note of where all the outlets are. Sometimes outlets can be in hard-to-reach places, and those locations should be considered if you already have furniture in mind that you want to move into the unit. You don’t want to show up on move-in day with a brand-new leather sofa only to realize that the only place it fits in the living room covers up the main two power outlets. If you know ahead of time that you will need more sockets, invest in a power strip; these allow you to connect extra devices and can make up for lost space! 

6. The details of the lease

Realtors are really good at oversimplifying the professional jargon in contracts and getting you to sign as fast as possible. Make sure you take the leasing agreement home with you and read it over thoroughly before signing anything. If you’re going to have roommates, make sure that individual contracts are issued so that you’re not held liable for anyone else’s monthly rent. This ensures that you only have to pay your share each month, and you won’t be held responsible or charged extra if your roommate forgets to pay his or her rent.

Also ask about the guidelines for subleasing, what the fees are for breaking the contract and whether or not you need a guarantor. If you plan to study abroad for a semester or go back home for the summer, subleasing your apartment is a great way to save money. Rather than continuing to pay rent while you are out of town, you can lease your apartment out to someone and charge him or her for your rent.  Guarantors, usually your parent or guardian, are simply in charge of picking up the slack if the student on the lease stops paying the rent; often apartments will require students to have a guarantor if they have below a certain level of income.

7. How to renew your lease

Imagine this: Things are going fine and dandy, and then all of a sudden you get a notice that you will be moved into a different unit for the upcoming leasing term. Not cool! Always know how long the renting agreement is. Most leases range from six months to a year and can then be renewed. However, some rare complexes require monthly renewal. Also, if you’re living in a complex, make sure that you’re able to stay in the unit you are currently living in after renewing your lease—you don’t want to go through the hassle of moving every time your lease runs out!  

When renting an apartment for the first time, the more you know and the more you do your research, the better off you will be. However, the real-estate world is not an easy place to jump into. Understanding the basic terms of a contract, such as when it starts and ends, what the rental term is and what your rights as a tenant are, will put you in a good place to negotiate with the leasing agent. Happy hunting!