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Renter Beware: What to Look for Before Signing a Lease

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Take it from a New Yorker who knows: there are few things in life as frustrating, infuriating, terrifying, maddening, nerve-wracking, and capricious as renting an apartment. I lived in seven different places in New York City over the span of five years, and after touring countless moldy studios the size of storage closets, apartments where the bathtub was located in the kitchen, and spaces where the smell of cat urine practically made me pass out, I can safely say that I’ve seen just about all there is to see—save, perhaps, a chalk outline on the kitchen floor.


Some of the places I lived were good choices, others not so much. But if there’s any upside to living in an apartment where your neighbors play salsa music until 2 a.m., it’s knowing that you won’t make the same mistake twice. While features like natural light, closet space, and distance from public transportation are all important, there are other, less obvious things to consider. City dwellers, recent college grads, and apartment hunters of all kinds, take note: when you’re searching for your next home, here’s what to look for to ensure that the next twelve months of your life are pleasant ones.


What’s the neighborhood like? It’s not just about safety—if the street is lined with bars or restaurants, you could be in for some noisy evenings. If there’s a school across the street, expect raucous crowds of kids in the mornings or afternoons. If there’s construction nearby, be prepared for noise, dust, traffic problems, and possibly pests. See what kinds of businesses populate the area, and decide whether you want to associate with their customers. Take it from me: apartment upstairs from Italian restaurant = good; apartment next to off-track-betting parlor = bad.


Is the apartment structurally sound? Examining small details can tell you a lot about how the apartment has been maintained over the years. Are the floors warped, stained, or scuffed? Do the kitchen drawers glide properly? Are the cabinets and countertops plumb? Do all the doors shut and latch, or are they misaligned? Are the window frames new, or are they old and leaky? If the apartment has carpet, does it look like it hasn’t been cleaned in years? Especially in older buildings, these are subtle clues that indicate the apartment hasn’t been properly maintained or repaired over time.


How’s the electricity and plumbing? Turn on all the faucets—they should provide warm water right away and have good water pressure, and the drains shouldn’t clog. Check the light switches and light fixtures—you shouldn’t hear fizzing or popping, which could indicate faulty wiring. Are there enough electrical outlets? Where in the room are they located? One per room is not enough for a technology addict, and could necessitate extension cords, in turn causing fire hazards. Are the outlets grounded? (In many old buildings, they’re not.) Check to see whether the apartment has a fuse box or a circuit breaker, and find out what kinds of lightbulbs the fixtures use, making sure you won’t be stuck buying expensive specialty bulbs.


Do the appliances work? Appliances such as refrigerators, heaters, ovens, and dishwashers are usually provided and serviced by the landlord, so turn them on and make sure they function well. If they seem old and/or beat up, don’t be afraid to inquire about a possible replacement. Make sure to note what kind of heat the apartment uses; is there a radiator, an electric wall unit, or a gas heater? Steam heat is usually free, but unreliable. On the other hand, gas heat is expensive, but usually controllable via a thermostat. If you’re responsible for paying your own heating bill, find out how much you’ll be spending each month, and watch out for drafty windows and doors that could waste money.


Are there signs of vermin? Look inside cabinets and drawers; are there mouse droppings or roach dust? Look under sinks; are there gaps in the wall around the pipes where bugs could crawl through? Is there a gap between the floor and the walls of the apartment for bugs to crawl in? In the common areas of the building, are there obvious rodent or insect traps? Any signs of pest infestation—ants, moths, rats, mice, or roaches—should give a renter serious pause. This includes seeing actual dead roaches in the kitchen sink. (Trust me on this.)


Who are the neighbors? Try to see the apartment in the evening, when neighbors are more likely to be home. Can you hear their televisions or appliances through the walls? If you can’t meet any neighbors, ask about them. Do they have pets? Do they have small children or infants? Consider how you’ll fit in with the current group of tenants; if you like quiet, a building composed mainly of college students could prove too noisy. If you like entertaining or playing music, a building of families or other quiet types would also be a bad match.


Who is the landlord? The person showing the apartment is likely to be a broker, leasing agent, or the superintendant, meaning that person has a relationship with the landlord. How does the landlord handle service requests? Is there a superintendent on-site, or will you have to wait for repairs? Is there regular exterminator service, or are tenants expected to monitor their own homes? Is the apartment managed by an out-of-town owner, a large real-estate conglomeration, or a private family? While management companies may be more hands-off with their tenants’ day-to-day habits, small landlords are usually quicker to respond to repair calls and more receptive to negotiation. If you have a smart phone or time at home before submitting an application, try googling the landlord’s name. It’s possible that his or her other tenants will have expressed opinions on message boards or review sites like Yelp.


In what condition will you receive the apartment? It’s common for the landlord to paint or make minor repairs between tenants. Sometimes you can even request specific things, like replacements for old linoleum or additional deadbolts for the door. Be sure to know exactly what improvements—if any—the landlord plans to make, and incorporate that agreement into your lease.


There is some bad news: it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find an apartment that fits all these criteria and your budget. Know what’s most important to you, and make sure those needs are met. Perhaps you can put up with noisy neighbors as long as the apartment is bug-free and has a gas stove. Perhaps you’re an infrequent cook who doesn’t mind worn-out appliances as long as you have plenty of grounded electrical outlets. Finding an acceptable rental property is always a compromise, but as long as you know what qualities are non-negotiable for you, you can dismiss subpar candidates right away. There will always be other apartments for you to choose from, and there will always be someone even more desperate just waiting to scoop up the one you just rejected.



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