Young happy couple smiling and getting keys from new real estate from agent.

11 Questions First-Time Renters Should Ask

Renting your first apartment ranks among the best days of your life. It signifies freedom, responsibility, and adulthood. It’s not a dorm room; it’s your place. But before you go signing a lease, here are 11 questions you need to ask the landlord first.

Young happy couple smiling and getting keys from new real estate from agent.

What utilities are there, and who pays them?

Most apartments cover trash pickup and water, but you’re on your own for electric and gas. However, some apartments do have water meters, and you’re responsible for all the utilities. Water can add from $50 to $500 to monthly costs, so make sure you (1) ask who pays the water and sewage and (2) call the local utility company to get the average water use and cost for the apartment you’re considering renting. They’ll have those records from the last tenant. The same goes for electric and gas. You don’t know how frugal or what an energy hog the last tenant may have been, but at least you’ll have a baseline.

Is there WiFi in the building and do you have to pay to use it?

Many apartments offer “free WiFi” to their tenants. This can save you $50 to $150 per month if it’s truly free. Ask about the limits in term of usage, streaming, security, etc.

What happens when something breaks? Who pays?

Again, most apartments will cover basic maintenance, like heat and air, plumbing, air conditioning and appliances, but not all will. Ask. Get it in writing. That’s something that should be in the contract.

What does it take to break the lease?

What if you get your dream job on the other side of the country and need to break your lease? What will it take to get out of the lease? You could, according to some leases, lose your security deposit, have to pay the balance or portion of the balance of the lease. There are penalties; fines and all kinds of hoops landlords can make you jump through. Find out what those hoops are before you sign. If you have a co-signer on the lease, as you might if it’s a first time rental, the co-signer could be help responsible for paying off the remaining months.

Tenant or Occupant — what’s the roommate policy?

Are you a tenant or occupant? In other words, is your name on the lease and are you responsible for the rent if your roommates bail, or is everyone equally responsible? If you live with two or three other people, and one moves out for whatever reason, who pays their rent? If you’re the only name on the lease, can you sublet the apartment or even have roommates? You may start out renting it for yourself, come upon hard times and want to add a roommate. Will that mean paying more money? How often can you have guests over? How many people can live there at one time? Can you have sleepovers? The things you took for granted when living at home, or in the dorm change radically. Some apartment managers don’t care unless things get out of hand. Others are very strict about occupancy clauses. Keep asking about scenarios until you’re sure you’ll be okay.

What does it take to get your security deposit back?

Some landlords find every reason possible not to give back security deposits and most renters assume they won’t get their deposit back no matter what condition they leave the apartment in. Check with friends, online, Yelp and other sites to see if your landlord has a reputation for being honest or not with your deposit.

How many parking spaces do I get?

Some apartments give each tenant on the lease a parking spot. Some come with only one spot and “available street parking.” Some apartments have no visitor’s parking, and some don’t care. Find out which situation fits your apartment, particularly if you plan on having overnight guests, friends over for dinner or parties or studying, etc. Nothing kills your friend’s party buzz faster than not being able to find a parking place.

Quiet hours

That might sound a little like daycare, but the fact is adults work. Many of them work at night and sleep during the day too. So, there’s almost always a “quiet hours” policy, usually ten p.m. to 6 or 7 a.m. Find out what it is, the penalties for violating it (usually eviction after repeated offenses) and if it’s going to cramp your lifestyle.

Are there additional charges to use communal facilities?

Many rental properties may brag about their on-site gym, swimming pool or clubhouse. But they fail to mention you have to pay extra to use them.

Pet Policies

Okay, you don’t have a dog, but most of your friends do. Can they bring their best friend with them to visit when they do? You don’t want to leave any animal in a car – is there a policy about unattended animals in vehicles or animals on the property at all? Your friend with the service dog is, by law, allowed into your apartment with their animal, but what about everyone else?

Bikes, boards, and boats

Will the property allow you to store your bikes, surf or other boards, or boats on the property? Do you have an RV, van or trailer you use for work or recreation? Is it allowed on the property? Is there an extra fee?

Those are the basics most first-time renters get burned by because they don’t know to ask. Don’t be one of them. Ask other friends who rent what they wish they’d asked about when they rented. Take your time finding and selecting an apartment and it can become one of the best experiences of your life.

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Becky Blanton is a full-time ghostwriter and writing coach for Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, and business speakers. In 2009 she spoke at TED Global at Oxford University, her first ever public speaking gig. When she's not writing, she's kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay. Her dream home is to live aboard a sailing or houseboat.

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