First-Time Renter? 4 Questions to Ask Before You Sign a Lease

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Finding a suitable home to rent has become increasingly difficult over the past few years. In 2012, the average vacancy rate sat at just 4 percent, thanks in part to the housing crisis, the National Apartment Association reports. Higher rates of occupancy means it’s harder to find an apartment that fits your budget and lifestyle. In this time of limited selection, you might be tempted to sign on the first halfway-decent place that’s available—but there are some questions you should ask first.

Who is Responsible for Utilities?

Find out if you or your landlord pays for gas, electric and water. If it’s you, you’ll have to contact the individual utility companies yourself to set up an account. Some utilities expect you to pay a deposit if you’re a new customer.

In some areas (Seattle is one), if a building has more than three units, the landlord can divide the cost of utilities among each unit equally, according to the Tenants Union of Washington State. If you use little electricity but your downstairs neighbor is an energy glutton, you’ll end up paying for more than your fair share of the bill. Not only can this bust your budget, but it’s annoying, too.

Who Controls the Heat?

Everyone’s heat preferences are different, so this might be an issue if there’s no thermostat in the apartment and you like things toasty.

Learn the heat laws in your new hometown, too. In New York City, if the temperature drops below 55 degrees during the day between October and May, the heat inside an apartment building needs to be set to at least 68 degrees F. If your apartment is noticeably cooler on a chilly day, you can call the city to report your landlord.

What Happens if Something Breaks?

It’s the landlord’s responsibility to provide you with a livable home. But, the definition of livable can be pretty broad. For example, if your refrigerator breaks in California, your landlord isn’t necessarily responsible for fixing or replacing it, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Understand what appliances and repairs you would be on the hook for, and plan on having the funds to cover them. To set up an emergency fund, you could sell an annuity or take out a loan at Annuity.org. In either case, deposit the amount in a savings account and then make monthly payments from your income until it’s paid back.

What’s Nearby?

Talk to the landlord and people who live in the building or on the same street to find out what must-haves are within walking distance (or within a short drive, if you have a car). Take a walk around the neighborhood to get a feel for what it has to offer and its safety.

If you rely on public transportation, ask about the nearest bus or subway stop. You don’t want to move to a neighborhood where the closest bus only runs every hour or less, for example. WalkScore.com can help you choose a neighborhood based on how close it is to public transit and how many errands you can run without needing a car.