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Don’t Sign a Lease Without Asking These 10 Questions First

Real estate agents tell all.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.


Photo by Aaron Bengochea.

Signing a lease is the reality TV equivalent of receiving the final rose: It’s a big commitment even though it’s probably only temporary. Not unlike speed dating, apartment hunting requires thinking on your toes, or in The Bachelor terms, being vulnerable. To get to know a home on the fly, you’ll have to do a little extra digging on the spot.

To help us navigate our next move, we asked the pros to share the questions they wish clients would ask more often before they put a ring on it—er, sign the dotted line.

What utilities are included in the rent?


Photo by Aaron Bengochea.

By now, you already know that you love the original hardwood floors and can learn to like the monthly cost, but don’t overlook the day-to-day luxuries of having hot water and a working stove top.

“The costs of utilities are often an unseen expense that is not noted while touring a potential rental,” suggests Sophie Harris, an agent at Warburg Realty.

While it’s standard in Manhattan for landlords to include heat and hot water (and the tenant pay electric and gas) many buildings still have unique policies,” says Mike Jeneralczuk, a real estate salesperson for REAL New York. “Some buildings wholesale their electric and have a flat fee, while others may indeed not include water.”

Will any repairs be made to the home prior to move-in?  

So you noticed that the door handle to the bathroom was a little finicky and one of the cabinets in the kitchen looks a little crooked. Ask your agent if those things can (or will) be changed, Angel Kou of The Agency said. The answer might be no, but at least you’ll be prepared to live with the cosmetic woes or DIY down the road.


Photo by Cody Guilfoyle.

What is the ideal lease duration?

“Oftentimes, life takes us in new directions, and it’s smart to ask how long you are bound in your contract,” suggests Harris.

When you’re in the final stages of reading the fine print, keep an eye out for information regarding early cancellation policy. Are you logistically prepared for what it takes to break the lease, even before the moving van arrives? Likewise, Kou suggests inquiring about your ability to extend a lease a month or two after the agreed-upon term if needed.

Will I need a cosigner?

A safe and cautious renter is also one who’s financially realistic. Many landlords will require you to have an annual income that is a multiple of the monthly rent,” says Harris. Being matter-of-fact about whether or not you’ll need a lending hand is no different than being realistic about whether or not you can fit a sectional or loveseat in your living room.

What extra fees am I not seeing?

In addition to utility costs, it’s likely that your agent won’t spell out all the other included fees that come with the process of searching and securing a place until the second you’re ready to write the check.

“Broker fees, application fees, condo board package fees; in NYC or any metropolitan area, you can never assume,” says Jeneralczuk.

Luckily, you’ll often find this information laid out in the contract if you didn’t happen to ask. “One thing I often look for to protect my customers is refundable and nonrefundable fees,” says Harris. “These can often make or make or break a contract. Security deposits can often be costly, and it’s important that my customers feel comfortable with what they are paying from the start.”


Photo by Cody Guilfoyle.

How long has this apartment been on the market?

The telltale sign of a hidden gem (or a big mistake). While most real estate search sites will list this information in the description online, if you’re viewing the place without having done your background research, ask your agent how long the place has been vacant for. “This is truly the only way to know if the unit is priced right for the neighborhood,” says Jeneralczuk.

Is the building under rent control?

If there’s one lesson to take away from this, it’s that thinking long term will benefit you in the long run. If you’re serious about settling down in one place and don’t feel like moving every other year because you can’t afford the monthly rent anymore, Rosalie Klein of The Agency suggests looking into rent-controlled units.


Photo by Aaron Bengochea.

Does the landlord live in the building?

“This is a good indicator of whether or not there’s someone on hand for possible repairs and day-to-day needs, but also, if it’s a building that the landlord feels comfortable and happy living in,” explains Harris.

According to Klein, the first thing a tenant should feel confident about before signing a lease is repair protocol (think leaky pipes or a broken toilet handle). “What’s the turnaround time to be expected?” she asks. “Is there a management company or owner who will be there right away to attend to tenants’ needs?”

Would you take this apartment?

If there’s one thing Jeneralczuk wishes his clients asked more often, it’s this. “Needless to say, I’ve seen thousands of apartment and see hundreds of options each month. You hire an agent because they know the market better than you,” he explains. “By acting as your agent, I have your best interest in mind and with access to every apartment on the market, I should be able to guide you to the option that truly best fits your needs, given what apartments are available.”

How will I feel a year from now?

Your agent won’t be able to answer this for you, but it’s an important question to ask nonetheless. While it’s easy to get caught up in the moment (especially if you’ve found a true treasure and have to act fast), consider what your life—and bank account—will look like 12 months from now.

“[You should feel confident] that it’s not just the right decision today, but the right decision for the next year. Moving is expensive and ideally, you’ll be living in this apartment for more than one lease term,” says Jeneralczuk.

“The most important thing renters should feel confident about is the day-to-day life,” adds Harris. “Spend some time in the building’s common spaces and neighborhood to ensure yourself that this is indeed a place you could call home.”

Lydia Geisel is a Digital Editorial Assistant at Domino.

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This post originally appeared on Domino and was published November 30, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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