Rent Like You Mean It

Every Question You Should Ask Before Signing a Lease

Add these expert tips to your checklist—so you get the rental apartment you want, without getting taken for a ride.

June 23, 2021
Photo by 10'000 Hours (Getty Images)

Rent Like You Mean It is a series all about giving our rental spaces a new lease. We’ve rounded up a whole host of refreshing spruce-ups (and cover-ups), impactful DIYs (plus how to get them back to square one when you leave), and peeks at real-life rental transformations. Because a lease should never stop you from having a space that feels like yours—even if it’s only for a year.

I learned so much from a decade spent living in New York City, but one of the biggest things was just how hard it is to find an apartment that’s right for you. We’re talking literally a full time job searching for your next dwelling, only to find out it’s the size of a closet/is a fifth floor walk-up/is off an out-of-commission subway line/has already been rented/insert New York City real estate tragedy here.

Perhaps even more so than when purchasing real estate, you really have to be your own best advocate when looking for an apartment rental—in New York City or otherwise. Not least because the rental market moves fast: the best places often get snatched up on the spot, and there’s not a ton of transparency around the oh-so-important behind-the-scenes stuff (think: whether the building has serious bug issues). All in, an exercise doomed for disappointment… but not if we can help it.

Armed with a ton of experience of our own, and enlisting the help of some real estate and design pros, we are spilling the details on how to get what you want out of your next rental apartment—without getting taken for a ride. Here’s hoping it helps you on your path towards finding your next home-sweet-home.

Start Your Search Early

Perhaps it goes without saying, but time is of the essence when it comes to searching for a rental apartment. Even if you live in a city where apartmens don’t open up until the month beforehand, you can do a lot of your legwork ahead of time, including scoping out potential neighborhoods or buildings, getting your financial needs in order, and contacting local realtors to make them aware of your interest.

If you’re flexible with your timing (for instance, you know you want to move, but are currently in a month-to-month lease and don’t really care when you move), choosing an “off-peak” time of year can be key to getting a good deal. “The rental market is seasonal, and renting in an off-season can really open up your options,” says Justin Chaplin, content manager at Apartment List. “Rental demand is typically the highest in the summer months and lowest in the winter. If you can hold off moving until then, you’ll have better chances of locking in a lower monthly rent price and scoring rent specials.”

Clarify Your Ideal Number

If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s look at apartments listed above your ideal price range—trust me, that’s a surefire way to fall in love with something you can’t afford and almost always feel disappointed with where you actually end up. As Chaplin points out though, it’s not just the monthly rent check you need to keep in mind when fleshing out your funds. “There are tons of other factors to consider when budgeting for an apartment,” explains Chaplin. “Security deposits, pet fees, parking fees, and utility bills can knock that monthly rent price up by $200 to $300 or more very quickly.” Chaplin suggests asking for any lease terms ahead of time and inquiring about the costs that renters are responsible for while touring the apartment.

Beware of Potential Scams

Working with a realtor while apartment hunting is a great way to protect yourself against real estate scams, but it doesn’t hurt to be aware of potential issues anyways. Be prepared to advocate for yourself by familiarizing yourself with any local or state rights and laws that help protect you throughout the process. “Take time to get informed with your tenant rights,” suggests Stephanie Diamond, founder of Listings Project, a social organization and real estate aggregator meant to look out for renters. “In New York, The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 limits rental advances to the first month of rent and a security deposit equal to one month's rent upfront and application fees to $20 total. You should also familiarize yourself with the federal and local laws that protect you from housing discrimination.” Here are a few other common scams our pros advise renters to be aware of.

  • Listings Posted on “Non-Official” Real Estate Sites
    As a general rule of thumb, listings posted on sites like Craigslist should always be approached with caution—while it can be a great way to find a deal, it can also be an easy way to get scammed. Postings are not verified in any way, so it’s much easier to run into listings for apartments that don’t exist, aren’t as advertised, etc. Never send along personal information ahead of a showing, and always go with a friend or partner when visiting a potential apartment.

  • Prices That Seem Too Good To Be True
    “If the price is just too good to be true, it likely is,” advises Chaplin. Ahead of your search, look up typical pricing in your city (and for various neighborhoods within it)—sites like Redfin, Zillow, and StreetEasy often have this information readily available. If you’re shocked enough by a listing price that it gives you pause, that’s a good indication that something is amiss. Deals like “Three months free!” should make you wary, too—it’s often a sign that management is having a hard time filling apartments and, unless the building is brand new, there’s probably a reason for that.

  • Images That Just Show The Neighborhood
    Chaplin also encourages renters to be mindful of not only the quality of images on a listing, but also the types of images featured. Any reputable landlord or building will have well-lit images of the space that are free of distortion or editing. If the pictures are blurry, multiple units are listed using the same shots, or most pictures in the listing are of the neighborhood, that’s a red flag.

  • Spotty Communication
    If you’re having trouble getting in touch with the landlord or management company for a listing—or they seem very inconsistent with their info—you may want to do a bit of additional searching into them to make sure they’re legit. If your email exchanges with the point-of-contact are rife with varying details (like the number of bedrooms changes, or the price increases from email to email) or long periods of radio silence, it’s probably in your best interests to move on to other opportunities.

  • Pushing To Sign
    “If the tour has concluded and the landlord pushes you to sign a lease and requests cash on the spot, turn away ASAP—this is a clear sign of a potential scam,” says Chaplin. You should always get to review a contract before signing, and should never be requested to pay ahead of that—especially in cash.

Ask Why The Tenants Are Leaving

While it’s sometimes easier said than done, try to inquire as much as you can about the history of the apartment. “If possible, try to find out how long the prior tenants were there, or at least how turnover is for the landlord's properties in general,” says Isil Yildiz, a NYC-based licensed broker with Compass Real Estate. She notes that frequent overturn (like a slew of tenants in a row that only stay one year) or a lot of empty apartments in the building can be signs of a larger issue with management or the property in general.

Inquire About Must-Haves

A lot of times, it’s not just important that you like an apartment building—they have to “like” you too. Ask plenty of questions regarding your must-haves (like a parking space in the building, their pet policy, or whether or not there’s an elevator), and be prepared to encounter a few from the property management company as well. Pet policies can be particularly tricky for renters—while more and more buildings are becoming open to the possibility of furry friends, those that aren’t are usually pretty strict on the subject. Never try to “sneak” a pet into an apartment (you could get kicked out) and if you even think you may want to adopt Fido in a few months, do yourself a favor and find a place that welcomes him now—no sense in hoping a landlord will change their mind.

Make Sure You Meet Credit Minimums

The biggest roadblock for many renters? Credit minimums. “Before you even go see an apartment, ask about income or credit score requirements so you don’t waste your time and money,” suggests Chaplin. “In large apartment complexes, it’s common to require a gross monthly income that’s three times the amount of the monthly rent. Credit score requirements vary by market and building, but 650 is a common minimum requirement.”

Use All Five Senses

When touring a potential rental apartment, look beyond the surface level. Yes, it’s of course important if you see visible signs of wear and tear in the home (your sense of sight, naturally)—but Yildiz encourages using your other four senses to inspect the space as well. Here’s how:

  • Your Sense of Hearing
    “Do more than just look,” says Yildiz. “Listen for sound from the outside or between the floors and apartments.” It may be hard to suss out if there are particularly noisy neighbors during your brief tour, but you can certainly get a feel for the general noise level in the area. Open and shut the front door a few times to see if it elicits any barking from nearby pets; listen for the sounds of transportation, like a train or subway; if there’s music playing while you’re touring the space, ask that they turn it off (it’s probably meant to disguise something).

  • Your Sense of Smell
    “Watch out for smells in the apartment or hallways,” cautions Yildiz. “If it seems like the agent doused the property with air freshener before you walked in, it may be a red flag.” The same goes for excessive food or gas smells as well—especially if you’re touring a spot that is above a restaurant or bar. Pizza is delicious, but that doesn’t mean you want your couch smelling like it 24/7.

  • Your Sense of Taste
    Ok, we’ll admit—this is probably going to be your least used sense when touring an apartment, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come in handy. Run the kitchen tap and take a sip to make sure the water isn’t brown or tasting funky—if you can start the shower and flush the toilet quickly too, that’d be great. Also, if takeout is important to your lifestyle, hit up a few coffee spots or sushi joints in the neighborhood to make sure they meet your standards.

  • Your Sense of Touch
    As you tour the apartment, touch what you can. Is there a wobbly cabinet that will need fixing or a door knob that will need tightening before you move in? Mention it. Now is the time to get all those little odds and ends fixed because, once you move it, it usually becomes much harder to get someone to service your place. While we’re on the subject of feelings, check in with yourself mentally, too. “It’s important to check in with your body,” says Diamond. “How do you feel in this space? Can you picture yourself and your belongings living in this space? Do you feel like you have, or can build, a sense of home here?”

Focus on the “Shell”

So you’ve found a spot that seems to be in good shape and there are no warning signs with the rental company or building—but is it the right place for you? That depends—especially if you’re someone who likes to decorate their home a certain way. While rental living comes hand-in-hand with sacrificing aesthetics in some cases, there are a few ways you can make sure you’re settling on a spot that suits your style, too. “When choosing a rental, it’s important to look beyond any existing tenant’s belongings or decor details and take into account the bigger picture,” says Joanna Thornhill, an interior stylist, writer, and author of My Bedroom is An Office and Other Interior Design Dilemmas and The New Mindful Home. Here are a few things Thornhill suggests are harder to change up:

  • Windows
    “Window placement (and light coming into the space) are hard to fake, so it’s important that you can make the space work with these as-is,” says Thornhill. If natural light is something that’s extremely important to you or your wellbeing, it’s imperative that you catalog what sunlight leaks into the space. If you’re serious about an apartment and have the opportunity to visit it more than once before signing, stagger your timing between the morning and evening to get a true feel for how the space gets light.

  • Flooring
    “Another key area for many people is flooring, which is also likely to be something you can’t change,” says Thornhill. “However, there are always decorative disguises you can make to alter the aesthetic, so don’t let it completely put you off.” If the flooring of the home just isn’t your taste but isn’t downright offensive (or dangerous), consider pricing out the cost of an oversized rug or peel-and-stick tiles to upgrade the vibe.

  • The General Layout
    While it can be done, tweaking the actual layout of an apartment is going to be pretty tough, especially as a renter. A studio apartment isn’t going to be able to magically become a roomy two-bedroom, no matter how many clever decor additions you add. If you need a nursery, a space to work from home or a true bedroom for privacy, don’t make sacrifices in the layout you can’t live with down the road.

Ask About Superficial Improvements

According to Thornhill, it’s always worthwhile to ask the landlord or management team showing you the property if they’d allow you to make certain superficial improvements, such as repainting dated cabinetry. “I was a serial renter for over a decade before finally becoming a homeowner,” says Thornhill. “I’ve found that pitching changes to the landlords as a chance for them to get free improvements done on their properties makes them a lot more amenable. Some even contributed financially to the cost of things like paint and materials when I convinced them how much better it would be afterwards. Assuring them that you love their property and want to make it feel like your own home can help build trust and a more open dialogue.”

If that’s a no-no for your space, focus your attention on making sure that the aesthetic pain points you do have with the space are something that can be easily worked around. Walls can be painted, grout can be whitened—but if you thrive on natural light and are looking at a one-window studio, you’re probably not going to be happy long-term.

Do any of these sound familiar to you? What's the one question you wish you'd asked before signing your lease?

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AntoniaJames
  • M
Writer, Editor and Stylist


AntoniaJames June 24, 2021
No doubt, there are many questions about the lease itself that should be asked before signing it. A lawyer should review it carefully, to look for gotchas and clauses adversely affecting the tenant's rights. If you can't get a lawyer to look at it, you should review through every clause, slowly, and if anything at all does not make sense, ask about it.

Yes, I realize that in a super-competitive market, questioning a lease or pushing back on aggressive, landlord-friendly terms may kick you out of the running. At the very least, however, you should know what you're getting yourself into. ;o)
M June 23, 2021
1. Many landlords increase rent as much as they're legally allowed to every year. If you're at or above your limit, rent will be even farther above your limit in year 2.

2. Make sure every promise said to you is in your renter's agreement. If they are promising things like renovations or storage space/access outside of your unit, make sure it's in writing. Otherwise, they can change their mind and there's nothing you can do about it.

3. Weigh your particularities against the neighbours immediately around you. If you work nights, or have a strict schedule, consider the age/lifestyle of those around you (college students, young families, etc). Consider potential obstacles if you choose to live in an apartment in your landlord's home.