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Rental Contracts 101: What to Ask Before You Sign

07/12/2013 12:46 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2013

It's terrible to settle in to a new rental home or apartment only to discover something amiss. Once you sign a lease or contract, you are legally bound to what is written in the rental agreement. Sure, you could break your lease, but that means paying stiff penalties.

To avoid mistakes that you will have to live with for the duration of your stay, you need to ask questions. Here are a few tips and things to ask before you sign a rental contract:

Surprise Expenses
The water might be free, but that doesn't mean all of your utilities are. Find out who is responsible for paying for what. This includes electricity, heat, gas, cable television, Internet and water.

Noise Problems
Ask your landlord what the rules are regarding tenant noise and how they are enforced. Don't be afraid to look online or ask other tenants if they have been bothered by noise from trains, planes, dogs or neighbors.

Poor Condition
Getting a tour through a similar apartment is fine, but you should always ask to see the actual apartment you will be moving into before you sign a rental agreement. If the landlord agrees that something requires refurbishing, get a written commitment as part of the lease rather than relying on verbal assurances. Reach out to other tenants to find out how responsive the landlord is when something breaks.

Parking
Find out if there are designated parking places and, if so, what the tow policies are. If you have roommates, find out how much additional parking spaces cost. Ask current tenants if they are always able to find parking and if their guests are.

Public Transportation
If you are apartment hunting in a bigger city, ask your landlord where the nearest mass transit is. Depending on where you are located, consider asking to what degree weather conditions impact public transportation.

Internet and Television
In this day in age, a high-speed Internet connection is almost essential. Ask your landlord about the rental's digital infrastructure and have them point out the electrical outlets, phone jacks and cable hookups.

Laundry
If a washer and dryer are not provided in your rental, be sure to ask your landlord where the laundry facility is located in the building. If there isn't one, ask about dry cleaners or laundry businesses nearby.

Fire and Theft
Is your new apartment safe and secure? Find out about security features, fire protection and other safety considerations from your landlord. If the building has a main entrance, is it locked after a certain time? Is renter's insurance recommended?

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