10 Questions to Ask Your Realtor When Renting—Before You Sign on the Dotted Line
Four agents tell all.
Updated Jun 19, 2023 11:25 AM
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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 you navigate your next move, we asked the pros about the inquiries people should make before they put a ring on it—er, sign on the dotted line. Here are 10 questions to ask your real-state agent when renting.
1. What utilities are included in the rent?
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 stovetop. “The cost of utilities is often an unseen expense that is not noted while touring a potential rental,” says Sophie Harris, an agent at Warburg Realty.
“While it’s standard in Manhattan for landlords to include heat and hot water (and the tenant to 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.”
2. Will any repairs be made to the space prior to move-in?
So you notice that the handle on the bathroom door is a little finicky and one of the cabinets in the kitchen looks crooked. Ask the agent if those things can (or will) be changed, Angel Kou of the Agency notes. The answer might be no, but at least you’ll be prepared to live with the cosmetic woes or DIY down the road.
Tip: If there are updates you’re willing to make on your own, go to your landlord with a plan (read: mood board, material swatches, timeline, and estimated cost). If they see the value in your ideas, they might just give you the green light and, better yet, cover some of the expenses. Take it from rental renovator Keyanna Bowen: When she presents a design plan to her landlord, and he agrees to a budget, he either deducts the money from the rent or covers the majority of it up front.
3. 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,” says Harris. When you’re in the final stages of reading the fine print, keep an eye out for information regarding an 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.
4. Will I need a guarantor?
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 love seat in your living room.
Tip: Keep in mind that not everyone can serve as a guarantor. In most cases, this cosigner needs to make 80 times the rent. But not to worry. As Street Easy points out, it’s fairly common practice to have two guarantors
5. 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 look for to protect my customers is refundable and nonrefundable fees,” says Harris. “These can often make or break a contract. Security deposits can be costly, and it’s important that my customers feel comfortable with what they are paying from the start.”
6. 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 apartment without having done your background research, ask your agent how long it has been vacant for. “This is truly the only way to know if the unit is priced right for the neighborhood,” says Jeneralczuk.
7. Is the building rent stabilized?
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-stabilized units.
Tip: In New York City, a rent-stabilized unit usually exists in a building that was built before 1794 that has at least six units. In these cases, a tenant’s rent can only go up at a certain percentage each year, preventing landlords from drastically increasing your rent. It is much rarer to come across a rent-controlled apartment, which is a unit that a tenant rented before 1971.
8. 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?”
9. 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 apartments 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.”
10. 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 choice 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 is to feel confident about your day-to-day life. Spend some time in the building’s common spaces and neighborhood to ensure that this is indeed a place you could call home.