Will the landlord be as nice after you sign the lease?

Finding an apartment can be almost as difficult and time-consuming as buying a house. Some of the same considerations prevail: choosing the best location, deciding on the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and matching the available space to your needs. Renters have other issues to weigh as well. Are you willing to commit yourself to proper maintenance to ensure a return of your security deposit when you move? And will you be able to get along with the new apartment manager in case of problems?

When an apartment manager shows an apartment to a prospective tenant, he or she is sure to behave as the perfect landlord. You can expect him to be responsible and cordial.

Once you move in, the manager's demeanor should not change. You, as a tenant, should feel welcome to go to the manager with any rental problem, no matter what it is.

As a prospective renter, you must first decide how much you can afford to spend on rent and what you can afford on an initial deposit. Once that is done, you have determined what apartment market to explore.

After you've found a desirable place, you should ask for a lease if one is not offered. That will prevent the landlord from renting the unit to someone else or raising the rent beyond the price stated in the original rental agreement. Of course, a lease binds you, the renter, to its terms as well. You should always sign a written lease. It's surprising how many problems are eliminated when there is a lease.

Before signing an agreement, whether you are renting on a month-to-month basis or for a fixed period of time, make sure the name and address of the apartment owner or his agent is in the lease in case a notice or demand must be served. You, as the tenant, should have the safeguard of knowing with whom you are dealing in the event of a problem.

Because it is difficult to check a landlord's record of property maintenance, you should perform a careful survey of the unit yourself before you agree to take it. The upkeep of the complex, if it's a large apartment community, can tell you a lot about the kind of management with which you will be dealing. Plants and grassy areas should be well maintained; if there is a pool, it should be clean.

Make sure you see the actual apartment you will be renting instead of simply a model. This will enable you to see how close the unit is to the pool and parking lot, for example, as well as how much closet and storage space there is and how much sunlight the apartment gets.

Walking through the apartment with the manager before the lease is signed also can help head off potential problems. Minor damage done by previous tenants, such as damage to rugs or kitchen and bathroom countertops, should be noted by the manager on a checklist, a copy of which is given to you after both you and the manager have signed it. Keep the list in a safe place. When you move you cannot be charged for any damage that is outlined on the list.

If the carpet needs to be replaced or the walls painted, do not hesitate to ask the manager to do so. During the walk-through, and before any papers are signed, is the time to make your demands.

Make sure you have a copy of the complex or apartment building rules, if there are any. This will help answer future questions and clear up misunderstandings -- for example, whether you can hang your laundry on the balcony or have pets. Deposits are another area of potential confusion. Find out first what is refundable. Cleaning deposits are usually at least partly refundable if you leave the apartment in a clean and undamaged condition.

Other points to consider are these:

Look for tricycles and toys on the sidewalks if you prefer an adult complex or building.

Drive by the complex at night to judge how noisy it is when most people may be at home. (If you work at night, you would want it quiet in the daytime.)

Call the utility company and ask for the highest and lowest average electric bills during the past year.

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