11 questions to ask when renting an apartment

Before you sign that dotted line

A room filled with moving boxes and house plants.
(Image credit: Canva)

If you’re reading this then you’re most likely in the process of either looking for a new apartment (which is obvi seriously exciting) or have just found one that you like. Perhaps, after weeks of searching, you’ve found an apartment that's a perfect fit. You can already see yourself arranging furniture, hanging pictures on the wall, and making it a home.

But before you get too ahead of yourself, you might want to think about the kinds of questions that you should be asking before you move in. Not sure where to start? There’s no need to panic — we’ve spoken to a number of experts about everything that you should be asking. 

“First and foremost, individuals should inquire about the landlord/tenant laws in their locality,” notes Maiki Paul, a realtor licensed in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. “Some states are more landlord-friendly than others, and knowing the rules will help you be your best advocate in the event something goes wrong.”

Paul says you can look for tenant advocacy organizations in your area that help tenants understand their rights. “These organizations will also help renters know the right questions to ask that are specific to their jurisdiction.” 

In addition to reaching out to tenant advocacy organizations, we’ve also got expert-backed suggestions on questions to ask when renting an apartment. As long as you've avoided all these rental red flags, you're in the clear!

From queries about the security deposit to what happens when it’s time to move, here are 11 things to ask before you sign the lease on your new place.  

How much is the security deposit?

Many landlords will require you to put down a security deposit before moving in. Paul recommends you find out what the maximum security deposit allowed is in your area.

“Some landlords try to take more than what is legally allowed,” she notes. “You can ask them to show justification for their requested security deposit if it seems outside of the norm.”

It’s common for the security deposit to be the equivalent of one month’s rent, but this can vary. Different states and cities have their own rules about the maximum security deposit allowed, so in some cases, your landlord can charge you a security deposit equal to two or three months of your rent. Other landlords may decide to only charge less than a month's rent as a security deposit, or may not charge a deposit at all.

This is one of the Real Homes team's key advice points when budgeting for your first rental apartment.

What is the process for getting the security deposit returned?

In many cases, the security deposit is refundable following the end of your lease. If this is the case for you, you’ll also want to ask about what the process for having the security deposit returned to you will be when it’s time to move out. 

How will the rent be collected?

“While individual landlords may prefer you physically mail a check, newer systems may require you electronically pay your rent through a portal,” explains Allyson Waddell, an agent success manager at RentHop. “Make sure you know how to pay your rent ahead of time to avoid any confusion down the line.” 

Additionally, you want to be sure you understand exactly when the rent is due, and what the penalties are if you are late with the rent payment. 

Are utilities included in the rent?

Waddell notes that you should ask if your monthly rent includes things like electricity, water, and heat.

“If your building does not cover a utility like electricity, you should budget for that monthly cost and consider that when agreeing to the rent price,” she explains. 

Do I need renter’s insurance?

“Some landlords will not approve your application for an apartment unless you have renters insurance,” notes Gunner Davis, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Realty in Tampa, Florida. 

He also notes that even if it’s not required by your landlord, it may still be a good idea to get renters insurance for your own protection and peace of mind. 

“Renters insurance normally only costs $15 to $30 per month and will cover the cost of your things in the event that they are lost or damaged as a result of theft, fire, vandalism, etc,” he explains. 

If something breaks down, what is the process to get it fixed?

“The biggest thing I would recommend you look into is who is responsible for damages, repairs, and upgrades in specific situations,” says John Gluch, owner of the Gluch Group in Phoenix, Arizona. “For example, figure out what would happen if there were issues with the washer/dryer, oven, plumbing, and things like that. These are usually the issues when it comes to rental agreements and are things you should figure out beforehand.” 

He also notes that tenants should get this in writing beforehand because it will be much more stressful to figure this out when you’re also dealing with a potentially major maintenance issue in your home. 

What maintenance tasks am I responsible for?

Brian Davis, landlord and founder at SparkRental.com, says tenants should ask about this before moving in. 

“At a minimum, this usually includes replacing batteries in smoke detectors and replacing air filters,” he notes. “In single-family rentals, it often includes mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, raking leaves, and other basic yard maintenance.”

What are the building rules around pets?

If you have a pet, it’s important to find out whether your potential new home is pet-friendly.

“Find out if pets are welcome in the building beforehand,” says Davis. “If so, specify which animals are accepted. Make sure to get your breed approved because many landlords have dog weight or breed restrictions.”

Some landlords also require pet owners to pay a pet deposit or a monthly pet fee to cover the cost of any pet-related damages to the apartment.

What am I allowed to change?

“It is always worth asking what changes you are permitted to make to the apartment,” says Mack. “Most people want to make their apartment feel like home, but especially if you are looking to rent long-term, you want to make your new home feel like your own.”

Some landlords will allow you to make major changes like painting the walls, while others won’t. The good news is that even if your landlord won’t allow you to paint, there are plenty of other renter-friendly ways to upgrade your apartment.

What’s the subletting policy?

Ben Fisher, owner of The Fisher Group in Park City, Utah, notes that you should ask your landlord about their subletting policy before signing the lease. While you probably don’t have plans to sublet your home, unexpected circumstances might arise that require you to use this option.

“If you need to leave your home temporarily but don't want to break your lease, having a subletting provision gives you options,” he says. 

He also notes that you shouldn’t attempt to sublet your unit without your landlord’s permission, as this can result in eviction and legal action.

What is the move-out process?

While it may seem odd to ask about this before you even have a lease signed, it could be important down the line. You’ll want to know how much notice you need to give your landlord before moving out. One month is typical, but some landlords may require more notice. If you know you’ll need to move in a year, having this information upfront is a good idea.

Similarly, it’s a good idea to ask what would happen in the case that you needed to break your lease and move out early. Some landlords are happy to let you out of the lease without penalty, while others might withhold your security deposit or require you to pay a lease break fee.

Jamie Ballard
Freelance Contributor

Jamie Ballard is lifestyle writer based in New York city. She covers everything from shopping to relationships and her work has been featured on top publications including Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan and the YouGov America site where she contributes as a data journalist. She also writes on personal finances and health and when she isn't working she can be found running or traveling.