Moving to DC? Here Are The Questions To Ask Before Signing A Lease On Your New Apartment

Moving To Washington, DC | Questions To Ask Before Signing A Lease On A New Apartment

Moving To Washington, DC | Questions To Ask Before Singing A Lease On An Apartment

Want a printable version of this checklist?  Download our worksheet and take it with you so you can write down the answers as you ask the questions:

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Which maintenance items am I responsible for?

Depending on the management company, they could provide full turn-key service while others will expect you to perform some routine maintenance. So find out upfront, who is responsible for replacing the air conditioner filters? Batteries in the smoke detectors? The vanity light bulbs in the bathroom? Better to know now and if it is going to be your responsibility, make sure you have a ladder to reach those smoke detectors and know what size filter the AC needs!  

What is the policy for maintenance requests?

Who do you have to contact and in what manner? Some landlords will only accept written service requests, while others allow you to call. Either way, the time to figure that out is NOT when your garbage disposal is backing up all over your kitchen. Get the email/phone number and post it on your fridge and save it in your phone.  

What is the protocol in an emergency maintenance situation?

Start with, “what is considered a maintenance emergency?” While the basics, fire & flood will be an emergency for almost all property managers. There is a ton of gray are that will vary widely from landlord-to-landlord. For instance, if the AC is out at what outside temperature is that an emergency; 80 degrees, 90 degrees? What if you are locked out of your premises? Is that a maintenance emergency or should you just call a locksmith?  

How old are the appliances?

Especially if failing appliances are not a maintenance emergency, you are going to want to know how old the appliances are. Can you imagine your fridge dying two days before Thanksgiving? What about your stove? Not that ‘new’ always = reliable, but you should be informed.  

What is an early termination clause?  Can I add one to my lease?

If you got a new job tomorrow in Canada, how long are you responsible for your current contract? What if you buy a house, can you get out of your lease early? No. No, you can’t. Typically, a termination fee will require 30-60 days notice during which you will be responsible for the rent. You may also be required to pay a termination fee. Those are usually equal to one month’s rent. Before you scream about how unfair this is, remember if you leave the apartment in November, the landlord may not get another renter for months and, for the record, by signing the lease you did make a promise to be there and pay rent. Before you sign your lease is the time to negotiate that termination fee.  

Do you allow guarantors or co-signers?

Some communities have a strict policy barring co-signers or guarantors. If you know you will need one due to lack of credit/income; it’s better to know whether or not that’s allowed before you even tour the community.  

What is the visitor policy?

Let’s say your college age son comes home for the two months of summer to stay with you, is that allowed? What if your sister gets a summer internship and needs to crash on your couch for ten weeks? Will they have to be added to the lease? Technically if they’re over 18, they could be forced submit an application and subject to credit and criminal check.   If long-term visitors are likely, get the landlord’s approval upfront and in writing. Better that than dealing with red tape!  

How is building access regulated?

Does everyone have a key to the front door? Is it key fob access? How much is it to replace your fob and are you allowed to get an extra one for your dog walker? If there is a call box are both you and your roommate’s phone numbers authorized to be programmed or does one of you become Door Lord? Another one to ask, if you have an out-of-town phone number and move into an older building, will the call box call a long distance phone number?  

Are there any additional expenses I need to know about?

Are there any monthly fees on top of the rent? Water, sewer, and trash fees are standard. As are annual amenity fees. Just be clear on your total monthly costs so when you apartment hunt you can be comparing apples to apples.  

When can I get first access to my apartment?

Whether it’s to paint an accent wall or just move in the ‘little stuff’ of course, you want to get into your apartment as soon as possible. Some landlords will allow you access but not allow you to leave any personal items. Others will give you keys the weekend before your move in date. Others will follow the letter of the lease and not let you in until the date listed. {They are well within their rights to do that BTW.} Better to get a clear answer before you make plans.
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What is the pet policy?

This is more than just ‘do you allow cats or dogs?’  Individual counties can require you to register your pet, and you won’t be authorized to move them into your apartment until you do that. Some apartment communities will require proof of vaccines. Others just may have breed/weight restrictions. Going beyond cats and dogs, I have seen leases that restrict what kind of bird or reptiles you’re allowed.

What are the moving day procedures?

Apartment communities, to protect the quiet enjoyment of their current residents, may restrict the hours/days of the loading dock. Also, you probably need to reserve the loading dock if there is one. If you are moving in on the weekend instead of a weekday, you may have to pay a fee for staff to be on-site. You’ll also want to know how early you can come pick up your keys. In particular cases, landlords will not let you get keys until the lease is executed by all parties…so that means you AND your roommate need to be there to sign the lease and pick up keys. Try to schedule to sign the lease ahead of time to prevent Day of Move hysteria.

Is renters insurance mandatory?

Buildings are allowed to make renters insurance required. Even if it isn’t, YOU SHOULD HAVE RENTERS INSURANCE. It is the least expensive way to cover not just your stuff, but your neighbor’s stuff if you accidently leave your bathtub running.

Do you allow package delivery?

We live by Amazon Prime and guess you do too. It’s important to know if your community will allow packages to be delivered either to your door or the leasing office. If you aren’t comfortable with having packages left outside your door, then it’s up to you to schedule those deliveries to your office!

What methods do you accept for rent payment?

Believe it or not, some landlords still require your rent check be mailed somewhere. It’s hard to believe some haven’t adopted the online payment thing, but it’s true. Even if they do accept online payments, find out if there are fees associated. Some companies won’t charge you anything if you have autopay set up. However, they will charge if you log on each month to make the payment. {Don’t ask, we don’t have an explanation} Other companies accept credit card payments but have fees associated.

DC Specific

Will I qualify for a zone parking sticker?

As building density increases in neighborhoods, this has become a bigger issue. There was a condo building in Adams Morgan recently that gave up its residents’ right to get Zone 1 parking stickers. If you have a car, you don’t want to discover this while you’re at the DMV. Some neighborhoods don’t have zone parking stickers at all. The answer to this question may determine whether you opt to pay extra for a garage parking spot.

Is this building rent controlled?

Rent Control typically applies to older apartment communities. {Those build before 1975} If you score a rent controlled apartment, the amount your rent increases in any given year is capped. You can find rent controlled buildings all over the city, typically they won’t have any bells or whistles.  Keep an eye on this blog, we’ll be breaking down all the options for affordable apartments in DC soon.

Do you have affordable dwelling units?

Affordable Dwelling Units are another DC program to create reasonable rents in the city. New construction buildings will typically have ADU or inclusionary zoning apartments mixed into the community. The units are for people making 80%, 60% or 30% or the area median income. If you fall into one of these categories, check to see if there is an ADU apartment available.

Am I allowed to sublet/Airbnb my apartment?

Airbnb is becoming a hotter issue in Washington, DC by the day. The two sides are either pro sharing community or pro security and safety of the tenants. We could make arguments for either side. Luckily, we’re not in charge. BUT your landlord is. Find out where they stand on this issue…and don’t risk getting evicted.

Do I have a choice of cable providers?

Some buildings have signed exclusive marketing agreements with vendors, making it difficult to hear about other options. Other buildings have restrictions regarding satellite dishes.

How close is the nearest Metro Station & bus stop?

Seven blocks feel much different in the beautiful spring weather than it does in the February chill. Map out your walk from your new building to the transportation you plan to use on a regular basis.
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