Insider Secrets To Getting Your Best Apartment Deal, Ever

SigningLease_slide01Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
You found the apartment of your dreams. Big congratulations are in order. But, of course, it’s not official, and more importantly, you can’t move in until you sign a lease. As difficult as it may be to avoid getting swept up in the moment and hightailing it to the nearest IKEA to stock up on an abundance of items with umlauts in their names, take a deep breath and consider the following before signing on the dotted line: Having your own place is one of the great things about being an adult. Going to court for violating a lease term? Not so much.
“First and foremost, people should actually read their lease. Don’t simply sign it,” advises Gary Malin, president of Citi Habitats. “You are entering into a legally binding contract with the owner.” Most landlords will use a standard lease template with any specific provisions for a unit added in the form of a rider (more on those later); others may create their own. Regardless, as dry and boring as the language may be or seem, you should read your lease thoroughly to note important basic info (such as when rent is due and where to send it) while keeping an eye out for anything confusing or strange. “If things don’t make sense, have a lawyer look at it,” says Metropolitan Council on Housing community organizer Yonah Lieberman.
Key pieces of information to note include the amount of the rent, the term of the lease (specific start and end dates should be noted), and when, exactly, rent is considered “late.” (Common language to indicate this date is “Payment after the XX day of each month shall be considered a ‘late payment.’”) “A lot of landlords use 10 days, but each landlord picks how they want their money,” says Maryanne Rodriguez, property manager of Brooklyn-based Frank Realty. So, don’t assume that just because you didn't get penalized for rent paid on the eighth at your old place that it will be okay at your new one.
It also doesn’t hurt to make sure the landlord actually has the right to rent you the space. “It’s important to do whatever due diligence you can on the landlord,” says Citi Habitats’ Malin. That can be as informal as talking to friends who might live in the building, to a quick Google search, to chatting with the agent who showed you the place if you worked with one. In New York City, if you are feeling a little Cagney or Lacey, a quick search on the city’s Department of Buildings site will turn up any violations (not all of which are cause for concern) and a call to 311 may also be informative.
Ahead, more tips on what to look out for, from pet policies to late-rent rules.
SigningLease_slide02Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Most leases contain language that prohibits pets. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have one, but it does mean you need to get approval for your pet before you move in. (And, that you should get an okay if you decide to rescue a four-legged friend down the road.) Pet policies are on a case-by-case basis. “Certain landlords allow pets, certain ones don’t. Some allow certain breeds or sizes,” says Malin. “Never assume you can have pets because you saw one in the building. That could be a ‘grandfathered’ dog: Maybe in leaner times the landlord accepted pets, and now they don’t.” (If you do shack up with a furry friend, keep in mind you may need to pay a pet deposit.)
SigningLease_slide03Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
What do you get for your rent, and what can show up on a bill? A section of the lease should specify which “services” (such as heat, hot water, gas, and electricity) are provided with your lease, and which aren’t. This is where you might see that cable is included in your rent (score) or that you pay for every single utility — making this steal of an apartment less of a bargain than you initially thought. Beyond the comforts of home, you might be subject to returned-check fees or legal costs incurred by a landlord. “A lot of people don’t read the lease, and they’re shocked when we put [a cost we paid] on an invoice,” says Rodriguez. “They ask, ‘Why did you charge me $150?’ Well, because we had to petition you because you weren’t paying your rent.”
Rodriguez also notes that a returned-check fee may or may not be what the landlord is charged by the bank when a check bounces. “Landlords don’t have to go according to bank rates. [The fee] is what [individual] landlords charge for the inconvenience and additional processing. It might be slightly higher [than what the bank charges the landlord].”
SigningLease_slide08Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
You’ve always wanted an eggplant- and chartreuse-colored bedroom, and now’s your chance to make it happen, right? Well, maybe. Most standard leases require a tenant to receive written consent from the owner before making any changes or alterations to the space — even if they’re seemingly obvious improvements. If you are permitted to execute your interior-design vision, plan on returning the walls to the hue they were when you signed the lease, a common stipulation.
For the record, this isn’t just about ecru versus persimmon walls; everything from floor tile to wallpaper to carpet is often covered in a lease’s language, as is installing major appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines, and (sorry) waterbeds. And, FYI: Many leases require as much as 80% of a unit’s floors (with the exception of kitchens and bathrooms) to be covered with rugs or carpet. Should you plan on buying some extra throw rugs? Not necessarily, but if the downstairs neighbor complains about you stomping around in your stilettos, you could be bound by the terms of your lease to do so.
SigningLease_slide07Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
The person who signs the lease has the right to live in the apartment. Makes sense. As do immediate family members. Roommates and their relationship to the leaseholder will often be specified in a write-in field on a lease. Thinking of subletting? Know that you’re probably going to have to get the “okay” in writing in order to do it legally. “Subletting is up to the owner or landlord’s discretion, and it’s upon their approval,” says Molly Townsend, director of rentals for Brooklyn at Douglas Elliman. “In Manhattan, they really frown upon subletting.” Factors influencing whether or not a sublet is allowed included what the precedence has been for a unit or building, as well as specific case-by-case situations.
SigningLease_slide05Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Some cities’ real estate markets include types of housing that are subject to different rules and regulations than the majority of units available for rent, and these are known as “rent regulated” apartments. You may have heard of a subset of this category, one of the Holy Grails of the New York real estate market: a “rent-controlled” apartment, which is protected against sudden and astronomical increases in rent. These are increasingly scarce and hard to come by, and those lucky few who have a chance of scoring one are often very aware of it — they’re usually “passed down” to family members. Not quite as rare are rent-stabilized apartments (New York City contains about 1,000,000 of these units) which are subject to similar renter-friendly laws. Everything else falls into the category of “market rate,” which means that pretty much anything goes from lease to lease.
“The landlord does not have an obligation to renew the lease,” says Metropolitan Housing Council’s Lieberman, who adds that price increases are determined by the landlord at each renewal. “It could be $1,000 one year, and $5,000 the next,” he says. (Did a trendy bar or Starbucks open nearby? You might have a rent hike on the horizon.) In New York, your lease will clearly state at the top whether it is subject to rent regulation or not.
SigningLease_slide06Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
In many cases, a lease will state that you are renting the apartment in its current condition. (The language is literally, “As Is.”) This does not mean you are renting a dump. However, what it does mean is that before you sign on the dotted line, you should make sure everything works. “The stove, the outlets, the microwave, the refrigerator,” lists Lieberman. Basically, try everything out.
Landlords may also attach what is known as a rider, which details any specific provisions or restrictions that are not covered in the language of the lease. “Too many people read provisions after something happens. They think, ‘If I’m going to pay my rent on time what do I care?’,” says Malin. “Well, what if the landlord says, ‘If I sell the building I can terminate the lease with 90 days notice’?” Malin adds that sometimes, you’ll see an item on a rider that seems a bit aggressive or just plain weird, in which case, you should feel free to ask about it. “With most people, something happened to someone along the way. There was one crazy tenant, and that’s why they’re doing it.” (Hence, the “Don’t install a hammock in the bathroom” rider.) But, riders aren’t solely about what you can or can’t do; these add-ons can also be a written record of improvements the landlord agrees to make prior to you moving in.
Longtime Brooklyn renter and urban planner Felicia Tunnah requested (and got) several improvements made to her last apartment such as a fresh paint job, a new kitchen floor, and bathroom tile repairs — all of which were spelled out in the lease’s rider. “Agree to any improvements prior to lease signing and moving,” she suggests. “Iron out all those details before you sign the lease because after you sign the lease, you have no negotiating power.”
SigningLease_slide04Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Things happen, both good and bad. You get the job of your dreams in Copenhagen four months after signing your lease and need to move. The hot-water heater breaks, and you’re having trouble getting it fixed: Should you stop paying rent? “The thing that I advise people most is that it’s much harder to break a lease than they think it is,” says Douglas Elliman’s Townsend. She points out that trying to get out of a lease in the spring — when demand tends to be high — is probably going to be easier than doing it in November or December.
“The bottom line is: If you break a lease, expect to pay.” (As much as one to three months of rent.) One possible way to avoid a hefty fee is to find your replacement (known as “assignment” in legalese), which helps eliminate the hassle for the landlord, but the new tenant can’t be just anyone — that person will need to be approved before you’re off the hook.
As far as not paying your rent as a way to make things happen? Probably not a good idea. “The last thing you want to do is create an adversarial relationship with the owner. That’s probably only going to make the situation worse,” says Malin. “Send letters, do everything you can. [Not paying] should be your last resort.” If things do get ugly, Lieberman advises sending all crucial communications via Certified Mail with return receipt, as even texts or emails are sometimes not admissible in court. He also recommends getting renter’s insurance — not as a protection against a landlord — but just because it’s a good idea.

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