Dreaming of a move? You'll want to scope out the area before ever setting foot in a potential new apartment.
"Location is key," said Sam Radbill of ABODO, an apartment search site. "If you're moving from out of town, often you take the first apartment you see. But do your research, and make sure it is a good personal fit."
Not sure where to start? Look up city guides to determine whether the area you're moving is near food and entertainment.
"As simple as it sounds, some landlords will not clearly state that a lease is six or 12 months, unless you ask," said Radbill. In addition to asking about the length of the lease, ask what happens when it ends, and how and if you can renew it.
"If you love your place and your lease ends, you'd hate to have to move because they put it back on the market without asking you first," added Radbill.
As much as your landlord might want you to stick around, your rent price isn't guaranteed if you renew your lease.
"Make sure you ask about annual rent increases, which are typically based on property tax increases in your city," said Radbill. "You want to be sure that your rent won't be going up by $500 after just one year."
How much your rent can increase and how much advanced notice your landlord is required to give you varies by state, so check your local tenant's rights before you sign the dotted line.
The landlord might not be forthcoming about maintenance procedures, so you might have to do a little sleuthing in case you're one day stuck with burnt-out lights or a flooding bathroom.
"Try to talk to some current residents about maintenance service, timeliness in response to maintenance requests, as well as the overall ease of living in the building," Radbill suggested. A simple question like, "Does it take five weeks to get your sink unclogged?" can tell you a lot about what it's like to live there.
"If basic maintenance is that slow, you might not want to sign a lease in that building," he added.
It's critical to know if and how you can break the lease, should the need arise. "In many cases, job offers come or personal issues occur that result in a need to move immediately," said Radbill. "Find out if you can break your lease. Usually, you cannot. But if you can, that might make the apartment a bit more appealing."
Many apartments have rules about pets — if you can have them, what kind, how many, size and even breed. If the apartment allows pets, ask if you need to make an additional deposit, and how cleaning and repairs related to the pet are handled when you move out.
Meeting the landlord? Come prepared. "Of course, the landlord is interviewing you, but keep in mind that you're also interviewing the landlord," said Radbill, adding the interview is a good time to bring questions.
For instance, you can learn about any issues with the property. Keep an eye on how the landlord responds to your queries, too. If they're quick to anger or seem aloof, you'll want to do extra digging to make sure you and the landlord will get along.
Protect your security deposit with a thoroughly documented walk-through of the property. Taking photos of the apartment before you move in and the day before you move out can protect you from illegitimate damage charges.
"As a landlord who has also been a renter, I know first-hand the conflicts caused by a deduction from a security deposit," saidJosh Rosenthal, a real estate expert. "This causes so many unresolved issues that courts have entire divisions focused on landlord and tenant lawsuits."
You might find the perfect apartment in an ideal location, but noisy neighbors can ruin the vibe of the place.
"Be sure to go by the place you are looking to rent both on the nights and weekends," said Steve Shwetz, a managing broker atMesa Property Management. "Some apartments are very quiet during the work week and become party central on nights and weekends."
Some neighborhoods seem safe, but what happens behind the scenes tells a very different story. Luckily, local crime rates are easy to access.
"Use a crime reporting web site to determine what crimes have been reported in the surrounding neighborhood," suggested Shwetz. "You may think it's safe, but a crime map will give you an unbiased picture."
Sometimes, landlords will start showing an apartment in the middle or near the end of renovations. This can be a huge red flag.
"Never sign a lease on a unit until it is move in ready," said Shwetz. "Once you sign that lease, landlords can sometimes become a little squishy on doing final repairs." If you're interested in an apartment with unfinished work, get any promises in writing from the landlord.
A messy apartment could be a warning sign to future tenants. "When doing a walk-through, you should make sure the apartment looks like it's been cleaned and painted somewhat recently," said personal finance expert Amy, who goes by "Yetisaurus" on YETInvesting.com.
"There will likely be a spot or two where the paint isn't perfect or the cleaners missed a spot, and that's okay. But if it looks like the unit hasn't been cleaned or painted in quite some time, that's a landlord who's going to cut corners," she added.
"Call me OCD, but I'm a big fan of uniformity," said Amy. "The doorknobs and light switches and little things like that should generally match throughout the apartment." A sign of mismatched light fixtures could be a sign of poor attention to detail and willingness to cut corners.
"If there's one switch in a closet that doesn't match, I'll let it slide because it's nearly always out of sight. But if the doorknobs inside the apartment are a mish-mash of different styles, that's a big red flag to me," she said.
"Pay attention to what the neighbors are like, and try to figure out if you're compatible," said Amy. "Trash on the ground or old furniture next to the dumpster? That shows tenants don't care about their surroundings and probably the landlord doesn't, either."
If you end up next to a messy neighbor, any rodent problems or infestations they have could spill into your apartment. "Don't assume you will be able to change the other tenants' behavior by complaining to the landlord," she added. "If the tenants are getting away with their poor behavior now, the landlord likely already knows about it and doesn't care."
"Google the landlord," said Michael Vraa, managing attorney at HOME Line, a Minnesota-based tenant hotline. "Many states have court records online so you can see how many times they've been sued to have repairs made or by tenants trying to recover a security deposit."
After you find an apartment you like, drive by to see what it's like at different times of the day and night.
"Most people tour apartments on the landlord's schedule, which usually means during the business day. But the place is very different on a Tuesday at 10 a.m. than it is on Tuesday night at 6," said Vraa. "Finding parking might be a bigger challenge then." He added that noise levels might be different at night, too.
"Whether it's the landlord herself or a property manager, you want to actually meet the person who will be managing the property on a month-to-month basis," said Davis. "You can get a sense for what kind of person they are [and] how committed they are to managing the property well."
If the building owner only hires people to show the unit, that could mean they aren't invested enough to either manage the property themselves or hire a dedicated property manager, according to Davis.
Brian Davis, a real estate investor and co-founder of SparkRental.com, said an unresponsive landlord could be a sign of trouble.
"If the landlord isn't great about returning your calls when they're trying to fill a vacant unit, how responsive will they be when there's a problem that costs money?" he said.
So, how long should you wait for the landlord to get back to you? "If the landlord doesn't return your call within 24 hours, keep looking," said Davis.
"No credit checks are not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you're a person with bad credit. But it generally does mean less savory residents may live in the complex," said Shaolaine Loving, a landlord-tenant attorney. "Even pricier complexes can have problem residents, however, so the cost of the apartment or amount of screenings isn't always a guarantee of quality of residents."
Loving also said it's important to factor in how "transient" the location is. "Las Vegas is a very transient city, where people constantly move in and out," she said. "However, if you encounter a lot of people who have lived at a place for a while and they express satisfaction with living there, that is a positive sign."
Some apartment complexes have community events, where management organizes social events for the residents.
"This could be a good sign that management is invested in trying to create a positive experience for the residents," said Loving. "You could always ask if the landlord/management does this, or knows of residents who organize events like this, since that usually indicates more camaraderie and goodwill between many of the residents."
This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: