Q: I’ve been looking for a new apartment. The leases that I have read are over 5 pages long and are full of a lot of legal terms that I don’t understand. What are the most important things I should look out for?

Reposted from the “Ask Consumer Ed” article of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection:

A: Your frustration is understandable. Leases can be overwhelming, even to those accustomed to reading them. Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs has a Landlord-Tenant Handbook available on its website (www.dca.ga.gov) that can give you some guidance, but in particular, here are some important things you should look for before you sign:

  1. Rent and length of the lease – While the landlord may have told you the basic information about the lease, it is important to get the key terms such as monthly rent and length of the lease in writing. This protects you from later changes in price or terms.
  2. Utilities – Leases can differ dramatically in this area. Determine if you are required to place the utilities in your name, pay the landlord for utilities, or if they are included in the rent. This can have drastic impacts on the cost of the apartment, so you need to know upfront what you are obligated to pay.
  3. Security deposit – Most apartments require a security deposit when signing the lease. Find out how much this is and what will be deducted when you move out. Most landlords conduct an inspection before you move in and after you move out to check for damages and deduct the repair costs from the deposit.
  4. Termination and renewal procedures – The lease should state what happens at the end of the lease term. This includes the deadlines and procedures for notifying the landlord that you are either moving out or extending your lease. Be aware of any automatic rent increases that occur if you decide to renew the lease.
  5. Subletting and Subleasing – It is important to know whether you have the ability to leave the

apartment before the lease is up. Leases are often commitments for a year or more and landlords have different rules regarding your ability to lease to another person should your circumstances change.

6. Pets – Some landlords do not allow pets, while others may restrict the number, size or type of pets permitted. Many will charge a pet deposit, which may or may not be refundable. Make sure you are clear about these terms and have budgeted for any additional deposit due.

7. Renter’s Insurance – Remember that your landlord’s insurance does not cover your belongings, only the building itself. If your furniture or belongings are damaged due to fire, theft, or a natural disaster, you’ll be out of luck if you don’t have renter’s insurance. The good news is that renter’s insurance is very affordable, and you can generally purchase it from the same company that insures your vehicle.

Even though a lease can be long and complicated, you should always read it thoroughly before signing it. Be wary of a landlord who seems in a rush for you to sign before you’ve read through the entire document. If you cannot understand the terms of the lease, have someone who is familiar with lease agreements, or an attorney, review it with you to make sure that you fully understand what you are agreeing to before you sign the lease. Do not leave any blanks to be filled in later. Either get them filled in or cross through them, initial each cross-out and have the landlord do so also. Finally, insist upon getting your own copy of the lease, and save it so that you can review your rights and responsibilities should a dispute ever arise.