For some, living in an apartment is a necessity. Finding a reasonably comfortable apartment isn't nearly as easy as it sounds; combine cheap construction with noisy neighbors and evil apartment managers and you could end up trapped in a very uncomfortable situation (you can't just leave, since most apartments are rented in six month and twelve month intervals).

My wife and I have lived in several different apartments (in three cities in two states) over the past seven years, and have loathed every minute of it. Along the way, though, we've learned all sorts of things to ask about and look for when trying to choose a new apartment to live in. This surely doesn't encompass everything you'd want to consider, but this list is sure to give you enough ideas to make any potential landlord nervous.

  1. Are you absolutely sure an apartment is the correct choice?
    Before you immediately say "yes", think about the alternative: owning a home. Benefits of home ownership include monstrous tax savings (mortgage interest is deductible with no limits1), freedom from sometimes ludicrous restrictions and policies set by apartment managers (landlords), ownership of real estate property that is very likely to appreciate over the length of your ownership, usually much more pleasant neighbors and a much nicer neighborhood2, and a greater sense of "home" than an apartment provides. Downsides of owning a home outright include higher monthly payments3, having nobody to turn to if something is damaged or breaks down4, and being "stuck" in a home because of the mortgage5. Still, unless you don't plan to stay in the same spot for more than a couple years, buying a home is probably a better idea than renting. Run your budget numbers again (you do keep a budget, don't you?), and see if you can qualify for a mortgage. If you can, do everything you can to get into a house.
  2. Find a good neighborhood to move into.
    There's more to this than just driving around a major metropolis (or a small village) looking for graffiti and cars up on blocks. Call your insurance agent (if you carry insurance at all, that is) and ask for adjustment quotes based on your current policies and coverage, in the new ZIP code. Moving from a high risk area (lots of crime, many traffic accidents, etc.) to a lower risk area can drop your insurance rates 10% or more. Conversely, moving to a higher risk area can drive your rates up. Even if you find a slightly cheaper apartment, your insurance costs might make up the difference and erase the benefit. Contact the neighborhood's police department and ask for crime rates, or use an online relocation service to find crime index comparisons between your current home and your new neighborhood. Apart from insurance rates, moving into a higher-crime area means, well, you're more likely to be a victim of crime (vandalism, assault, theft, etc.).
  3. Before you visit any properties, call around (or search online) to determine the average price (per square foot) of apartments in the area(s) you're thinking of moving into.
    This gives you immediate negotiating power6; you can ask any prospective landlord why they feel their apartments are worth more than the neighborhood's average price, and you can cast a more suspicious eye on apartments that cost less than the average price ("why is this place cheaper than everyone else?"). Be sure to ask for the worst (usually month-to-month) and best (usually 1-year lease term or longer) rates. They usually differ significantly.
  4. Unless the landlord insists on showing units by appointment only, don't make an appointment; just drop in and ask to see an available apartment.
    For one thing, this will give you a sense of how the management staff treats its residents (in larger complexes, it's very likely you'll walk in during a conversation between a resident and his landlord), and it means you're more likely to see an empty unit, not a "model" placed conveniently next to quiet neighbors close to the front office. Cast a very questioning eye upon any apartment complex that actually sends you away, insisting on making an appointment first, when you appear at random to ask to see a unit. If they're that uptight about just showing you a unit, imagine how many hoops you'd have to leap through to get something fixed once you move in. Also, make sure that if they show you a "model" apartment, that you are also permitted to personally inspect the unit you would be moving into before you sign any paperwork or place any deposits. If they won't do it, move on, and explain why.
  5. When being shown an apartment, make notes of how many walls are shared between neighbors, and on how many sides. Stick your ear to a shared wall, and listen for noise.
    Yes, this is eavesdropping and will probably annoy the drone giving you the tour, but what you hear when you do this will be a very accurate indication of the general level of noise you're going to be dealing with if you move into the unit. Can you hear a TV, radio, or conversation next door? This doesn't necessarily mean the neighbors are loud, but it could mean the walls are paper-thin (this is generally a bad thing). The more walls your unit shares with neighbors, the better the chance you'll be hearing more noises from your neighbors. If you're being shown a ground-floor unit in a multi-level building, listen for footsteps from above. Is your potential upstairs neighbor heavy-footed? Will that bother you at four in the morning (or whatever time it is that you sleep)?
  6. When looking at an apartment complex, pay attention to the neighbors, their cars, and their behavior.
    Do people scowl and avoid eye contact with everyone around them? This is a good indicator of unhappy, uncaring neighbors. Maybe they're angry about being stuck in an apartment, or maybe they hate the apartment management. Keep this in mind.
  7. Note the condition of the buildings and landscaping. Is paint chipping (no maintenance budget)? Are ducks swimming in the pool (no cleaning budget)? Are the dumpsters overflowing with garbage (insufficient waste removal budget)? Is there lots of standing water in spots where there shouldn't be any (poor drainage)? Are the plants, flowers, and grass dying (no maintenance budget)? These are okay, as long as the rent is appropriately low, and you don't care about any of that stuff (which is also okay), but you need to be aware of it. A complex that can't afford (or won't pay for) cosmetic repairs and landscaping may also be willing to scrape by on more important repairs, like furnaces, water heaters, windows, plumbing, and so on. Conversely, a complex that showcases immaculate landscaping, perfect paint, clean pools, etc., might actually be overspending on appearances at the expense of more important maintenance to keep costs down. Rest assured, whether that's true or not, such complexes will charge much higher rent.
  8. Don't let "useless" features be a selling point; explain when a feature is unimportant to you whenever a drone uses it to sell the apartment.
    "Gated communities" sound nice, but are no safer than a regular "anyone can drive in" one7. Uselessly deep window sills may be a handy spot for cats or house plants, but they chip away at the available square footage of living space. A fitness center in the complex, free to use for residents, isn't worth anything if you won't use it. Same goes for a swimming pool and a tennis court. Non-square angles in your apartment may make it "feel" roomier, but sacrifice more square footage. A fireplace is almost always an invitation for disaster in an apartment, and most go unused. Try to keep in mind that an apartment is essentially a living room, kitchen, bathroom, a couple small closets, and one or more bedrooms, in a building with many other identical units and neighbors. Anything that's been added to make it seem more "house-like" is going to drive up the cost of rent and distract you from the fact that you're not buying a house.
  9. What lease options are available?
    There's a subtle difference between "trapping" you into a lease, and giving you incentives to commit to a longer lease term. A reasonable scale of options would be (warning: hypothetical numbers in use) $750 per month for a six month lease, with a $25 per month discount for committing to a year-long lease, and a $15 per month fee for month-to-month. Unreasonable scales would be on the line of $750 per month for a six-month lease, a $10 per month discount for a year-long lease, and a $50 per month fee for month-to-month rentals (note the lack of a significant discount for a long-term lease, and the huge penalty for month-to-month). Yes, landlords should be able to charge a bit more for the uncertainty of a month-to-month lease, but a renter who is unable or unwilling to commit to a long-term lease shouldn't have to be punished for their choice.
  10. What incentives to rent are available, and what are their terms?
    Many apartments offer "move-in specials" like "$1 moves you in!" and "free rent!". In some cases they'll even pay the first (or even the first two) months of rent for you if you sign a long-term lease (like one year). Read the fine print; in almost every case, it's given to you in the form of a "concession" that is withdrawn by the landlord later on in the event you break the lease. Sometimes, even if the landlord will let you out of your lease if you buy a home or get transferred, he may still withdraw the concession; suddenly when you're on your way out to move into your brand new home, your landlord may suddenly hit you with a bill for two months' rent. See below for advice how to deal with that particular case. If you know you'll be able to comply with the concession terms, then by all means take it; a month's free rent isn't small change. If there's any doubt, though, don't take the concession unless you know you can afford to repay it later if it comes up.
  11. What is the penalty for breaking the lease? What, if any, circumstances will the landlord permit you to exit the lease without invoking this penalty?
    Usually, if you just decide to move out8, you are, at least, still required to keep paying rent on the unit until the landlord can re-rent it or the lease term expires (whichever is earlier). In a multiple unit complex, if multiple units are available, the landlord is usually not required to try to rent that unit first, either. Additionally, in many cases your security deposit, if any, is forfeited if you abandon the unit. If you've put down a $500 deposit and leave halfway through a year-long lease at $800 a month, you could end up losing $4,700!

    In recent years, landlords have begun to realize such strict, nasty terms are not the best way to get (and retain) renters. As such, they've begun introducing exit clauses as addendums to their leases. Usually, these are pretty favorable to the renter (a rarity in the world of apartment living). The most common exit clauses include job (and military) transfers, and home ownership. A job transfer exit clause can be invoked if you are transferred by your employer (or the military) to a work location more than a certain number of miles (usually 25 or 50) from your current workplace. A home ownership exit clause can be invoked if you buy a house and no longer need to rent. Exit clauses typically allow you to break your lease without paying the normal penalties for doing so; in effect, they permit you to alter the ending date of the lease when their conditions are met.

    There are still gotchas though. Most landlords who offer exit clauses offer good ones, but occasionally an evil condition will be added. For example, the exit clause may have additional requirements, like "at least half the lease's term must be used", "a fee of $250 must be paid if this clause is invoked", "a fee of $500 must be paid to make this clause available, even if you never invoke it", or "you must give sixty (60) days notice, not the usual thirty (30), when invoking this clause." In general, these conditions are in place because the landlord is getting greedy, but even with these conditions such clauses are worth considering. The only time to think twice before accepting one of these is if they require you to repay move-in incentives paid by the landlord if you invoke them. Then, they might not be worth it.

    Finally, note that you can't normally use these clauses just by claiming the conditions have been met. Usually, for a job or military transfer exit, you must produce a letter from your boss on company letterhead documenting your transfer (these are the easiest to forge, if you are seriously that desparate to get away from the unit, but make sure your new address really is far enough away to count, or they'll catch on and refuse your request). For a home-buying exit, you must produce closing papers (these are not inexpensive to obtain legitimately, and forging these can constitute a federal offense if you aren't careful or try something stupid). If your landlord has any sense, he'll photocopy every page and look for signs of fraud very carefully.

  12. What are the repair rates for the apartment (and the building) being considered?
    Ask lots of questions about this, and don't be afraid to press your potential landlord for hard numbers. How often has your apartment required repair? What kind of repairs were required? How about the building your apartment is in? Has anyone ever been evicted from this specific unit9? What does the landlord consider "normal wear and tear"? Will they replace those crappy, Wal*Mart brand mini-blinds every time a slat breaks, or will they charge you for it? Is carpet cleaning included in the application fee or deposit for the unit? If so, will they charge you for carpet cleaning again when you move out10? If yes, press very hard for a waiver of one of these fees (push for the move-in fee to be waived), since someone else has already paid for the cleaning. If they refuse, ask for evidence that the carpet has already been cleaned at least twice (since it's been paid for twice).

    How much will it cost to replace the paper-thin cardboard doors used inside the unit if you get angry one day and put your fist through it11? If the community is gated, will you be fined if you lose the proximity badge you're issued, or if you forget the code for the keypad? Is that charge fair-market value for the lost materials? If not, why not? Does the building have a building-wide fire alarm that sounds in every unit when it goes off? Has it had any false alarms in the last year? If so, how many? What has been done about them? Can residents deactivate the alarm, or do they have any form of restitution available when the alarm goes off and can't be stopped?

  13. How are noise and nuisance complaints handled? How are crimes and convictions handled?
    This line of questioning will help you understand what, if anything, your landlord is willing to do to help protect his tenants from the irritating (or dangerous) behavior of another tenant. What does your prospective landlord want you to do in response to a noisy neighbor12? What actions will the landlord take to stop noises and nuisances once complaints come in? Will he evict somebody who won't straighten up, or does he just emit warning after warning? What will your prospective landlord do in the event of police involvement? What if a neighbor commits a crime against you and is prosecuted for it13?
  14. What do other residents think of their apartments, the complex, and its management?
    This is an obvious, but easily overlooked way of answering many of these questions pretty quickly and easily. Walk (or drive) around and look for people milling about, ask them if they live in the complex, and if so, ask them if they'd mind talking about it for a few minutes with you. Explain that you're thinking about renting a unit, and you want to know about things the landlord might not be telling you. Overly-paranoid people aside, this is probably the best way to find out of the walls are paper-thin, the plumbing is shoddy, the maintenance is slow and bumbling, or the neighbors are noisy and rude. Someone who doesn't like where they live will happily spend hours explaining exactly why they hate it there (even if they don't care about you, they do care about stopping their evil landlord sucking in another tenant).
  15. As you can see, there's lots to think about when choosing an apartment to rent, and much of it goes beyond the aesthetics. Of course, even if all the above questions are answered to your satisfaction, you still won't like the apartment if you don't like how it looks, how it's laid out, or what its location is within the city. And even a perfect apartment with a perfect landlord can be ruined by a rude, inconsiderate, noisy, and disruptive neighbor.

    ...and I still suggest looking into buying a house before you wander too far into the murky depths of apartment hunting...

    Feedback and additional suggestions are always welcome. Disclaimer: yes, we are currently buying a house, and as such our opinion of apartment living could be biased.


    Footnotes
    1As always, consult a tax expert for tax advice; don't automatically believe something you read on Everything2.

    2Homeowners tend to be more concerned about both their homes and their community, since they actually own the house, and thus own a piece of the community they live in; apartment dwellers are somewhat more likely to keep to themselves, stay unconcerned about anything (good or bad) that happens to their neighbors as long as it doesn't affect them directly, etc.

    3Still, even with a higher monthly payment for a mortgage than renting, you are still likely to save more money via tax breaks (i.e. at the end of the year, you'll get a hefty refund that more than compensates for the extra monthly expense of the mortgage).

    4Buying a brand new home alleviates some of this concern, though; all the appliances will be warranted, and most builders offer "bumper-to-bumper" style warranties on their new homes for the first year or so, and a structural warranty for ten years or longer. Properly maintaining your home also helps reduce the risk of this kind of problem.

    5Although, it's far easier to sell a house than it is to get out of a one-year lease you're only halfway through.

    6Oh yes, rent is negotiable. This may be less true if your credit rating isn't very good, but you can still shave twenty to thirty dollars off the rent in some cases (just ask).

    7We lived in a high crime area for a year, in a non-gated community, with a convertible sportscar. It was untouched. Less than a month after we moved into our current "gated" community, the convertible top was slashed open while the car was parked in its covered space on the property within the gates. The problem with gated communities is that the gate doesn't actually protect anybody; you can just follow someone else in who has a badge or code to open the gate, and you need nothing at all to get back out.

    8"The landlord sucks!" isn't good enough to legally break the lease, either; the landlord has to substantially break the lease terms before you can just up and leave without defaulting.

    9If you're going to be evicted, you usually know it's coming. If you're not on good terms with the landlord, you're being thrown out anyway, and your credit is bad and is about to get much worse, what have you got to lose by doing something nasty to the apartment that's hard (or impossible) to detect?

    10Think about it; the carpet only gets cleaned once between tenants, so if they charge you on move in and move out for this, they're double-dipping.

    11My wife has done this twice now. Dammit. $40 per door.

    12From my experience, I believe there are three possible answers here: 1) Ask the neighbor to turn it down (or off), then complain to us if he's rude or doesn't comply, 2) Always tell us first, so we can track noise complaints; we'll ask the neighbor to turn it down for you, and 3) We don't care, so like it or lump it. Landlords who use #1 tend to be more hands-off in their management style; they'd prefer you get to know your neighbors, and be comfortable enough to walk next door and say "hey, could you turn that down/quit fighting to loudly? We're trying to sleep". #2 landlords are more hands-on, but remember this attitude is a double-edged sword; yes, they'll duly record every noise complaint and act on them, but if they're mostly frivolous or you're just being hypersensitive, they'll start ignoring you or questioning your sensitivities. #3 landlords are to be avoided; you need a documented course of action available for when your neighbors' kids put their boom box up against your bedroom wall.

    13Some complexes don't care about this kind of thing at all. Others consider a conviction of any violent crime grounds for immediate eviction. We've lived in both; trust us -- you prefer the latter.

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