Key Questions to Ask Before You Sign a Lease

Your lease isn't just a piece of paper - in Georgia, it's a legally binding contract. That's why the right time to get essential information from your landlord and negotiate details isn't while the ink is drying; it's before you sign on the dotted line.

Real estate expert John Adams shared seven important questions to ask your landlord before you sign any lease.

1. How long is the lease & what happens at the end?

A lease is most often for one year, sometimes 6 months. It's important to know the length of your term because you're locked into that time frame once you sign a lease.

You should also find out what the penalties are for breaking your lease in an emergency situation, like if you get married or you’re transferred. Unless you get the landlord to include an early termination clause, you could end up losing your security deposit and be on the hook for the rest of the rent.

2. What about utilities - are they included?

The types of utilities paid by landlords vary considerably, so it's best to know about them ahead of time. That means finding out what you're responsible for and what your landlord covers, like water and sewer, electricity, gas, internet, cable, trash pickup, and so on.

3. Can I have a dog or cat?

If you have a pet or plan to get one, always ask your landlord about the pet policy beforehand. Landlords are rightly worried about anything that could damage a unit, so some prohibit all pets. But some landlords allow all pets, ask for a separate pet deposit or "pet rent" (a monthly fee for having a pet), or accept pets up to a certain weight (or other stipulations).

4. When is rent due and how do I pay it?

Whether your landlord lives next door or you mail a check to a property manager, it's important to find out when and how payment should be sent every month. And even if you don't think you'll be late with rent, it's smart to ask your landlord when a payment is considered late, and if there are any charges. In Georgia, there is no legal “grace period” unless it is written in the lease.

5. How will I get back my security deposit?

By law, all security deposits are refundable in nature. Your landlord can withhold part of your deposit for damages you caused beyond normal wear and tear or if you break the lease. Georgia has very specific laws on security deposits, so make sure you understand this issue.

6. What is the procedure for maintenance & repairs?

Depending on your rental situation, your building might have on-site property management. But it is rare to find around the clock repairs. In any case, before you sign the lease, it's good to know the procedure. Also ask if renter’s insurance is required. Even if it’s not, John Adams always recommends that you be covered. He says it’s cheap, and covers your personal possessions in case of fire or loss.

7. What are the rules for painting or improvements?

If you want to paint your bedroom walls or install curtain rods in the living room, you should check now on what kind of changes are OK and which are forbidden. (Getting it all in writing can avoid potential major expenses at the end of your lease). In most cases, you're expected to leave your apartment in its original state when your lease is up. If you make some unapproved cosmetic changes, a portion of your security deposit could be withheld in order for your landlord to restore the apartment.

Remember, your lease agreement governs most of the terms between you and your landlord, so it’s a very important document. Make sure you read it before you sign it, and ask all the questions you can think of before you sign on the dotted line.

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