New apartment checklist: questions to ask before renting

New apartment checklist

Whether you are looking for an apartment in NYC, San Francisco, or Chicago, finding a good place to rent is never easy. If you make the wrong choice, you could be dealing with bed bugs, scammy landlords, and broken toilets for a year long lease, so make sure you get it right the first time! Here’s a new apartment checklist of questions to ask before renting. If you want to bring this list along to an apartment viewing, we also provide a handy new apartment checklist PDF at the end that you can print out. Happy apartment hunting!

Landlord and tenant relationship

Rental rates and terms. The monthly rent is usually at the top of any apartment hunting checklist, but don’t stop there. Read the lease carefully. When is the rent due, and how can the rent be paid? What happens if you must break your lease early? Are there any limits on yearly rent increases? Paying slightly more may be worth it if you expect rents to skyrocket. However, make sure you lock in the rent prices in writing, or the landlord is under no obligation to keep his or her word. Make sure you know your tenant rights and how a security deposit will be handled and returned to you when you move out.

Total renting costs. Who pays for heating and utility bills? You may want to ask for typical utility bills for summer and winter months, as the quality of windows and insulation can greatly affect the costs. If rent includes heating and utilities, this can justify a high rate, as winter heating and summer air conditioning can be very expensive, especially for older apartments. Look for other costs. Condos or townhouses may have a homeowner’s association fee. If an appliance needs to be repaired, who pays for it? Is there a parking fee?

Document any existing damage. Be sure to photograph the apartment before moving and and after moving out to avoid disputes for damages. There are too many stories online if tenants losing security deposits to unscrupulous landlords.

apartment room damage
Left: Water damaged ceiling, Jemaleddin Cole. Right: Carpet stain, Monrovia Public Library

Ensure you are seeing the exact room you will rent. Do not rent a room without seeing it in person. Some agencies will only allow you to view a showroom. You will inevitably be disappointed by the actual unit. Make sure the address on the lease matches the room you saw. Be suspicious if the landlord makes excuses and cannot show you the room to be rented. While usually not an issue, make sure the address and unit number on your lease exactly match the unit that you saw.

Repair procedures and costs. Ask about procedures for dealing with issues requiring a repairman or general maintenance. Is there an online form? How long does it take for someone to respond?

Rules and regulations. Make sure you know all policies on pets, smoking, visitors, or other issues that are relevant to you. Homeowner’s association may also have additional rules.

Sanitation and hygiene

Trash disposal location. Find out how you are to dispose of trash. If you must drag trash down twelve flights of stairs and then carry it to a locked alley behind the building in the middle of winter, you won’t be happy. Indoor trash collection with a working elevator and managed curb removal is ideal. Also check if there are any dumpsters or trash pickup points right outside your apartment’s windows. You don’t want to wake up to the smell of rotting garbage every Tuesday morning.

Toilets and plumbing in good working order. Test the toilets by actually flushing them and noting the flow strength. A well-used plunger in the bathroom could be an ominous warning. Check for signs of water damage from leaks or floods, and also check the ceiling for corresponding damage from the unit above you. Turn the showers and faucets on and off, looking out for problematic drips, clogged flow, and water running on any pipe or surface where it shouldn’t be. Are the shower heads in good shape and functional? Check how well the water drains in the sinks and shower. If your kitchen has a trash disposal unit, pulse test it while running water. See how long it takes for water to change from cold to hot, and if you have a separate water heater unit, make sure it is functioning properly.

Evidence of pests, mold, or other health hazards. Look for signs of bed bugs, cockroaches, or other pests. Dark red or brown stains along the edge of the ceiling or on furniture could mean there are bed bugs. White marks, powder, or other discoloration along the edges of the floor or behind appliances and furniture may indicate chemical treatment for pest issues. Look under cabinets and other hard to reach areas. Open drawers and closets. The Bed Bug Registry is another good resource to check. Look for mildew and mold on furniture and in damp areas such as the bathroom. Does a room smell musty? This is also a sign of possible mold. If the room has a strong perfume or air freshener scent, someone may be trying to hid the musty odors. A heavy smoker will also stain the floor and walls with the smell of cigarettes. Old peeling paint or insulation showing through broken paneling is another health hazard. Many states require that landlords disclose the presence of lead paint or asbestos, and you may want to be extra careful if you have children or pets.


mold and bed bugs
Left: Bathroom mold, Andrew Ratto. Right: Bed bug furniture stains, NY State IPM


Cell phone reception quality. While this is a common apartment hunting tip, this isn’t as crucial as it used to be. Most people will expect to be on a wireless network at home. Instant messages, VoIP, and video chats using WiFi are all replacing traditional phone calls as well. Still, good reception is better than no reception.

TECH TIP: If you have an Android phone, you don’t have to rely on the mystical voodoo behind two versus three bars and what that means. On your phone’s menu, choose About Phone and then pick Status.  The Signal strength heading will give you a number followed by dBm. -60 dBm is practically perfect, -87 dBm is still considered four bars by Android, and -110-115 dBm is the point of dropping calls. Accessing the so-called field strength on iPhones is a bit more complicated or not possible under certain versions of iOS.

Availability of internet and TV services. Fast, reliable, and cheap internet access is going to be a high priority for most urban dwellers, so don’t forget to add it to your new apartment checklist. Even if your city has a blazingly fast fiber service like Verizon Fios, it may not be available in your particular part of town, or even for your particular building. The easiest way to check what services are available is on the website of internet service providers. You can submit an address and they will automatically check whether you qualify for their services. You can also call directly. Unfortunately, for most places in the US, you really have no choice of ISP for your apartment’s particular location.

Sufficient ethernet ports and electrical sockets. Make sure there are enough electrical sockets to support all of your technology needs in each room and that the sockets are in usable condition. This might include television and audio equipment in the living room or bedroom, a computer station, as well as a main charging station for all of your mobile devices. Don’t forget the kitchen if you are into electronic cooking gadgets, as well as other seasonal appliances like portable air conditioners or fans. For older buildings, you may want to even bring a socket tester to the viewing. Even though you will probably use Wi-Fi for most devices, if you want the fastest connection for streaming video or serious online gaming, check if there are ethernet ports in the appropriate rooms. Otherwise, you may need to run a long ethernet cable into different rooms, which can be annoying.

TECH TIP: Powerline adaptors allow you to turn any electrical socket into an substitute ethernet port. These can work well, but keep in mind that buildings with poor electrical grids will degrade the speed of hitchhiking internet signals. Also, you will lose access to one electrical socket.


Laundry services. Having a washer and dryer in your apartment building is extremely convenient. If not, you will have to find the nearest laundromat or dry cleaning service. Laundry pick up and delivery is also available in some cities, but this means you may need to wait around at home to meet the delivery staff. If you are renting part of a house, you might get lucky with your own laundry machine. Be sure to ask about the pricing. Doing your own laundry is usually cheaper, but some landlords will price-gouge you. Know the regular rates in your area and do the math. Also, count how many washers and dryers are available. A 100 unit apartment served by 2 machines is going to make for painful evening and weekend laundry attempts.

Mailboxes and package receiving. Receiving regular mail is fairly straightforward in most places. Receiving packages safely and reliably can be a problem, though. Package delivery attempts by courier services like FedEx and UPS often occur while you are not at home during work hours. You can schedule evening or weekend delivery in some cases, but many courier services have terrible reputations and customer complaints about drivers never showing up or lying about delivery attempts. You can ask the driver to leave the package in a common area, but theft is a real risk, especially in busy cities. A managed apartment with an office or concierge is extremely helpful, as the driver will simply leave all packages with the apartment staff. Don’t underestimate how convenient this is, especially if you order frequently from Amazon or other online services. Otherwise, you might consider a PO box. For Amazon orders, check if there is a nearby Amazon locker pickup point.

Groceries, convenience stores, and restaurants. Where are the closest grocery stores and convenience stores? Even if you don’t cook at home, you will need to make regular purchases of toiletries and other items. A nearby 24-hour fast food joint can be a lifesaver when coming home late from work or form a party. Many cities these days have a grocery delivery service like Peapod, but being able to simply walk to these businesses whenever you want is a huge convenience.

Appliances and furniture. Most apartments come unfurnished except for basic kitchen appliances like a refrigerator and oven. However, don’t assume that anything you see during a viewing will be available. Check if microwaves and toaster ovens are allowed, as some landlords may consider them fire hazards. Sometimes, landlords will leave unwanted furniture in your apartment as well. Having a giant bug-ridden sofa in the middle of your room is not a good idea, so specifically ask what will and what will not be left behind when you move in.


Nearest public transportation stops. For many city dwellers, public transportation is the lifeline to work and entertainment. Having bus or subway stops within easy walking distance of your apartment will save you time every single time and eliminate the expenses or hassles of owning a car. A half hour commuting time saved each work day may easily justify a higher rent.

Parking availability. If you own and drive a car, ask about your parking options. If you must use street parking, check the signs and regulations. How many parking spots are available after work hours when everybody is home? You don’t want to battle for parking spots every day. Look out for signs indicating special rules for trash, cleaning, or snowplowing days. These can be an expensive annoyance if you are not able to move your parked car when required. Can you get visitor parking passes, or where can guests park?

street cleaning sign
Street parking restrictions, Flickr

Commuting traffic. If you will commute to work, get an idea of the driving time and distance during morning and evening rush hours. The best way to check is to try it yourself if you can. How much is your time worth when sitting through traffic?

Environment and safety

Sources of noise. If you are sensitive to loud noises, check how quiet your apartment will be. Do you hear any pets? Are there signs of small children? Does anyone practice a musical instrument in the building? If you are near highways, busy roads, or train lines, check how much city noises reach the inside of your apartment. Waking up to an 18-wheeler shifting gears at 5AM is not pleasant. For some neighborhoods, urban wildlife like certain birds may be loud as well. For those of you living near a busy airport, make sure you are not under the flight path of common flights. The noise can be quite disruptive even with excellent windows.

Surrounding neighborhood quality. Look around the neighborhood and get a sense of who lives there. You can check crime statistics or news reports, but even looking at the type of parked cars will give you an idea of who lives there and how safe the neighborhood is. Do you see a lot of graffiti and litter? How safe do you feel walking home at night? If the neighborhood is busy with loud college students, you might be bothered by the noise. On the other hand, going outside alone late in the evening on a quiet street has its own dangers.

Building security. How well-maintained and safe are the building doors and locks? Are there security cameras? If you rent a room on the first floor, make sure there are security bars, as first floors are the most common targets of theft. If you notice any unlocked doors being propped open, that means management and residents are lax about keeping the apartment safe. At more expensive apartments, you may have a concierge or doorman.

Safety alarms. Is there a smoke detector and carbon monoxide alarm in your unit? Are they in good working order? Great landlords will have their own checklist to ensure all legal requirements are met. If you find that the smoke detector in your unit has a dead battery, that could point to larger landlord problems. You may also want to ask current residents how often the fire alarm goes off. Faulty alarms or neighbors with frequent cooking accidents can result in too many 3AM alarms and grumpy nights.

New apartment checklist PDF link

A printable one page PDF summary of this new apartment checklist is available for download by clicking here. Bring it to your apartment viewings. You might also want to share the full article with potential roommates as well. Have renting tips or landlord horror stories? Share your sage advice or warnings to other readers in the comments below.

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