What is an apartment lease?

A lease is an agreement between you (the tenant) and the landlord about living in an apartment for a specific amount of time.

Applying for an apartment – rental applications and credit checks

Typically, you will have to fill out a rental application. It may ask for your past addresses, your employer, your driver’s license and social security number, and the names and phone numbers of a few people who are your personal references. The landlord may charge you an application fee, but no more than $50. The fee may include a “credit check” fee and gives the landlord permission to check your credit history. The landlord must give you a receipt.

Before signing a lease and moving in

Ask the landlord to have the apartment cleaned, the carpet cleaned or replaced, the walls painted and any repairs done BEFORE you move in. Also, you should have an attorney review your lease before you sign it. The Alliance for Children’s Rights can help you. Email youth@kids-alliance.org or call 213.368.6010 to get started.

Inspect the apartment with the landlord BEFORE you move in. Make sure:

  • There are no cracks or holes in the walls, floors, or ceilings.
  • You see no signs of rats or insects (beware of bed bugs if furniture is included in the rent).
  • The bathroom and kitchen have hot and cold water, and there are no leaks.
  • There is a working heater.
  • The door and window locks work.
  • There is a working smoke detector.
  • The lights work.
  • Check the condition of any appliances like a refrigerator, stove and oven. In Los Angeles, the landlord does not have to provide a refrigerator. If you are responsible for providing your own refrigerator, find that out before signing the lease.
  • You have a place to receive mail.

You and the landlord should fill out an “inventory checklist” that lists each item and notes the condition. This is important because it will help you get back your security deposit when you move out. Keep a copy of the checklist signed by the landlord.

What is a co-signer?

A landlord may ask for a co-signer if you do not have a history of paying bills or paying them on time. A co-signer is another person who is responsible to pay the rent if you cannot. This adult does not typically live in the apartment with you, but he or she is equally responsible for your lease.

Make sure the lease is in WRITING!

Your apartment lease and everything that you and the landlord agree to should be in writing. If the landlord tells you he/she will do something but does not include it in the written lease, then there is no way to force the landlord to deliver on the promise. Don’t feel rushed into signing the document. If you are in foster care or aged out of foster care in California,  the Alliance for Children’s Rights will review your lease with you for free: call 213.368.6010 and ask for an attorney to review the lease with you.

The written lease should include:

  • how much the monthly rent is, when it is due and to whom you pay the rent.
  • the amount and purpose of the security deposit.
  • how many people may live in the apartment. (Note: if you have a friend stay with you and they are not on the lease, the landlord can ask for more money for the extra person and/or use that information to break the lease.)
  • who will pay the utilities (such as gas, electric, water and trash service) and whether they will charge you that fee in addition to the rent.
  • whether appliances such as a refrigerator, oven and stove, or air-conditioning unit will be provided by the landlord and who will cover any repair or cost to replace it.
  • whether pets are allowed and if there is an additional pet deposit.
  • the name and contact information for the property manager and the owner.
  • how many days in advance you must notify the landlord if you want to move out.

How long is the lease for?

Typically, you should not sign a lease that lasts longer than a year. Beware of a landlord who tries to talk you into a lease for more than one year with the argument that it will protect you from yearly rent increases. In fact, if the building was built in the 1970s or before, it may be rent controlled which limits the amount the landlord can increase your rent every year.

What kind of deposits can a landlord ask for?

In addition to first and last month’s rent, a landlord may include different types of deposits before they reserve the apartment for you.

  • A security deposit is money held by the landlord to pay for damages, but you can get the majority back if you leave the apartment in good shape. It cannot total more than 2 months rent.
  • A holding deposit guarantees that the landlord “holds” the apartment for you until you sign the lease and pay the rest of the money to move in. Before you pay a holding deposit, ask the landlord if it will be credited to your first month’s rent or if it will be refunded if you decide not to lease this particular apartment.

What other costs should I plan for in moving into my apartment?

Moving can be expensive. There are many expenses that you should budget for before you decide to move into your own apartment, including utilities and the cost of moving (renting a truck, for example). In most cases, you will be responsible for a portion of the building’s trash, water, and all of your own electricity and cable usage. Many utility companies have “turn on” fees that will make the first month’s bill more expensive.

Once I move is there any way to get free furniture, dishes, towels, etc.?

There are ways to get furniture and household items for free or at low cost. Check the “free” section of Craigslist or visit a thrift store. In Los Angeles,  A Sense of Home helps young adults who are in foster care or who aged out of foster care set up their first apartment. They step in with a volunteer force to collect donated furniture and household items to furnish and decorate your home.

Dealing with apartment related problems

The landlord must make sure your apartment is safe, clean when you move in, livable and bug-free. The landlord must also do maintenance work to keep the apartment in a livable condition. However, you must also take reasonable steps to keep your apartment clean and livable. Should you have a problem or need something in the apartment repaired, such as a leaking pipe, notify your landlord.

Roommate issues

If you cannot afford an apartment on your own, then you might want to share one with a roommate. If you do, make sure the lease is in both of your names. Also, you should talk about house rules and how you want to share the bills and chores before you move in together. This could include agreement on who pays what portion of the rent and utilities, who owns what furniture and kitchen items (so you know who gets what when you move out), what time the stereo or tv has to be turned off, whether you will allow friends to sleep over and more.

Moving out

Before you move out or end your lease, you must notify your landlord in writing. Typically, you must give the landlord 30 days notice. Before signing the lease, check the lease for any additional moving out notice requirements.