Whether you rent or own your home, you want to make sure you're not spending your money frivolously. Renting a home carries different worries than buying a home. When you rent, you have to deal with an owner or property manager, figure out what is included in the rent, and decide whether you can live with the layout and décor. Regardless of whether you're renting for the first, or the 4th time, you'll need the following checklist to be sure there are no unwelcome surprises waiting for you after the contract is signed.
Find out what the rent includes
Most rental payments should pay for water, sewer, and garbage, but this isn't necessarily so. You'll also want to know if any other utilities are covered - electricity and gas likely aren't; Cable and internet coverage are relatively rare, as well. If you're working directly with the property owner, remember you can also choose to negotiate the price of rent or what it covers. On average, you should be able to talk them down $10-20 per month.
View the property more than once
The first time you walk through a rental home you may be so desperate to find somewhere, anywhere decent to live that if the place looks halfway reasonable you'll immediately be fumbling for your checkbook. Take time away from your "dream rental," view some other properties, then go back and walk through it, again with an open mind. It may still be exactly what you're looking for, or you may spot some defects to which your "affection" had made you blind.
Check out the surrounding area
Go for a walk down the block and see how many times the neighbors wave. Count how many cars pass by. Look for speed bumps and consistent placement of traffic signs. Measure the distance to the closest school and grocery store. Listen to the ambient sound; for instance, can you hear a freeway nearby or planes passing by overhead? If some aspect of this isn't to your liking, keep up your rental search.
Talk to the current renters
Hopefully, they'll be cooperative and tell you some of the more "nitty gritty" aspects of the property that the owner might not want to admit. Ask them what their average utility bills are and what kind of maintenance problems they've had with the house. They're also the best people to ask about how consistent and quick the owner or property manager has been about following up on repairs and upkeep.
Read your ENTIRE rental agreement before signing it
I don't mean skim, I mean actually read every word. There are some things property managers might not mention, intentionally or not. In particular, make sure you know whether you're allowed to paint or make other changes to the property. Find out what kind of maintenance you're expected to take care of yourself (mowing the lawn, replacing the furnace filter, etc.). If the rental allows pets, is there an extra monthly fee or deposit required? How much of a grace period do you have to pay your rent and what is the late fee? Note: there is often an addendum that allows the manager to place a lockbox on the door 30 days before your move-out date to allow a real estate agent access to your home at any time in order to show prospective renters around. Remember that you have the upper hand in the rent negotiation process, and you may request to have this aspect of the agreement removed.
Being a renter has a lot of advantages: you're not tied down to a particular location you have less upkeep to worry about, and when something breaks, you have someone you can call and complain to. However, before you sign on the dotted line, be sure you're happy with the property you've chosen. You don't want to have to repeat this process any time soon.