Make sure to read your lease thoroughly before you sign it! This is very important because a lease is a law binding contract that you must comply with. It is important to understand what you are getting yourself into before signing the lease.
If you have questions or concerns about items you read on the lease be sure to talk to the property manager or a housing agency (King County Housing Authority www.kcha.org or Seattle Housing Authority www.seattlehousing.org) before signing the lease. You can also have a trusted friend or family member help you read the lease if your English is limited.
What to Look for in a Lease
Make sure the lease states the correct monthly rent amount and the date rent is due every month. Pay attention to where and how the rent is paid. Some properties will charge an extra fee if rent is paid for with a credit card but no fee if rent is paid directly from your bank account. Some properties have a grace period past the date rent is due. For example, a property may say a rent is considered late if the payment is received three (3) days past the rent due date. Pay attention to late fees associated with late rent and utilities payments. Some property charge a flat rate late fee but others charge a daily late fee that can add up quickly.
You must sign a lease for a minimum of 12 months in order to use your Housing Choice Voucher. Leases under 12 months will not be approved by your housing authority. Some apartments will offer incentives for those signing longer leases, such as lower monthly rent. If you know you want to be in an area for more than 12 months, ask the property if they offer any incentives to signing a longer-term lease.
Check your lease for your move-in costs. Make sure the correct amounts for the move-in costs are stated in the lease. Some properties charge a holding-fee to take the unit off the market. However, holding fees are normally applied towards another fee. Be sure to see if the holding fee is applied to an administration fee or the security deposit. Typically, administration fees are a one-time nonrefundable fee but the security deposit is refundable upon move-out if no damages were caused to the unit.
Check to see if the lease specifies if/when a property can increase your rent. You want to ensure even if there are rent increases you were still able to use your voucher at the property. Some properties have an escalation clause which states they can raise the rent after the lease term is up. The rent increase can be based on a percentage, fixed dollar amount, or cost of living increase.
Pay attention to who pays utilities. Check to see if you will pay utilities or if utilities are included in the monthly rent. Sometimes certain utilities are covered in the rent (e.g. water, sewer, and garbage) but other utilities are not (e.g. electricity). Check if the utilities are flat-rate fee per unit or per occupant living in the unit. Often, properties will have you set up your own electricity account with Puget Sound Energy (PSE) or Seattle City Light, so you will pay the electricity to the utility company.
Some properties charge additional fees on top of your monthly rent which are not included with your Housing Choice Voucher. You will need to budget and plan for this expenses or consider another property if the fee is not affordable. Some properties charge monthly parking fees. Other properties charge fees just for covered or reserved parking, but additional parking is available at no cost. Certain properties charge a mandatory monthly Home Owners Association (HOA) fee for access to community amenities such as on-site fitness center, pool, etc. Additional fees could include a one-time nonrefundable cleaning fee upon move out.
If you have pets, check if the property charges any pet fees or deposits. Check if the charges are a one-time pet deposit or a monthly pet rent fee. Check if the charge is refundable or nonrefundable. Be aware if you have a service animal, a property cannot charge you a pet fee or deposit.
Having renter's insurance is a good idea as it protects your belongings from damages or theft. However, some properties state in the lease that renter's insurance is required, and they will not let you move in until you provide proof of renter's insurance. Make sure you budget and plan for this extra expense if the lease requires you have renter's insurance.
Pay attention to rules listed in the lease. Properties may have rules on guests, quiet hours, and changes to your unit.
The property manager should be responsible for repairs to the unit (e.g. a broken sink or dishwasher). It is your responsibility as a tenant to notify the property manager if something needs to be fixed. If you rent a home, make sure you check the lease to see who will be responsible for maintaining the yard and changing miscellaneous items in the house like air filters and smoke detector batteries.