signing a lease on a NYC apartment

A lease can help protect renters from misunderstandings. (Getty Images)

Movies make renting an apartment look so easy. A person shows up, hands over some cash, and gets the keys. But in real life, it’s not that straightforward. In most instances, renting involves signing a lease. This can make things a little complicated, depending on various factors. For example, are you renting from a management company or an independent landlord? Is it a rental building or a rental in a co-op? And just as important, you have to prove you can afford the rent — or provide a guarantor. Some of this may sound a little intimidating, but at its essence, a lease is an important document that actually protects you as a renter. These tips will help you navigate the process.

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What’s in a Rental Lease?

In essence, a lease sets the terms for a rental, including how much you are required to pay each month. Because it is a legally binding contract that could affect you in the future — for instance, if your building gets sold or your management company changes hands — be sure to read it closely. Here’s what you will find in a basic lease:

  • Rent amount due each month.
  • Day rent is due each month.
  • Term of your lease, typically one to two years.
  • Name, address, and contact information of the landlord or management company.
  • Utilities covered by rent (if any).
  • Building rules, which can include various details, including whether pets are allowed, if it’s OK to put nails in the walls, or if you can paint the walls another color besides white.

Due to COVID-19, Kristen Mantell, managing partner of the real estate law firm Baron & Baron, advises: “Ask what the policy is about breaking your lease early and subletting. It’s important, even when there isn’t a pandemic. You never know what may happen in the future.” Check that these details are included in the lease before signing, because adding them later can be difficult.

What to Ask Before Signing a Lease

Some essential details may need to be added to the lease when it’s drawn up, so here are a few things you should ask about:

Most leases are for one or two years. If you’re looking to live somewhere for longer than that, whether you’re allowed to renew may factor into your decision. This rings true for co-op sublets too. “Applying to a co-op sublet can be time-consuming,” says Marcia Norman, a licensed real estate salesperson with Keller Williams NYC. “So if you’re planning to stay awhile, that’s fine. But if you only plan to rent for a year, or the shareholder only plans on subletting for a year, it may not be in your best interest to rent from a co-op. A year goes by in a blink.”

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The Approval Process: Rental Buildings & Co-op Sublets 

There are significant differences between renting in a rental building and subletting from a co-op, the main ones being time and financial investment. “A landlord or management company for a rental building typically only wants to verify your credit history, employment, and references before you can sign the lease,” says Norman. That can take up to two weeks. However, if you’re subletting from a co-op, there will likely be an in-depth application requiring multiple documents, a co-op board interview, and additional fees. “The entire process can take 60 to 90 days,” Norman says. And making adjustments to the lease or asking for repairs increases the length of time it takes.

Check the Apartment Before Signing a Lease

Once you know you want an apartment, note any repairs (running toilet, leaking faucets, etc.) or other issues that need to be taken care of before you move in. Make sure these are added to the lease before you sign it; your broker can handle this, or you can request it yourself. An oral agreement is not enough!

According to Mantell, a verbal rental agreement between you and an independent landlord is also referred to as a month-to-month agreement. The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 confers a few legal protections, mostly about when you have to be notified of a rent increase. But “if there are any disputes or complications, a fully executed lease is going to be your best safeguard,” she says.

She also recommends that you do a final walkthrough to ensure repairs are completed to your satisfaction, or get the date they’ll be fixed recorded into the lease.

Since you’ll be expected to leave the apartment in the same condition as you found it, it’s smart to take pictures before you move in — especially if there are any existing cracks, dents, or other things you don’t want to be unfairly held responsible for later on. E-mail these photos to your landlord or management company, so you have a record of the date and time. It’s never too early to start a digital paper trail to ensure that you receive your full security deposit when your lease has ended.

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Check That a Rider Is Attached

If you’re leasing a rent-stabilized apartment, make sure the rent stabilization rider is included before signing the lease. This details how your lease will be renewed, and how the rent increase will be calculated. If you’re unsure whether your apartment is rent-stabilized, ask your landlord or check with the New York Division of Homes and Community Renewal.

The lease may contain additional riders (aka “addenda”) about lead paint disclosures, pets, and other conditions. Note that when you’re renewing your lease, the fundamental terms for a rent-stabilized apartment must remain the same as in the original. (Exceptions include new changes in city or state laws that must be complied with.)

Don’t Forget Your Roommates

It’s not required, but if you have roommates, it’s a good idea to add their names to the lease. This protects them if you have to break your lease early, Norman notes. And it could smooth the transition too, because your landlord won’t have to worry about finding someone else to be responsible for the rent.

Guarantee Your Guarantor

If you are using a guarantor, send the necessary paperwork well in advance and confirm that all details are accurately reflected in the final lease.

What to Bring When Signing a Lease

You’ll need to bring a valid ID (driver’s license or passport) and at least one check — typically a cashier’s check — to cover the security deposit and first month’s rent. In New York City, the landlord can only ask for the first month’s rent and a security deposit no higher than one month’s rent. Get receipts for everything, and keep them safe throughout the duration of your lease.

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Why You Need to Sign First

“There’s a very good reason for this,” says Mantell. “It’s because the landlord wants to be sure that the person they’re giving the lease to is the one who applied. If the landlord signs first and hands over the lease, then anyone could sign it, and they’d be stuck with a fully executed lease” for someone who wasn’t approved. It’s a classic bait and switch.

You May Not Get Keys Right Away

If the apartment is empty and ready for you to move in, you’ll get the keys when you sign the lease, usually from your broker. However, you may not receive keys if the previous tenant is still there, the apartment needs work, or your landlord won’t allow you access in advance. In these cases, you’ll get the keys on the day your lease begins.

Keep a Paper Trail

Keep a copy of all the paperwork that you and the landlord sign. These are official documents, and it can be difficult to get copies later on, especially if there’s a problem. With a little diligence and patience, you will sign the lease and be secure that you’ve found a new home.

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