How to Ace Leasing Your New Place & Get What You Really Want

San Diego County's rental market isn't for the faint of heart or the slight of pocketbook. Countywide, average rent prices edge close to $1,800 per month, though you can find better rates if you aren't dead set on living in the heart of one of the cities. You can also save money if you're willing to rent an apartment or duplex instead of a single-family dwelling. Start looking for your new place as early as possible (don't wait until you're three weeks away from the end of the lease on your current place), and be prepared to jump on a promising opportunity when it's presented. Here's how you're going to slay it when choosing your new place to lease.

Think Long & Hard About Roommates & Cosigners

A $1,600-per-month lease seems much more manageable split three or four ways. If you can just find a few roommates, that gorgeous luxury 3-bedroom overlooking the pool in Serra Mesa is well within your grasp! Well, think again. If one of your four roommates bails, your rent skyrockets from $400 per month to $533. If two bail, you're looking at double payments -- $800 per month. Spend an afternoon watching court shows on TV and you'll soon realize that it's better to go for a place you know you can afford on your own. You can't ever predict what someone else will do, and it isn't worth the risk of being unable to pay. Do you want to lose your apartment just because your roomy's Aunt Clara got gout and they had to move to Omaha to help her out? Probably not. 

Read (and Understand) That Lease (Especially the Fine Print)

Leases are legally-binding documents. Once you've signed, you're legally bound to accept and abide by these rules. The lease tells you everything you need to know about renting this particular property from this particular person or agency. Read it all, even the fine print. In fact, especially the fine print! Here are a few things you'll need to understand before signing a lease:

  • What is and isn't included in the rent: parking access, pool or community property privileges (like a gym or pavilion), utilities (power, water, gas, garbage collection, etc.), cable or satellite TV, 24/7 maintenance, etc.?
  • Are you required to purchase renter's insurance? This protects you, as well as the other tenants and property owners. If you have to have it, your neighbors do too, making the entire complex safer for everyone. 
  • Does the landlord allow a cosigner to remove their name from the lease?
  • Do they allow pets, what kinds of pets do they allow, and are there applicable fees or deposits (some landlords charge higher rent for pet owners and may require the right to regularly inspect the property)?
  • Under what circumstances you're allowed to break the lease?
  • Does the property owner allow cosigners, roommates, subleases, guests (especially overnight guests and extended-stay guests), Airbnb rentals, etc.?
  • What decorations, additions, or changes are you allowed to make, such as painting, hanging things on the walls, changing window treatments, etc.?

Make Sure Your Credit Score is Solid 

In a tight leasing market like San Diego, property managers have plenty of renters to fill each vacancy. Separate yourself from the "good" renters by assuring you're the "best" option. That means keeping your credit score nice and shiny. While paying rent, unfortunately, doesn't improve your credit score, property managers certainly look at that score when deciding who that sweet loft in downtown Oceanside goes to. If your credit score is 720 and another potential lessee scores 765 ... well, you may get bumped out of the running, regardless of that glowing recommendation from your current landlady.

Be Prepared to Make Some Trade-Offs

The ideal place sits four blocks from your work, has ample space for your coffee mug and seashell collections, overlooks the most beautiful view in town, and costs less than 30 percent of your monthly paychecks. This place doesn't exist. Get ready to decide where you're willing to make sacrifices. Is the price more important than how far you'll drive to work? Perhaps having room for your immense shoe collection is more important than a great view. Go into the selection process knowing where you are and aren't able (and willing) to sacrifice.

Don't see what you need to know in the lease? Ask. Most property managers truly want their renters to understand the rules beforehand, because it eliminates problems and misunderstandings later. If you and the landlord or property owner agree to terms different from or in addition to what's written in the lease -- get it in writing! Verbal agreements or contracts are difficult (perhaps impossible) to prove in court, and judges almost always make decisions based what's actually written in the lease.

Buy Renter's Insurance

Most reputable property managers require renter's insurance. Renter's insurance covers things that aren't necessarily covered by the owner's property insurance. For instance, renters insurance covers things like your personal stuff stolen during a break in, things damaged by fire, and your personal belongings damaged by vandalism. Renter's insurance also covers you if you are found liable (legally responsible) for a fire or other event that affects the value of the property or the assets of other tenants.

For example, if your 100-gallon aquarium bursts and the water floods your downstairs neighbor's place, renters insurance might cover that. Renter's insurance also covers your living expenses if a covered event dislocates you for some time. For instance, if your neighbor falls asleep smoking a cigarette and burns your place up, the insurance covers another place to live until your apartment or condo gets rebuilt or repaired.

Take your time. Get to know the property manager. Find out the details. Be willing to make sacrifices to get what you truly want and need. These are the cardinal rules of slaying it when leasing your new place.

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