A heaping shitload of you reading this article will at some point in the very near future be striking out on your own for the first time. And many others just read that sentence and immediately smirked at the thought of someone else having to go through the insane clusterfuck that comes with that freedom. Because in real life, there is no class that teaches you how to deal with asshole landlords or how to tell if an empty apartment has roaches in the middle of the day. But since we can't go back and warn our old selves about all the bullshit to look out for, maybe you can benefit from what we had to learn the hard way.
#5. Don't Get Fucked by Your Lease
I've seen this happen so many times, I can't even put a number on it. You'll be graduating college in a month, so you dive into that home stretch with everything you have. This is it. All you have to do is pass these last three classes and then you can finally pack up and move to New York like you've always dreamed and show your mom that your theater degree wasn't a waste of money. And not a moment too soon, because you couldn't stand the thought of even one more night in that shitty apartm- oh shit. Your lease is up in two days! FUUUUUUU ...
... UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU ...
... UUUUUCK! So what do you do? There isn't much you can do, right? Your choices are to either start moving back in with your parents right that second because there is no time to shop for another place ("No, I swear, that degree will pay off, Mom!") or renew the lease and commit to another year ("Sorry, Cats. Soon"). And that means when you graduate in a month, you either move on to your dream job and tell the landlord to go fuck himself, losing your deposit (and watching that blemish follow you around for the next several years in the form of court appearances, bad references, and bad credit), or you stay legal and buy out the rest of the contract. Or you put your entire life on hold for another 11 months, waiting for the lease to expire again.
This is why it's so important to read the goddamn lease before you sign it. It sounds obvious, but it's like telling people that they should read the terms of service before hitting "Agree" on a video game. It's just a bunch of words that all say the same indecipherable legal horseshit, isn't it? For exactly that reason, I don't know many people who have read an entire lease. Almost everyone I know just talks to the landlord and then signs the paperwork they slide at them across the kitchen counter.
"Congratulations. Welcome to Futurekitchen."
But believe me, you don't want to put your name on something and then find out that you just committed to a two-year deal in a place you only planned on renting for one. In my experience, a two-plus-year deal usually means the landlord has a problem with people moving out quickly. They're trying to solve the problem by ensuring steady renters through binding contracts, and it's always for a reason that you won't see until you've lived there for a few months -- like you find out that your building is where they land hospital helicopters, or upstairs is the office for group yodeling therapy. No, it doesn't always mean that renters run away screaming, but in my experience, it's meant that more times than not.
It all boils down to keeping your eyes and ears sharp when shopping for a place. Not just at the lease and the condition of the apartment itself, but at the neighborhood. Is there a shitload of barking dogs? Can you hear the neighbors through the wall? Are there fuck stains on the ceiling?
But whatever you do, find a way to remind yourself about that expiration date. Put it into your phone. Or into Google Calendar. Make sure the reminder is set for two months in advance, because if you do decide to pack up and move on, you're going to need plenty of time to find another place. Otherwise, you're going to be in the exact situation I described at the beginning of this point.
"... and we've been here ever since. And that, honey, is why hope is a lie."
But before you put your name on that line ...
#4. Check the Cabinets
You'll want to check the cabinets, but probably not for the reasons you're thinking. Yes, obviously you need to know if they have the space for your cups and food and whip collection, but it's also the easiest way to find out if the place is infested with things that will eat your food and shit on your dishes.
If you ever have to hire an exterminator, watch him go through the kitchen. One of the first things he does is shine a flashlight under the shelves in the cabinets, paying special attention to corners, because much like your mom, that's where insects like to hang out. OOOOOOOHHH! But on top of looking for the bugs themselves, he's also looking for their poop, which looks like black pepper. That's what you're looking for, as well as mice turds, which look like little black pellets that are shaped like maggots. Sorry, if we're going the gross route, we might as well go the whole fucking distance, right?
They're not so fucking cute when they're disease shitting in your Froot Loops.
If the apartment has a history of infestations, it will most likely not be thoroughly cleaned before you get there. Not beyond a quick "Oh shit, there are people coming -- sweep!" That means that you're likely to find old insect-poison traps way back in the cabinets where most people don't normally think to look or clean because they're kind of an out-of-the-way pain in the ass to get to. That's not to say that all of the poop and poison will be out of the way. Look around the fridge and stove to see if you can spot some shit, because that's where pests are going to be hanging out when you're not around. Don't you watch any Pixar films?
You can do all of this without looking like a paranoid schlong. Just act like you're examining the place to make sure all of your stuff will fit. But make no mistake, if you have to bust out a flashlight to get a better look, it's better to appear a little impolite now than to wake up next week covered in fucking spiders after you've already signed a lease with a "We may, on occasion, fuck your world up with spiders" clause.
"You're going to be a little late with rent? Hm. Interesting."
If the place looks bug-free and you can't smell any signs of recent bug spray (if the place smells like bug spray, just assume they have bugs and leave), check under the kitchen and bathroom sinks for water stains and warping of the cabinet floors. If you find any of that, it means they've had problems with the plumbing. If it looks really old and really bad, it means the landlord doesn't give a shit about fixing it and has a "Just deal with it" attitude.
OK, after that, does it look good? Awesome. Let's sign that fucker and move in. Wait! One more thing ...
#3. Talk With the Neighbors Before You Sign
Don't let them shove a lease at you expecting you to sign on the spot. Tell them you have an important decision to make, and you'll get back to them in a day or two. Be extremely polite about it -- you don't want them saying, "Oh, I totally understand. While you go fuck yourself, I'll have the next person on my list sign the lease." But then when you have the opportunity to do it when they're not present, introduce yourself to your potential neighbors and ask them a few basic questions about what it's like to live there.
This is especially helpful if you're considering an apartment that's in a building (as opposed to renting a house, which is much more prevalent in my part of the country). No one on earth can tell you what you're getting into better than the people who have lived there long enough to get past the initial polite first impression stage. And you will find no one more honest and direct than a tenant who has been waiting for eight months for someone to unclog their shitter. Or someone who had a child in the hospital and was denied a week's leeway in rent.
"Fuck your kid! Have my money by noon, or I'll burn down that whole goddamn hospital!"
I once had an apartment where the landlord paid all the utilities. The guy was super nice in almost every respect. But one winter, I burned something on the stove, so I opened the windows and put a fan in backward to help suck some of that shit out. It got cold pretty quick, but the place still needed a bit of airing, so I bumped up the heat. That's exactly when he drove by and saw the fan in the window and decided to come up and give me a lecture about bills. Even though it was obvious that I didn't spend my days cranking the heat, opening all the windows and doors, and then laughing at his misfortune. "Hahaha! I have discovered your weakness, landlord! Now watch your precious bank account burn under the might of my utility manipulation!" When I told that story to my neighbors who lived in the same building, they all responded, "Ha! Yeah, that's exactly something he'd do."
If I had spoken to them before I moved in, I could have gotten a heads up on how he liked to pop in from time to time to make sure nobody else was living there. Or that nobody was sneaking in pets. Just random inspections disguised as pleasant "How are you?" visits that, though we were all fine with them, would have definitely influenced my decision to give him money.
"Hey there, buddy! Just wondering if you have any illegal narcotics we could do together!"
Now, I understand that not everyone will have the balls to talk to the neighbors, because over the past 20 years, we've become a society that's embraced the attitude of "Don't touch me! Don't look at me! Why are you talking to me?!" But it really is as simple as knocking on someone's door and saying, "Hi, sorry to bother you, but I was considering moving in next door, and I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm Chad Nickelback." Then you casually ask about the landlord and the place.
Not only is it a good way to get information, but if you do decide to move in, it's a great way to pre-emptively get to know your neighbor. Because as perfect as the apartment may be, and as perfect as the landlord may be, if the neighbor answers the door in urine-soaked tighty whiteys and has a gun, it's probably best to just skip this one.
"Would you like to come in for some space coffee? I was just about to whip some fish, if you'd like a whack."
So let's say that all of that turned out great. There are no bugs. No mice. Everyone is shooting rainbows out of their assholes. It's time to sign that lease and move in. No, wait! One more thing ...