Ask These Questions Before Signing Your Lease to Save Money and the Environment

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Asking Questions

When shopping for your dream apartment, creating a budget is a critical step. Usually, all of us know exactly how much we are able to pay in rent each month, so we look for a place that fits nicely within that price range. After moving in, however, we realize that rent is far from the only expense. Many buildings require their tenants to pay for their own electricity, gas, water, and trash on top of monthly rent, and those additional costs can add up quickly. Unfortunately, energy costs are not always easy to determine in advance. Try asking these questions to prospective landlords to get a better idea of how much you can expect your utility bills to run you.

“Who Pays?”

Some leases factor utility costs into each tenant’s monthly rent. In these cases, the landlord takes responsibility for paying all of their tenants’ utilities. Other agreements will cover trash and water but leave electricity, gas, and cable up to you. In some cases, you might even be responsible for paying all of your utilities. If a landlord agrees to cover all of your utilities, you can probably afford a place with much higher rent. If they’re all up to you, on the other hand, you’ll find it helpful to learn a little more about the place and its construction when creating your budget.

“What Appliances are Included? How Efficient are They?”

Will your unit come with a washer/dryer? Is the fridge included? Be sure to take note of the appliances you’ll be getting with the unit and the ones you’ll need to provide yourself. Trips to the laundromat are more expensive than using an on-site washer and dryer, but buying your own machines costs even more.

As soon as you know what appliances you’ll be getting with the unit, check out how much it will cost you to run them. All recently-sold appliances are legally required to have a big yellow sticker on them that details their anticipated annual energy consumption. These stickers will provide you with a great start when deciding if you’re going to be using on-site appliances or not. If any of them bear the ENERGY STAR logo, you’re in luck. These appliances are guaranteed to cost less to run than others.

“What Kind of Heating and Cooling Systems Does the Building Have?”

Central air conditioning is often the single biggest contributor to home electricity bills. In some climates, swamp coolers (also called evaporative coolers) work just as well for a fraction of cost. Attic fans are another cheap option to consider in dry climates. There are even some ceiling fans out there that can adequately cool your space without stretching your budget.

When it gets cold, is your apartment going to be heated with electric baseboard heaters? A gas furnace? A boiler system? In most areas, electric baseboard heating is the most expensive option, so count on a higher bill if your unit has been equipped with that instead of a gas furnace.

“Who Controls the Thermostat?”

Adjusting the Thermostat

Will you have a thermostat in your apartment, or does someone else control the temperature for the whole building? This is a huge comfort (top floors might be scorching while the bottom floors freeze on a single control) and money issue. If you have an individual thermostat control, you can choose to set it back when you are away from home or sleeping — an option that can save you as much as 10 percent on energy bills.

“Has the Building Been Insulated?”

The type of insulation in your walls makes a huge difference when it comes to your personal comfort. Without insulation, a home can quickly start to feel like the outside: hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Good insulation will keep the heat in during winter months and keep the extreme version of it out in the summer. In 2006, building codes changed significantly and began requiring new structures to be lined with better insulation. For this reason, anything built before that time is definitely worth asking about. More insulation means lower energy bills and a much more agreeable home environment.

“Is it ENERGY STAR Home or LEED-Certified?”

If a prospective landlord claims that their building is ENERGY STAR Home or LEED-certified, ask to see a copy of the documentation to be sure. ENERGY STAR and LEED are national agencies that award constructions different certifications based on their level of energy-efficiency. Apartment complexes that bear one of these certifications will likely yield lower utility bills and more comfort than other buildings, though utility bills in a brand new 5,000-square-foot ENERGY STAR Home-certified apartment are still likely to be higher than those in an old 500-square-foot studio.

Even if the apartment isn’t certified, it’s great to ask this question to let the property manager know that energy-efficiency is something that you care about and that more homes should work toward earning these distinctions.

“Am I Allowed to Make Minor Energy-Saving Improvements?”

There are several small improvements you can make to a unit that will more than pay for themselves in energy savings over the course of a one or two-year lease. Consider adding a thin line of caulking around door and window frames, swapping showerheads out for water-conscious varieties, insulating the water heater pipes, using ENERGY STAR-certified LED light bulbs, and opting for an energy-efficient toilet. Ask the landlord if you will be allowed to make these kinds of changes on your own once you’ve moved into the apartment. If they seem hesitant, explain to them that these alternatives will probably end up upping the unit’s value in the long run.

Look for the Building’s Energy Use History

Some utility providers will allow you to obtain information about a particular building’s energy use over the last year. To do this, simply share the building’s address on the provider’s website or over-the-phone with a customer service representative. This information will help you calculate approximate utility costs, though different people use different amounts of energy, so don’t expect the past to tell you exactly how much you’ll have to pay in the future.

Taking these questions into your meetings with prospective landlords can help you save a little money, be more financially prepared, and choose the best apartment for your needs.

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