In the excitement of moving into a new place, many people forget the gravity of signing a lease, a legal contract that determines what you and your landlord can do in the space during the coming months. It's likely the most important thing you'll autograph this year. Here are some things to remember before and after signing.

In the excitement of moving into a new place, many people forget the gravity of signing a lease, a legal contract that determines what you and your landlord can do in the space during the coming months. It's likely the most important thing you'll autograph this year. Here are some things to remember before and after signing.

Do ...

Take a tour

Always walk through the unit. If your apartment is in a large complex, make sure the landlord shows you the actual space (not a model) to ensure it's in proper condition.

Ask about utilities

Some landlords build utilities into monthly rent. Others pay none. Find out which ones you'll need to pay. Basics include gas, electric, trash pickup, sewer and water. Ask to see copies of old utility bills to find out, for example, how much it costs to heat the place in December.

Take pictures when you move in

Most leases allow for normal wear and tear, one of the vaguest terms on your lease. To ensure you're not charged for anything you didn't do, take photos or video of the space and note its flaws - everything from dirty windows to chipped countertops.

Buy renter's insurance

The landlord's insurance covers damage to the actual structure from fire, weather or other calamities. To protect your possessions from harm or theft, you'll need renter's insurance, which is similar to the policy you have on your car (monthly premium, deductible, etc.).

Don't ...

Ignore the surroundings

Walk by the unit at different times of the day. Determine if the neighborhood is safe and well-lit. Listen for noise from the street, train tracks and nearby tenants.

Make oral agreements

Legal leases can take the form of a chat and a handshake, but it's best to get everything down on paper. If a dispute arises later on, you'll have a better chance of stating your case with a signed document.

Forget the fine print

Leases define what you and your landlord can and can't do during the occupancy period. They often include clauses about when a landlord can enter the property, how many people can live there and if you can sublet it. Have a friend or parent read over the document before you sign it.

Let renewal time slide

Check details about the length of the lease. Some landlords renting to students require current tenants to renew several months before the lease expires in order to line up new occupants for the coming school year. Also, watch out for an automatic-renewal clause - which sets up another yearlong term if you don't give notice before a certain date.

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