You finally found The One! After doing the virtual legwork to search for an apartment, you’re ready to take the plunge and sign on the dotted line. But how do you sign a lease on an apartment that you’ve yet to see in person?
“The virtual leasing process doesn’t need to be all that different than if you were able to tour it in person,” says Laurence Jankelow, co-founder and chief operating officer of Avail, an online rental management service.
“Once the virtual showing has been done through Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts, the rest can be done online as well,” he says.
Online applications, credit checks, and deposit payments can make the process of leasing an apartment easier for both renters and landlords or property managers. Even if shelter-in-place orders are keeping you from touring an apartment firsthand, here’s how signing a lease from home would work.
Pre-pandemic, some landlords or property managers may have been slow to embrace technology, but the new normal has forced them to get up to speed. This means leases can be sent to you by email, signed by you, scanned or photographed, and emailed back. You also may have the option of mailing your signed lease.
Some landlords will ask tenants to sign a document stating that they understand the risk of renting an apartment sight unseen, to avoid liability in case the tenant is disappointed in the actual apartment. Experts recommend tenants read the lease carefully and not rush to sign until they are satisfied that all of their questions have been answered.
“Renters should be cautious of any hidden fees above and beyond rent. Some buildings have additional charges for amenities like gym, pool, and parking,” says Liz Goldman with William Raveis Real Estate in Connecticut.
Goldman advises tenants, if not using a real estate agent, to consult an attorney before signing if they don’t understand the terms of the lease. Be sure to keep a copy of all the paperwork that you and the landlord sign as they are official documents.
Rental property website
Many apartment complexes offer the option of signing the lease through the property’s website. But before signing the lease, experts recommend that tenants know the exact location of the apartment being rented and to ask to see it, rather than just a model.
“They are entering in a legally binding contract, so they need to make sure they are comfortable with everything outlined in the lease,” says Adam Goldfarb, chief operating officer at Manco Abbott Real Estate Management and president-elect for the California Apartment Association’s board of directors.
Once you decide to rent the apartment, you can visit the property’s website to begin the process to sign the lease.
For example, at one of Goldfarb’s properties, tenants would go through their general leasing procedures by logging on to the portal, filling out an electronic application, and uploading necessary documents that the on-site staff would review. Then the staff would process the application and schedule the move-in.
“At time of move-in, we would need to verify that our future resident is the person that applied, given the ID that was uploaded,” says Goldfarb.
Digital signature software
Under the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act of 2000, digital signatures are legally binding, just like written signatures. Digital signatures allow tenants to sign leases no matter where they are located. Any updates on changes are automatically sent to both parties.
“Digital leases that are state-specific automatically update based on real-time changes to the laws, and can be signed digitally, doing away with the process of printing and faxing documents—or the need to sign a lease in person amid the pandemic,” says Jankelow.
He says the largest risk isn’t the online process of leasing, but rather fraudulent landlords who don’t really manage or own the property. He says renters need to be certain that they’re talking to the real landlord before they sign a lease or pay any money.
“When it comes time to pay the first month’s rent or deposit, never, ever wire money. Wires are nonreturnable. Instead, paying with ACH or credit card, or through a secure, online platform for landlords, is probably the best option,” says Jankelow.
Some common and secure online tools renters use to pay rent and deposits include Yardi, Buildium, AppFolio, and Avail.
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