When you rent a new apartment or residence, there are some steps you can take before you sign the lease in order to help ensure that you have a good landlord and to help avoid problems when you move out. A bit of care up front can help make for a much better landlord-tenant relationship, and help avoid conflicts over your security deposit when you move out.
While to some degree the extent to which an apartment complex is maintained is obvious from the condition of the buildings and grounds, even a nice apartment complex can be unpleasant if you end up with a bad landlord. And even if the complex you are considering is a bit weathered, a good, responsive landlord can make it a pleasant place to live. With knowledge of your rights and a few preventative steps, you can provide yourself with some protections and assurances about your new tenancy.
Before you sign a lease, you should inspect the actual apartment or unit that you will be renting. Please note that it is not enough to see what the landlord claims is a comparable unit, or an apartment with an identical floor plan - landlords will typically use only well-maintaned units as models, and there is no guarantee that your unit will be in a comparable condition. The purpose of the inspection is to identify any problems with the unit before you sign your lease, so that any major problems can be fixed before you move in, and so that your landlord cannot (either by accident or by intent) attempt to charge you for pre-existing defects when you eventually move out.
If you see any problems with the apartment, bring them to the attention of the landlord or apartment manager. If problems cannot be fixed before you move in, you may wish to get a written confirmation as to when the repairs will be made. You should also have the landlord provide some form of written confirmation that the problems existed before you moved in. If the landlord will not provide such confirmation, make a list yourself, and have it signed and dated by your landlord or the landlord's agent and attached to your lease. Keep a copy of the signed document for your records. Please note that you should not accept mere promises - get it in writing.
It is possible that your prospective landlord will not only fail to provide written confirmation of pre-existing problems, but will refuse to accept the list you prepared. This should inspire you to question the landlord's motives - if the landlord doesn't intend to try to charge you for the pre-existing problems, why won't the landlord acknowledge them? Obviously, you don't want to rent from a landlord who intends to charge you for problems with your unit for which you are not responsible.
In some jurisdictions, the landlord is required to give you a form on which you will record any defects in the apartment, and which you will then return to the landlord. The landlord will complete a similar form when you move out. The purpose of this requirement is to help ensure that you will only be charged for damages which you actually caused to your rental unit. Many tenants neglect to complete and return the initial form, and thus lose the benefit of this legal protection.
It may be possible for you to speak with other tenants about their experiences with the landlord. Similarly, if the apartment you are moving into is still occupied, you may be able to speak with the outgoing tenant. Obviously, it is best to do this in private, as opposed to when the landlord or the landlord's employees may be listening. This may provide you with insight into whether the landlord is responsive to problems, whether the premises are well-maintained, and whether there are issues (such as noise from other tenants, a nearby airport, or a rail line, or frequent car break-ins in the parking lot) which you might not observe during a visit.
Given that the legal protections extended to tenants can vary significantly from state to state, you may wish to see if there is a local tenant's organization or tenant's union which can provide you with information about local laws and policies. If you are in a jurisdiction with limited protections for residential tenants, you may wish to ensure that there are adequate protections in your lease to assure you that your unit and any common areas will be properly maintained by the landlord. If you live in an area with few protections, in a worst-case scenario a bad lease can leave you committed to paying rent on housing that you find unlivable.