The internet is chock full of horror stories about tenants. Landlords have the luxury of running criminal background checks and credit checks on their prospective tenants. What exactly can a tenant do? Very little unfortunately. Being a renter involves good instincts and the ability to walk away from your dream house if alarms go off in your gut.
For the purpose of this post, I have spoken with 25 current and former renters. As a result of their comments (and mine) I have compiled a short list of the top problems we have all faced as renters.
I have attempted to list a possible solution for every problem. Suffice it to say, there are a few things a renter can do to make sure they aren't falling into a year long nightmare.
I can't stress research enough. Let's say you find the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood for a perfect price. You drive past it, peek in the windows, walk around the yard......you can already picture living there! NOT SO FAST.....Let's run down a few of the nightmares (and how they could have been avoided) from landlords before we hire the movers?
The most important thing to take away from this post is this. LISTEN TO YOUR GUT AND COMMON SENSE. Please, please, please don't ever think that just because you love the house or the price or both that all other issues won't matter - because they will matter.
So let's get started.
Problem No. 1 - Intrusion/Security
Will the landlord use their key to come and go as they see fit? With or without notice? With or without you being present?
While I was in college, I rented a house in the country once. My family knew the landlords. I actually went to elementary, Junior High and High School with both of her kids. The house in question was where the landlord's parents lived until their death. Fully furnished they said. Private and quiet they said.
Within a week of moving in, I began to notice things moved when I'd get home from class. I had moved a rocking chair from in front of the TV to in front of a large window. I came home and it was back in its original position. I am left handed so while most folks put their glasses to the right of the sink - I put mine to the left. I came home one day to find all of my dishes had been rearranged in the cabinets.
Then I began missing things. The rocking chair was the first thing to disappear out of the house while I was at school. Then I came home to find every piece of furniture gone from the master bedroom. Not a stick of furniture was left. When I called the landlord, she told me that she had taken the rocking chair because I refused to leave it exactly where her mother liked for it to be. She also informed me that most days as soon as she saw me leave for school, she'd go inside the house to "visit it" and she was angry that I had the nerve to rearrange things. Finally, she couldn't stand my sleeping on her parents bed so she had her son come and take the furniture out while I was gone.......I moved.
I had only lived in the house under a month and had not signed a lease yet this woman tried to sue me in court to make me pay her for a year's worth of rent. I won but she trashed me all over town.
NOTE: If your landlord tries to unjustly sue you - SHOW UP FOR COURT! Tell your side to the Judge. Maybe he'll/she'll rule for the landlord but maybe he/she won't. You'll never know if you don't show up and if you don't show - the Judge will have no choice but to rule in favor of the landlord. At the end of the day the records will show the Landlord won - it won't say why or how.
Before you sign on the dotted line, ask your potential landlord if you can have the locks changed at your expense. If you think about it, there are very few times that a landlord absolutely has to go into the property without you being present - if ever. I can't think of a single reason.
If the house catches on fire while you are away, the fire department isn't going to require a key and a smashed front door is the least of a landlord's worry in this scenario. If something breaks and needs fixing, meet the landlord or his/her crew at the house to let them in. It's not the most convenient thing in the world to have to leave work to go home to meet the plumber or the electrician or the HVAC guy but if privacy and security are concerns then it's something you will have to do.
Most landlords worth their salt, change the locks out between every tenant anyway, so if the landlord didn't and balks at your changing out the locks at your own expense, I'd worry that the previous tenants (or their family) might still have a key to the current lockset. A good landlord shouldn't mind as long as they aren't the ones footing the bill. Another bad sign is multiple keys to multiple locks. That usually means that when the previous tenants moved, the landlord only changed out ONE of the locks....so who has the keys to the other exterior doors??
Chances are if the landlord is okay with this, you're on the right track.
Problem No. 2 - Deposit
It's always best to look at a property before it's been cleaned and painted and then again after the work has been completed. Why? Because if you see the house shortly after the last tenants have moved, you will know how they left it. You won't be dependant upon the landlord's definition of "trashed". You will also know how much work the landlord put into the house to get it ready for the next tenant. Sometimes, this is simply not possible as landlords usually don't even advertise rentals until they're ready to rent but there are ways to tell if the landlord has done a good job of readying the property for the next tenant.
When you look at the "finished" product, be sure to open every drawer/cabinet. Look for crumbs, paper clips or any other object/substance that would prove the drawers/cabinets have not been cleaned. Flip up the lid on the toilet. Recent use? Open the oven - is it clean? Look for clothes hangers in the closets. Run your fingers over the window sills. Look at the condition of the ceiling fans. Then look at the walls. Have they recently been painted? Do you see evidence of dirt/dust, scuff marks or crayon marks near the floor to indicate a child wrote on the walls? If there is carpeting can you see the outline of the old tenant's furniture? If any of the above is present, the landlord didn't put a lot of work into readying the property for a new tenant. Chances are, he/she had someone vacuum, take out any leftover trash, spray some smell good and called it a day. Unless the rent/deposit is outrageously low for this property so as to warrant a less than stellar job from the landlord, I'd walk away.
Always - always - ask the landlord if the previous tenant got or is getting their deposit back. Why? Because if you view the house and it's normal wear and tear yet the landlord tells you the tenant won't be getting their deposit back - then you won't get yours back either. He/she is one of those landlords who takes your deposit and never ever gives it back.
I had a landlord charge me $20.00 per nail hole once. He also charged me $35.00 for dust bunnies that he found in the corner of a closet. He also charged me a "repainting" fee of $150.00. By the time he was done adding up all these charges, I was actually in the hole with him. This was another no lease situation. Never did he tell me that if I put a nail in the wall to hang a picture that each hole would cost me $20.00 or that I would have to pay the cost of repainting the house when I left or that dust bunnies tucked away in the corners of the closet would cost me $35.00 each. I feel he made those up as he went along.
Another issue with deposits is the way a lot of landlords allocate your deposit. Some call it a security deposit and imply it will only be touched if you leave still owing rent. Others call it a damage deposit implying that it will only be touched if you leave without cleaning or leave the property damaged in some way. Still others just use it as they see fit with an apparent goal of not giving any of it back to you no matter what they have to do.
You have an absolute right to get an accounting of how your deposit might be used. You have a right to know if it is strictly for money owed or for damages or for both. You have a right to receive any part of it left back within a state allocated time frame and an itemization of any money not returned to you.
Too many people just shrug their shoulders when they don't get their deposits back and don't pursue the matter. Too many landlords make a substantial bump in their yearly incomes by keeping folks deposits for no good reason.
ALWAYS get a lease. There are lots of landlords out there who only own one rental house or two at the most. They don't always have the education, experience or even the inclination to invest in drafting (or paying someone to draft) up leases. They want to take your deposit, first months rent and give you the keys. NEVER ever allow your money to change hands with anyone without a well written contract passing between the two of you AND A WRITTEN RECEIPT OF ALL MONEY GIVEN TO THE LANDLORD. NEVER. If they don't have a lease for you, it would be well worth your time to draft one yourself based upon your conversations with the landlord and present it for his/her signature. You don't have to know legaleze in order to draft an enforceable contract. All it takes is for you to outline the landlords responsibilities, your responsibilities and to note any penalties to be expected should either of you not live up to those responsibilities. Again, if the landlord is above board - they shouldn't have a problem agreeing in writing to what they've agreed to verbally. If they do? Walk away and take your money with you.
Many many leases are what the legal community call "boiler plate" leases. Meaning they're generic and not specific to that particular landlord and/or his property. If your landlord presents you with one of these, feel free to flip it over and hand write any addendums to cover specifics that you need included. Just make sure that (a) the landlord both initials and dates any addendums signifying they are in agreement and (b) that you remember to get a legible copy of it. In the legal community there is an old saying, "If you don't have a copy - it don't exist".
Years ago, had I been in possession of a signed lease when Mr. Landlord decided to strip me of my deposit for the nail holes and dust bunnies, the entire situation could have been avoided. My bad.
While we're on the topic of documenting conversations and intentions, it might behoove you to consider turning on the recording app on your phone as soon as the landlord gets out of the car and leave it running until he/she has left. Why? Simple. You want proof of exactly what was said, just in case something comes up down the road. This not only protects the potential renter from an unscrupulous landlord but it also is remindful of what YOU said and agreed to as well. Our memories can fail us from time to time. Maybe you thought you asked him/her if you can paint the walls after you move in. You're sure of it. You're equally sure he/she said it was okay. But did you really? Or was it another landlord at another property you visited? If the viewing is recorded, you can simply check...if not and you go ahead and paint only to discover that this landlord doesn't allow tenants to paint....bye bye deposit - and rightfully so.
Problem No. 3 - Expenses
While this one really has nothing to do with the landlord, the topic was consistently brought up in my unofficial survey, so I thought it important enough to include.
Chances are your landlord has never ever actually lived in the house you're viewing. Because they've never lived there, they don't know what the cost of the utilities are. Asking them will only get you a guestimate. You should also be aware that the chances are extremely high that the landlord didn't build the house and has never had cause to open up all the walls so they have no idea as to how well the house is insulated. The rent may be a super good deal but if the heating and/or cooling bills are through the roof, you've actually more than used up any savings in the rent in utility bills.
Call the utility companies one by one and ask them what the average cost was last year. All they need is the address and they will be able to tell you in a matter of seconds what that property cost the previous tenants. Just because the house is small doesn't necessarily mean the monthly utilities bills are. My present house is just under 2,000 square feet. I live alone. My average utility costs per month are in excess of $400. My particular situation was a bit unusual because I don't rent and the house had been empty for nearly 2 years before I bought it so I was unable to get an average cost from the utility companies. But if I had and I was told that my bills would average over $400 a month, I would have withdrawn my offer and gone elsewhere.
Problem No. 4 - bad or no maintenance
I wish I had a dollar for every house I've rented thinking it was awesome only to find out AFTER I'm moved in that it had been poorly maintained. There was the time I moved in the spring only to discover come summer that the AC didn't work or moved during the fall to discover the heating didn't work. There's the time I moved on a Holiday weekend and after sweating all day moving discovered there was no hot water because the water heater was busted. How about the time I moved into a house and as I was setting up my kitchen/breakfast room, had to call the fire department because the electrical outlet sparked fire when I tried to plug my microwave into it. That particular landlord owned a plumbing company. Did he call an electrician out to figure out the problem and fix it? No...he had his plumber's helper come out and fiddle around with it because he thought the young man was "smart enough to figure it out". That was a direct quote from the poor guy who gave up his Sunday to at least try to figure it out. He didn't and an electrician was finally called and showed up A WEEK LATER. I was told that the plug in was not installed properly and further that none of the plug ins located in the back of the house were installed by an actual licensed electrician. In other words, I had rented a fire trap. Sigh.
How about maintaining the roof? A vital area to go over with during your viewing is the roof. Look at every ceiling in the house - including the closets. See water stains? If the landlord has painted the interior, you shouldn't see water stains. Water stains equal leak. They equal mold. They probably equal a hole large enough that a rat, squirrel or (shudder) snake can use to access the interior of your home. Rat and squirrels love to get into your walls. They love to chew on the wiring located in the attic and in your walls. They have caused more fires than pyromaniacs.
While you're checking the roof out, how are the gutters? I am of the opinion that when I move into a house, the gutters should be clean. I should only be responsible for any leaves that slip into the gutters while I live there. Silly me.
One of the people I interviewed for this post told me that once she rented a house located on the side of the mountain in April. That year they had a wet spring. A really really wet spring. The landlord had not cleaned the gutters in so long that they were clogged up with leaves and debris which caused the water to slip beneath the shingles and run down between the walls. Before summer, her house was filled with nasty mold and the ceiling in the downstairs den had collapsed. When she called her landlord to alert him to the problem, his response was that she was responsible for all the damage to his property because she had failed to maintain the gutters properly. He had enough nerve to rant at her because when his roofer climbed up there he reported the gutters were absolutely packed with debris. Since she had only lived there for a few months and during a time when the leaves weren't falling, that indicated to her that this was an ongoing issue with the gutters not having been properly cleaned. She certainly was not about to pay for damage that could have been completely averted had the landlord cleaned them out when the previous tenant moved.
When you view a property, make sure to get in writing what your maintenance responsibilities are and what responsibilities belong strictly to the landlord. Don't second guess. Have it in writing. Gutters fall in that "out of sight out of mind" category. You only think of gutters when they fail. Don't be forced to hire an attorney because you overlooked this piece of the property.
Along the maintenance problems I had many respondents who listed costs in this area. Apparently, there appears to be a current fad of landlords trying to push the costs of them maintaining their properties off on the tenant.
My biggest issue with this (aside from the fact that it REEKS of slumlord) is the fact that if a tenant wanted to pay to fix the AC or roof - they'd buy versus rent. If my kid throws a ball through a window - I'm responsible to fix that window. But if the wiring goes bad, or the AC stops working or the roof leaks or the toilet refuses to flush - that's not my responsibility as a tenant.
One management company here in Birmingham actually requires the tenant to pay a $60 deductible for anything that needs repair. Anything. They also refuse to unclog toilets and/or drains for any reason. This is a new development to me but I seriously doubt that if challenged in a court of law, the landlord would win.
Important: A good landlord will go over an empty rental with a fine toothed comb and make sure that everything works, nothing is leaking, everything is clean BEFORE they even advertise the property for rent. That means turning on all the utilities to make sure the heating/air works, the dishwasher works, the water heater works, there are working light bulbs in all the fixtures, etc. If they aren't willing to do that - walk away.
Problem No. 5 - Gabby Landlords
If you are in a business meeting, you expect all parties to behave professionally. Viewing a rental property is a business meeting. Sure, you might be dressed in jeans and a teeshirt and the landlord might be wearing sneakers but it is still a business meeting. Both of you are there to conduct business.
The 5th most popular complaint that I received about landlords is gossip. Landlords who spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about the previous tenant. Telling a complete stranger (you the viewer) about the previous tenants personal business. Sure, maybe they were evicted. Is that any of your concern? Will it affect the price and/or services you are going to get? Then why even bring it up?
Sharing negative history of a property taints it. Who wants to live in a property that has seen more than its share of problems or where the last few people who lived there had really bad luck? It casts a shadow on the property and makes it less appealing. That's marketing suicide. However, you would be stunned as to the number of landlords who do this.
They want you to know how they've been wronged. Tricked. Hoodwinked. Taken advantage of. For "no good reason". After all their (the landlords) good deeds. I view these landlords in this way. Let's suppose you go out on a date with someone who looks great on the outside and then during the date you discover that he/she has been married 5 times and they then try to lead you to believe that NONE of their divorces were their fault - not one tiny bit. Not a single one of them. Are you going to believe that? I can see 1 divorce not being your fault or maybe even 2 but 5?? Nope. This tells me that you are incapable or unwilling of taking responsibility for your own actions or inactions. Date over.
Same thing applies to landlords who have been horribly wronged through no fault of their own. If a landlord is going to gossip with you about another tenant, you can bet money that they're going to gossip about you to other tenants.
Maybe the previous tenants trashed the property and the landlord is justifiably angry over that. But you don't know the whole story and you're never going to get it from this landlord. True story or not - it's none of your business and you shouldn't be hearing about it.
I have worked in property management for a number of years. I have personally witnessed a tenant who was so full of frustration and anger over the actions of her slumlord that she forced the landlord to evict her so she could get enough time under her belt (without paying rent) to save up her "move money". She knew she wasn't getting a nickel of her enormous deposit back, so what did she do? She trashed the house. She left every little thing that she wasn't going to move. She didn't clean ANYTHING. She allowed her two small children to color on the walls at their pleasure. She didn't mow the yard or clean out the garage. It wasn't a mature, professional or really even a smart thing to do and while I certainly don't condone her actions, I can empathize with someone who has gotten to a point where this seemed like the only justice she would ever get out of the situation.
In conclusion, unless and until the powers that be enable tenants to run background and credit checks on their potential landlords - which we all know will never happen - the only thing we can do to keep us, our personal possessions and our money safe, is to research as much as possible and to trust our gut.
Always remember, if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.