Renting an apartment can be an easy and pleasant experience or a living hell, and both outcomes generally depend on whether or not you have a good landlord. Here's one landlord's advice on avoiding common pitfalls and renting intelligently.
Photo by ProjectPlaid
My dad made a living as a landlord for many years and, when I started renting, he had plenty of advice. I sat down with him to put together the most important things to know and to do when checking out a new place to live. While my dad was a good and honest landlord, many are not. Here are his tips for renting wisely, avoiding bad landlords and apartments, and how to protect yourself when a bad situation is unavoidable.
If You Want to Pay Less, Ask
Rent isn't necessarily negotiable, but many landlords are willing to compromise on price. While lowering the official rent price can be the most difficult, sometimes you can negotiate other means of decreasing what you have to pay. For example, if you have a pet you can ask for additional pet rent costs to be waived. If you need an extra parking spot, that's something else you can ask for as a way you can save a little money. If you want a discount specifically on the rent, however, you may be more successful if you agree to extend the length of the lease. Most leases last 12 months, but by agreeing to a 13th month you're giving the landlord assurance that s/he'll be receiving rent for an extra month. Just like you can with mobile phone contracts, you can sometimes get a better price by agreeing to a longer term.
Talk to Existing Tenants
While this may seem a little intimidating, if you want to get a good idea of what it's like to live in a particular apartment building you need to speak to people that already live there. Gathering a few experiences can be really helpful in getting a clear picture of what living there will be like for you. While you'll undoubtedly have a few questions of your own, the most important general questions you can ask are the following:
- Do you enjoy living here? Is it a good place to live?
- How does the landlord respond to maintenance requests?
- How does the landlord respond when there's a problem?
- Are there noise issues?
- Is there anything unusual I should be aware of?
If you're concerned about interrupting people by going door to door or are just feeling a little shy, one alternative is to leave a note under a few doors or in a few mailboxes. Leave your name, number and/or email address, and let them know that you're thinking about renting in their building and want to ask them a few questions. Not everyone will respond, but if you leave a few notes you should be able to get at least one person to contact you.
Get Everything in Writing
If anything is ever unclear, make sure it's clarified in writing and becomes part of your lease. If something in the lease seems wrong, ask for it to be amended. If there are circumstances that you feel should allow you to break your lease, make sure that becomes part of your lease before you sign it. If at any point you consider that something should be in writing, put it in writing.
After you sign your lease, it's best to keep your correspondance in writing as much as possible. When you don't have correspondance in writing, keep a log of any other communication so you can refer back to it if there's a problem. Remember, renting an apartment is a contractual, business relationship and so you need to treat it like one.
Document Your Move-in with Photos
Often times your landlord will take photos before you move in and after you move out in order to document anything in the apartment. You should do the same thing. Before you move in and sign the lease, it's also best if you can get a tour and take photos as well. Concentrate on any issues in the apartment, such as damage or other problems. Ask to have these issues fixed before you sign the lease and do not sign until these issues are dealt with. If a landlord doesn't get around to fixing any move-in issues before the lease signing, it's a good sign that s/he'll be slow to fix any issues after you move in as well.
Know Your Rights
Tenants rights handbooks for your area are almost always available online. Do a search for "tenant rights handbook" plus the name of your state. It's generally not too long and written for the average person so you can get through it pretty quickly. It's the best way to know your rights when renting so you don't make any avoidable mistakes during the process. Additionally, do a little research on your legal aid options. Should a renting situation turn to the worst, your county may provide legal aid services to help you get legal advice or even defend yourself should the issue take you to court. Knowing your options ahead of time and who to call in the event of a problem can make a very stressful situation much easier.
Renting an apartment is a business relationship between the tenant and the landlord, so it stands the reason that the tenant can the problem as well. If you want to be a good tenant, you need to do more than pay your rent on time. In fact, in many cases, honesty and care can go much farther than timeliness. If you're going to have trouble paying your rent one month or have some sort of problem, you will almost always be better served by being honest with your landlord. If you lie you'll most likely get caught, but what's worse is you'll lose your landlord's trust. If you want your landlord's help when you have a problem you're more likely to get it if there's trust, and trust comes from being honest. Additionally, take care of the unit you're renting. If you accidentally damage anything, own up to it. When you move out, restore the unit to the way it looked (or better) than when you moved in. (This is where taking pictures helps, too.) In general, if you're good, honest, and treat the rental property with respect, you'll be in a much better position to get help or be on higher ground if there's a problem.
Got any great apartment rental tips of your own? Let's hear 'em in the comments!