Ask LH: What Should I Know As A First-Time Renter?

Ask LH: What Should I Know As A First-Time Renter?

Hi Lifehacker, I’m about to move out of my parent’s house and start renting my first property by myself. Is there anything I should know about renting before I move in? Thanks, New Renter

Beautiful renter picture from Shutterstock

Dear New Renter,

Moving into a new house or apartment is always a bit of a gamble. There are some things a property inspection won’t reveal. Is the property sufficiently insulated from the heat and cold? Is the rent reasonable when compared to similar properties in the area? Are the neighbours overly rowdy? These are all questions that are best answered before you move in.

Your decision to live by yourself is a good one. Most rental horror stories come down to incompatible and/or awful housemates. I had a friend whose housemate was such a deranged control-freak that he was forced to pack up his boxes and flee in the middle of the night. So well done on that score.

Checking the median rent for your area should be easy enough: simply peruse the local rental listings to see if the property you have your eye on is reasonably priced. Bear in mind that the age and size of the property, the condition of its facilities and its proximity to the nearest city centre will all factor into the asking price.

There are plenty of review sites and mobile apps available which are designed to assist rental property hunters. For example, Dontwakeme is an anonymous crowdsourcing website that collects noise complaint data from the general public. Type in the area code for the property you’re interest in and the site will give you a noise rating, complete with individual reviews.

If you’re dealing directly with a landlord (rather than through a real estate agent) make sure you’ve had extensive talks with them and come prepared with plenty of questions: the more you know about their expectations in a tenant, the less likely that strife will occur in the future.

Other things to be mindful of are long term leases (it’s best to avoid these to begin with just in case everything doesn’t work out), mobile reception (how reliable is it the the area?) and working out an internet and phone line connection.

Once you’ve decided on a property, the first thing to do is document the state of absolutely everything. Landlords can be extremely picky about the smallest of details when you move out and may attempt to withhold a portion of your bond. As soon as you move in, make a list of everything that isn’t perfect — including minor stains, cracks and rust marks. Also be sure to take photos with a digital camera so you have supporting evidence. (This is doubly important if you’re renting a furnished property.)

If you identify any serious problems, such as a jammed window or non-working oven, report the issue immediately and ask for it to be fixed. The costs of essential repairs will be a tax deduction for the owner, so don’t feel like you need to live with faulty issues just to keep the peace.

It’s also a good idea to familiarise yourself with the tenants’ service in your area in case anything goes wrong. These organisations can help during disputes with landlords and inform you of your legal rights, which vary from state to state.

You can find links to the relevant departments in each state, as well as the tenants’ unions organisations below:

It’s also worth noting that making alterations to a rental property is usually forbidden without the express consent of the landlord. This means you’re stuck with the wallpaper and fixtures that are already in place.

That said, if you’re desperate to spruce up your new home’s aesthetics, there are various DIY hacks you can employ that wont void your tenancy agreement. You can read a bunch of suggestions in our rental property customisation guide which covers everything from standing shelves to vinyl wall stickers.

The main thing is to be 100 per cent sure you want to move in before you sign the lease. As with most things in life, it pays to do as much research as possible before you commit. Remember — once the lease has been signed by both parties, everything that was on it becomes a legally binding contract, so choose wisely!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Check the hot water pressure in the shower. I made that mistake once.

    Related: check the size of the hot water unit. Good pressure doesn’t help if it doesn’t last very long.

    • Low pressure shower heads are easy enough to fix — just swap it over for another. (Some states now have a “low flow” law where the landlord is required to install low pressure shower heads to help with water preservation — good thing you don’t need to be a plumber to install your own.)

      • Oh no my issue wasn’t the shower head, I was dealing with a gravity fed hot water system in the roof. No amount of changing shower heads is going to give you a decent shower out of one of those.

        • yep i agree, just moved form a place that had gravity feed hot water hell, we checked the pressure before moving to a new place, nearly signed a lease for one place but didn’t because of a gravity feed service.

      • Remove the low flow washer in the shower head. Be careful not to cause any damage as you will be liable for damages doing this lifehack. Due to current tenancy laws in NSW the landlord is required to have these washers installed before you move in.

  • I’ll reinforce the advice on doing an anally retentive assessment of the state of the place before moving in. This includes checking hidden areas like inside cupboards and under surfaces. Don’t forget the outside too as tenants are usually liable for keeping the garden/yard in reasonable order.

    Any marks or defects of any kind should be recorded on hardcopy as well as with a digital photos. Most state tenancy agencies will have some kind of proforma which also acts as a useful aide-memoire for things to check.

    The best way to do this is to inspect the property with the landlord or agent and go through it together, recording everything in their presence. That will make it much harder for them to argue against you later on if you have both seen and signed the same document on the same day.

    Most importantly, do your own checks. Don’t just take the landlord or agent’s word for anything. And never sign a pre-filled inspection form.

  • I learnt the hard way: take pictures of every inch of the house before you move in. Also, make sure they’re date stamped.

    • Every inch. House, garden and any shared areas (letterbox? fences? wheelie bins? verge?), Date stamped. Give the agency a copy (either on DVD or on thumbdrive). Get confirmation in writing that they received their copy of the photos. Being able to say ‘refer to photo x’ will save you a lot of trouble down the road.

      Relatedly, if you want something done, always get confirmation from them via email or letter and push them for set deadlines. Some agents love to do everything over the phone, but having an email saying they’ll fix your plumbing within the week can be very useful.

      And on a completely different tack: If you want to make some changes to the property yourself, ask. The agents will usually say no, but some owners will be fine with you putting in free labour to fix up the garden or repaint a few rooms.

  • My last rented place, the landlords were of eastern European background, they kept coming around helping themselves to the garage with their stuff in it, and would not be swayed by the fact they are required to give notice. Also a lot of the curtains didn’t work. There was also no TV antenna (or socket for one, what i though was one at initial inspection was a satellite tv socket) and they had no intention of paying for one. Also we were under the impression there was no time limit on staying there, after a year they wanted to move back in and we had to move out (got notice while on our honeymoon).

    My current place has asshole neighbors, after 5 calls to the police and a sternly worded letter, i lodged a complaint with the council via their website (120db music at 5am was the clincher there), the next day i got a call from the council saying they have talked to them and after that no more loud music, now the assholes just have really loud discussions i can hear in every room of the house, not every night but multiple times a week. The floorboards also creak a lot, something i didn’t notice before moving in.

    I wish i checked the TV connection, Rental Duration, Curtains, Floor board stress test (for noise), and at least attempted to see what the neighbor noise was like at 9pm on a friday/saturday.

  • Agree to everything above. Simple few rules to make understanding the rental game easier:

    1) you are the product. not the client. you dont pay them their fees. you just pay for the rent.
    2) their property manager has a stupid amount of properties to manage. so the easiest answer is ‘NO’. Keep pushing, and ask for an written response from the landlord.
    3) Check for strata rules. You will be surprised what properties are now covered under strata, and dumb ass rules they have in play, including when and what you can do in and around your property.
    4) Never believe anything the real estate says. Verify every single detail yourself.
    5) Document the house from top to bottom, print it out onto A4 sheets in colour. Get them to sign off on the photos.
    5b) Otherwise you will be left with a repair bill….that will nicely line the real estates pockets.
    6) you have rights as a tenant…and if you need to go to tribunal, then the more evidence you have, the better it is for you. its up to you to prove everything.

  • I would say: Never go private rental!
    We rented a property for 12 months through the landlord directly, he seemed fine at the start but as soon as we moved in it went down hill from there. some of the issues we had:

    – The house had to be cleaned before we moved in. Not originally agreed upon
    – Changed the agreed value of rent three times before we settled on a price ($50 more than original rent)
    – Tried to charge us a separate bond for the pool (which would put our total bond over the allowable limit set by the RTA)
    – He said he will fix a leaky tap downstairs the following week, that never happened
    – He kept the garage to himself, had it locked up and would visit whenever he felt like it
    – Made it a big deal of anything needed to be repaired or looked at.
    – A few other nit-picky things

    the kicker was when we moved out. We saw him about a week before we left, we asked him what he wanted us to do with the garden and pool area. He said it was fine just and just a normal mow would be ok. so we did and thoroughly cleaned the house and we move out. The following week. we get a call from him saying the garden and yard was “a complete mess” and had to get a professional in, costing him over $2,000! And he also tried to charge us to repair the leaky tap, they he said he would fix! Plus a few items in the pool area (oh yeah, the pump died because it wasn’t housed in a shed open to the elements, but that was our fault too). we couldn’t fix the garden because he has already hired to guys to do it and provided a receipt from Jims mowing.

    In the end we agreed for him to take our bond plus $100 more, which was bullshit. Turned out he never submitted the bond to the RTA and kept it (presumed spent it) himself. We could of went to the RTA get him fined to the hills, but at the time it had caused too much emotional stress on my wife and sister-in-law (we were living my sister-in-law and her Husband as well) so we left it be and erased him from our memory.

    I wish I could go back and charge him for all the shit he put us through, it’s been 3 years ago now so I’m probably too late.

    In hindsight, we should of got everything in writing and made sure he submitted the bond, but we could of avoided everything if we went through a real estate agent.

  • Property owners will talk about the “tenant from hell”. I’ve been a model tenant all my renting life (too long!!) and I am here to say, regardless of whether you go private, or through an agent, you can get the “landlord”/agent from hell too. Fortunately it hasn’t happened to me too much. I am talking about people who are genuine psychos. You cannot reason with them. My advice is: if you MUST rent, get to know the people you will be dealing with, and pay attention to your gut feelings. Scott Pape (the Barefoot Investor) has just written a great article on renting which I think every renter should read. Secondly, if you CAN stay with your parents and scrape together a deposit, BUY. Don’t let the permanency and quality of your housing and peace of mind rely on someone else. That said, I’ve been renting privately for the last 7 years and had a very harmonious relationship with the property owner, despite almost no paperwork in the beginning. I’m lucky this time.

  • Moving to stay by your own independent self is definitely not an easy phase to have to go through. You have to be fully ready and prepared both mentally and financially, on top of being physically able to move your things out for good. It is best to seek advices from professionals in the property field and to ask friends and family for a helping hand while at it.

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