We've all heard the standard apartment-renting advice: Test all the faucets, windows, and appliances. Visit the neighbourhood multiple times over several days, at different times of day, so you can gauge the noise level. Hang out in the lobby and ask current tenants if they like living there.
I don't know about you, but I find a lot of that advice unrealistic. I've rented eight different apartments over the past ten years, including one that I rented sight-unseen, and none of the rental processes included enough time for me to return to the neighbourhood over a period of days, much less sit in the lobby and interview tenants.
In many cases, I had to decide whether I wanted the apartment after a five-minute showing - if I didn't say yes right then, they'd rent it to the next person who did.
So I developed a list of questions to ask during that 5-minute showing to get all of the answers I would be looking for during a longer visit. I used many of these questions during my most recent apartment hunt, and they worked exactly as designed: I got the landlords/property managers to share all kinds of information about tenants, maintenance, bugs, and more.
How long have you been managing this building?
This is a great opening question for two reasons:
- It gives you and the landlord/property manager something to talk about on the walk from the leasing office (or apartment front door) to the unit.
- If you remain silent when the landlord/property manager finishes talking, they will likely start talking again to fill the space — and what they say might be very interesting. ("This unit's been empty for a while because...")
Consider this question the equivalent of a job interview's "tell me about yourself" - except this time, you're the interviewer. Like the "tell me about yourself" question, you can learn a lot from the way the other person responds: are they enthusiastic? Pessimistic? Critical? Evasive?
Are most tenants here long-term?
This question is less about the amount of turnover the apartment gets than the types of people who live in the apartment. Are they mostly students? Young professionals? Families? Senior citizens?
This is also another good way to gauge the landlord's personality. "We've got some great tenants who've been here for years" is very different from "Some people, I think they will never leave!"
This is a pet-friendly building, right?
This is another open-ended question that will give you a lot of information if you just listen. A property manager may tell you that some tenants' pets are noisy, for example, or may complain about people who don't pick up after their dogs. Maybe your landlord will talk about the one tenant who lets their cat run up and down the hallways.
Whatever they say about pets, make sure it's OK with you.
Which utilities am I responsible for, and how much do they usually cost per month?
Nearly all landlords will be able to tell you which utilities are their responsibility and which ones are yours. Not all landlords will know how much their tenants are paying out of pocket for their electric bills, though - and that's a potential red flag.
A good landlord/property manager will understand that you want to know the true cost of living in an apartment, and have utility cost ranges at the ready. If your potential landlord doesn't have that information - or worse, says something like "I never thought about it" - you'll know that this person doesn't spend a lot of time considering their tenants' day-to-day experiences.
Let's say the sink starts dripping. How does maintenance work?
You can turn the faucets on and off all you want, but what you really want to know is what happens when the faucets stop working.
All landlords/property managers will have some kind of maintenance setup, but there's a big difference between "We've got this guy named Bob, call him and he'll get back to you" and "We like to get most problems fixed within 24 hours. Call this number/fill out this online form and we'll have someone on our maintenance staff take a look right away."
I know we're in a [wooded area] [old building]. What kinds of insects should I be aware of?
We all know that communal living occasionally comes with bugs, but you don't want to ask, "So... does this place have a roach problem?"
Framing the question by acknowledging that you understand that apartments sometimes have insects is a good way to build empathy with a landlord/property manager, who will in turn be more open about the insects the apartment may or may not have.
How do trash and recycling work? What about compost?
Some apartment complexes make it very easy for you to dispose of your trash and recyclables. Others make it very difficult. Are the dumpsters, recycling bins and compost bins located near your building, or will you be carrying your trash bags to another part of the apartment complex?
How does parking work?
This is like the trash/recycling question. You're trying to figure out whether you'll have to park half a mile from the building, or whether you'll be parking close by. (Bonus points if the landlord takes the time to show you where tenants park. Most don't.)
What happens when tenants receive packages in the mail?
If you're the kind of person who orders a lot of stuff online, you want to make sure that your packages are both secure and accessible. Are you going to have to pick up your packages from an office that is only open during business hours? Do all packages get left in a big pile under the mailboxes for tenants to sort through? There's no perfect solution to the package situation, but make sure you're happy with the solution that's presented.
If you have additional questions that are important to your apartment hunt, add them to your must-ask list. Try to frame them as open-ended questions, and give the landlord the opportunity to keep talking. That way, you'll find out everything you need to know.