How to Spot a Shady Landlord (Before It’s Too Late)

How to Spot a Shady Landlord (Before It’s Too Late)
Photo: dc_slim, Shutterstock

With the new year comes a slew of freshly signed leases. No matter the market conditions, there’s always a risk that the person selling and maintaining your apartment is, to use an industry term, a “total skeeve ball.” (Some of us would argue that the phrase “shady landlord” is redundant.) The reality of being a tenant is that you must be constantly vigilant, or else risk getting ripped off.

Let’s say you’ve seen the place and met your potential future landlord in person, and that the vibes are slightly off, even if you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong. We’ve covered how to vet your landlord, and now we’ll go into some of the signs that vetting them is something you’ll need to do — ideally, before you sign that lease. So, if you’re moving into a new place in the new year, avoid these pitfalls of a potentially sketchy situation.

A non-refundable deposit

According to Brabender Law in Chicago, historically one of the most common rental scams has been landlords wrongfully keeping tenants’ security deposits. A non-refundable deposit is cause for alarm. Sometimes what should be a security deposit might be reframed as a non-refundable move-in fee, which is also a scam. Here’s how to make sure you get your security deposit back.

Insistence on cash

With all the different forms of money transfer out there, an insistence on cash just screams “scam” these days. As this fraud guide details, you should never be pressured into paying your landlord with virtually impossible-to-trace cash. Opt for payment methods that can be traced to both your bank account and to the person who cashed it in, like with a classic check. Here’s our breakdown of different online payment services.

They won’t answer your questions

Are utilities included in rent? When can you expect the security deposit to be returned once you vacate the property? When is rent due, and how will you need to pay? If your prospective landlord is unable — or unwilling — to answer your questions, there’s cause for concern. At the very best, they’re disorganized. At the worst, they’re hiding unsavoury information.

In addition to those sample questions above, here are specific questions to ask your landlord that they’ll rarely come right out and tell you.

A hostile attitude

If they’re overly aggressive or blatantly inattentive during the signing process, be prepared for that sort of behaviour down the road. This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, but it is certainly cause for concern when you inevitably need to communicate with your landlord about the property while you live there.

Similarly, any attempt by a landlord to be anonymous should be seen as a red-flag. Even if their practices are above-board, this is still a sign that they’ll be hard to reach if repairs are needed.

Impossibly low rent

Especially when matched with an expensive deposit, rent that seems too good to be true might be just that. Rents that look like a dream could instead be a scam, in which case, here are our tips to avoid falling prey to misleading listings.

The property is in disrepair

A little wear and tear is expected when people are moving in and out of units. You might think you’ll be attuned to a property’s poor condition, but keep in mind that in the moment, your judgment could get clouded by sheer optimism or a desire to have the whole process over with. Maintenance issues are the top reason you’ll have to work with your landlord going forward. If your landlord doesn’t put effort into the property while trying to sell it to you, don’t expect them to be helpful after you move in.

Refusing to show the certificate of occupancy

This tip comes from MYMOVE: In some areas, local laws require a landlord to have a certificate of occupancy, which is a document that proves a building is in compliance with all building codes and applicable laws and is suitable for occupancy.

First, call the local building department and find out whether your landlord is legally required to have that certificate. Then, ask the landlord to show you proof of the document. Once you have that information, ask the landlord to show you the document. If they don’t want to show it to you, then something might be off.

That nagging feeling

Unfortunately, the long list of landlord red flags doesn’t run out here. As a renter, you’ll need to be ever-vigilant. Many things that are clear scams to some people are only ambiguously sketchy to the rest of us, like a landlord charging a fee to view the apartment, trying to charge extra for roommates, or promising to send a copy of the lease later on.

Landlords like to apply a sense of urgency to get you to sign a lease, but don’t be afraid to take time to research anything that gives you bad vibes. Check out these apps and sites to protect you from a bad landlord. Finally, if your landlord checks out, don’t forget to negotiate these things before signing a lease.

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