Red flags to watch for when apartment hunting

When you’re looking for a place to rent, it’s easy to get pretty excited about a place based on an online listing. You see the photos on Craigslist or Zillow and it looks cute. Maybe it has a big bathroom, a gorgeous backyard, or a fireplace. Something catches your eye though, and you’re excited to go see it in person.

It’s really important to not get too excited and to rush the decision. I’ve been there before, and then I was stuck in a 12-month lease. So I thought I would share my advice for things to ask the landlord when looking at a potential apartment or home to rent, as well as things to look for yourself when touring the place.

red flags to watch out for when apartment hunting or finding a rental home or duplex

Watch ceiling for waters stains. If the roof is bad and leaks, there will likely be stains visible on the ceiling. If you see them, ask about them! If they claim they are old and the roof has since been replaced, consider that it may not be true. Are you open to living in a place with a leaking roof? If not, ask if they will add a line to the lease that says the roof does not leak, so you can break the lease if it does in fact leak.
Sniff near tub and sinks for a mildewy smell. We’ve had leaky faucets and under-sink pipes multiple times in rentals. It’s common for renters to not think to open the cupboards and look under the sink but it’s smart to. Inhale deeply to see if you can smell anything that is of. Even turn the faucets on.
Ask about lawn care, snow removal, utilities, garbage removal – are those included in rent? This one seems a bit more obvious but it will vary from place to place. If you don’t have a lawnmower, it will be very important to make sure you aren’t responsible for mowing the lawn!
Check to see if lease would be canceled if they sold the place. I had a friend who was only 3 months into her 12-month lease when the owner sold the place. Her lease had a clause in it that said if the property sold, the lease would be void. She had 30 days to move!
If it is a duplex ask how lawn care, snow removal, are any utilities are shared? It’s important to know whether there is a plan in place for how to handle any shared responsibilities. For example, if snow removal is required by tenants and it’s a duplex, do you swap weeks, or just do your own half of the drive? If your neighbors move out, will you then be responsible for the whole job, or will the landlord take on the other half of the responsibility? What if the neighbors fail to meet their responsibilities?
If you want something fixed or improved, require it to be done before signing or moving in. My old neighbor was told if they signed a lease they would replace the damaged carpet. The landlord did not fix it before they moved in. They later tried asking about it and were told they wouldn’t replace the carpet because the lease only lists certain appliances (Fridge, water heater, etc) as being replaced by the landlord. They just simply lied about replacing the carpet to get them to move in.
Is there a background check? If you are looking for an apartment or duplex and are not asked to have a background check ran, the landlord probably did not make the other tenants do a background check either. If you are concerned about potentially living near criminals this is something important to check into.
Choice of internet and cable? Some apartment complexes will make a deal with cable or internet companies, and the tenants will only be able to use that one brand if they want service. If you have a certain cable or internet provider ask about whether you are free to choose or locked into one brand.
What happens after 12 months? If you are potentially interested in living in the apartment for more than 12 months, ask what happens after 12 months. Will they let you sign up for another 12 months, or will it become month to month?
Read the lease. Yes, the entire lease. Sometimes there are important details in the fine print. For example, one apartment complex lease we read explained that there was lead paint int he walls that had been painted over. By signing the lease we acknowledged that risk! On another, there was a typo that said that if our rent was late by 24 hours or more, we would owe an extra $4,000! This was a typo, it should have been $40.00. Of course, we had no intentions of ever being late on rent to begin with, but we were glad we caught the error and had it fixed before signing just to be safe.

Do you have any advice or how to make a careful decision when choosing an apartment or home to rent? Share in the comments!


This post currently has 10 responses.

  • Sarah L

    Those are excellent points. Water damage is dangerous to the structure and for the mold that is bad for your health.

  • John Smith

    Landlords try to put in as many abusive, exploitative provisions in leases as they can, even if they’re not legally enforceable because they’re so obviously extreme and wrong. But if you don’t know your rights they’ll walk all over you!

  • Jeanine Carlson

    Wow, the last point floored me! $4,000 late fee is pretty steep!

  • Peggy Nunn

    These are excellent points. We bought a home 3 years ago and thought we had inspected all it with an inspector. But he did not think it was wrong to have the shower dripping in the tub. See if they can see the utilities from the past year. The place may not be well insulated or the system is really inefficient. Those $300-$400 bills are big to swallow in the winter or summer.

  • Rosie

    This is good information. I never heard of a 12-year lease. I guess if they can’t go up on the rent that long, it would be great. I think some states have rules about leases, and security deposits, find out about your rights before you give more in a security deposit than you need to. Also, see if you can sleuth around and find out if there is a big turnover, why do people leave and not stay. Happy tenants often don’t want to move as soon as they can. Take pictures of any damage in hallway, etc., before you move in, and have the landlord sign the photos. You can get blamed later and you won’t have any way to prove you didn’t cause the damage. Many landlords are unscrupulous and will try to get YOU to pay for their former tenants’ damage that they managed to skip out on.

  • Dana Rodriguez

    These are great tips. WOW! A 12 year lease? We rent a house but our landlord is great. I have had some bad ones in the past though.

  • ellen beck

    I would also add to take before you move in pictures . That way he damage if there is some will be o noted not to be yours. I havent rented for 40 years, so I agree with being careful. Ask lots of questions. Oh and also visit the neighborhood at a few different times of the day/night.What you see during the day may be fine, but night time could be a whole different ball game!

  • Lauryn R

    These are great tips, thank you so much for sharing! I have definitely lived in my fair share of apartments so I know how it is. I have never personally lived in one with mildew/mold, but I had a friend who did. She ended up having to get let out of her lease, but I am sure that it is something that she wishes she had noticed before she moved in.

  • MeMe R

    This is a good quick article and I am pretty used to renting so I know all the basics. I would like to see one about buying a home for first timers. I am really nervous about this.

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