We are moving again soon. This will be only my second move across the country, but nowhere near my second move. I have lived in a grand total of eight houses and two apartments since becoming an adult. All of them rentals, all of them searched for and hand selected by myself (And Mike for the houses, the apartments were before him!) So, does that make us experts on rental home selection? Maybe not experts…but pretty damn close. My years of experience with house hunting have done at least two things for me; they have made me very skilled at cutting through the crap when it comes to reading rental listings, and they have taught me to spot red flags a mile away. Here is my handy little guide to scoring a great rental home, advice on picking through the tricky advertising verbiage, and how to avoid being stuck with a crazy landlord. (I have a lot to say on this topic, so I’m going to break it up into two parts.)
1. Know The Terminology.
Cozy = Tiny. Quiet = Deserted. Charming = Old. Hurry up, this one won’t last = This house has been vacant for months, we are desperately hoping you’ll feel a sense of urgency and move in here. Cheap = Piece of shit. Historic neighborhood = Gang land. I could write an entire dictionary, but the point is that you MUST second guess every single adjective in a rental listing. If it sounds too good to be true…well, you know the rest.
2. Pay Close Attention To The Landlord’s Personality.
Some people put their house up for rent because they feel they can’t sell it in the current market. Others rent homes for a living. And then there are the folks who have inherited a home or are holding on to a home that they have a strong emotional attachment to, yet don’t want to actually live in for whatever reason. You can usually tell who you are dealing with by the way they speak about the house. Normal, well adjusted land lords will show you the property, give you a run down of it’s perks and discuss the business details. “This will always be my true home” landlords will ask you intimate details about your personal life while lovingly caressing their walls and fixtures. If at any point there are tears – run. If she points out the wall where she measured her children’s height every year – run. If he spends forty-five minutes showing you his work bench in the garage – run. If you move into someone else’s memory box, they will never leave you alone. You will also never take good enough care of it. They will pop over randomly, expressing concern that you’ve turned their formal dining room (What about all of those Thanksgiving dinners?) into a poker room. They will be super pissed that you mowed over the wildflowers in the back yard (Granny loved those flowers!) They may hassle you constantly. You do not want to be spied on for a year. It isn’t fun. Trust me.
3. If The Listing States The Obvious…RUN.
If an ad reads: House for rent in Anyplace. $1000 per month. 3 bedrooms, 1 bath, living room… Please stop to ask yourself why they would include something so standard as a living room in the listing. Because they have nothing else good to say! If a home has a game room, home theatre, finished basement or extra den; those are bonus rooms and deserve to be listed. If the landlord feels it necessary to boast about the bare minimum – a living room, bathroom or kitchen – I’m pretty sure the house is lacking something else you may want… like appliances, a water heater, or a furnace.
4. Scope Out The Neighbors and Neighborhood.
I highly recommend visiting the house or apartment complex at different times of day. What is going on at 8:00 am? Noon? 9:00 pm? Midnight? It really sucks when your quiet street of young families turns into a teenage rave after dark. Are there well taken care of children playing with their bikes, or half-naked feral kids scampering through back yards? Is old Mrs. Callthecops staring at you from her porch rocker? You know she will call the police if you have more than two friends over at the same time, right? Does the house across the street have all the doors and windows open and trash strewn about their yard? Yes? They are tweakers. I know because they lived across the street from me once. Pay attention to the cars parked around your potential home. Do they have license plates? Tires and engines? Is there loud music playing all evening? Are there cats running everywhere? Menacing dogs roaming around off leash? These are people and creatures you’ll be sharing your world with for at least a year. A year can feel like a lifetime when you live next to terrible people.
5. Beware Of Creative Photography.
If all of the online photos are of insignificant parts of the house, you better believe the landlord (or agent) is hiding something. Oh, look! Here is a nice photo of the bedroom wall. And one of the crisper drawer in the refrigerator. Here is one of the apartment complex sign… nice try! Thanks, but we are going to need a broad view of this place’s kitchen. How about the whole back yard or a long view down the hallway? I would much prefer a less than stellar crisper drawer over missing drywall and threadbare carpet.
Look for The Renter’s Handbook: Part 2 tomorrow!