5 Ways to Spot a Bad Landlord

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In 15 Tips to Find, Buy, and Rent Real Estate, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has this to say about tenants…

“It’s better to get less rent from a good tenant than more rent from a bad one. Like a spouse, finding a renter is the easy part. It’s getting rid of the bad ones that will cost you a ton of money and aggravation.”

Funny thing is, landlords are a lot like spouses too. They’re easy to find, they make big promises to reel you in, and getting rid of them is next to impossible.

I say: Avoid the whole grisly breakup process altogether and learn how to spot the bad landlords before you sign the lease. And after 10-plus years of renting, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding bad apples. If you’re renting from an owner-landlord, here’s what to do.

1. Ask lots of questions

Asking questions during the walk-through has two benefits. One, you’ll learn more about the place you’re considering. Two, you’ll get to know the landlord and their management style. For example, I typically ask the following questions during the walk-through:

  1. How long have you owned the property?
  2. Do you own the property yourself, or are you part of a property management group?
  3.  Do you handle maintenance yourself, or do you have a maintenance staff?
  4.  What repairs do you make? Am I responsible for any repairs?
  5.  How quickly do you respond to maintenance requests (or other problems?)
  6.  Who handles the yard work and trash pickup?
  7.  How long did the last tenants live here?
  8.  Do you spray for pests?
  9.  What kind of security measures have you taken with the property and with the rental itself?
  10. What is the neighborhood like? Are there grocery stores, gas stations, or restaurants nearby?

While asking questions won’t tell you everything – many landlords can talk a good game – it does give you an idea about them. If they’re hesitant to answer your questions, or they just don’t know the answers, they may not be the best people to give your money to each month.

2. Pay attention to promptness

Promptness matters to me for one reason: Before you sign the lease, the landlord is on his best behavior. So if the landlord doesn’t return my calls, shows up late for appointments, or cancels at the last minute, I worry. After all, if he can’t be prompt now when he’s trying to earn me as a customer, how’s he going to react when I have a maintenance problem?

One of my former landlords canceled my showing twice. The third time, she was more than 30 minutes late, didn’t call ahead, and didn’t explain why when she got there. It didn’t get any better when I moved in. In fact, I lived without a stove for three weeks because she “forgot” to send someone out for repairs.

Lesson learned.

If you’re waiting on the landlord now, it’s probably not going to get any better once you sign the lease.

3. Talk to other tenants

Other tenants can give you great insight into both the property and the landlord. I suggest going to the property again after the walkthrough and talking with a few of the current tenants.

Actually, it’s not something I’ve done in the past – but I’ve had a few prospective tenants talk to me at my current place, and I had no problem answering their questions. After all, I’ve got nothing to lose, so I don’t hesitate to give them a full disclosure – good and bad.

4. Do some background research

Landlords have the upper hand when it comes to background checks. Your landlord has access to everything from your credit report to your criminal history. You don’t have as many tools in your arsenal, but that doesn’t mean you have to go in blind.

You can order a background check on the property (and the landlord) from CheckYourLandlord.com. According to HSH.com, the site locates property ownership information, runs a criminal background check, and shows if the landlord has filed for bankruptcy or if he’s been sued by any former tenants. Last month, a basic report cost $12.95 and a comprehensive report cost $27.95.

You can also research:

  • Local papers: If your landlord was cited by the city or involved in a lawsuit, your local paper may have written a story on it. I found out about a landlord’s problems with the city through the newspaper’s online archives.
  • The tax collector’s office: You can verify that the landlord actually owns the property through a tax collector’s office.
  • Zoning Board: Your local zoning board keeps a record of recent complaints against the property.
  • State or city courts: Court cases are a matter of public record. If your landlord has been sued, the court office will know about it.

5. Read the lease carefully

The lease-signing is your last chance to walk away penalty-free, so make sure the landlord hasn’t used this legally binding agreement to force you into anything. Legally, the landlord has to follow your state’s landlord and tenant laws, but that doesn’t mean they can’t sneak in some shady clause that’ll make you miserable.

For example, my former landlord put in a clause stating my lease would automatically renew for another year if I didn’t give 30 days’ written notice. If I hadn’t read the lease carefully, I might have missed that and been stuck at the property for another year.

Read through the entire lease. If you find something you don’t agree with, ask the landlord to make a change before you sign. You can also look up your state’s landlord and tenant laws. (You can usually find them on your state’s government website or by visiting a local court office.) If the landlord is breaking the law with something in your lease, they have to remove it.

If the landlord won’t make the changes, it’s in your best interest to walk away from the rental. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with it or try to fight it in court – both expensive and frustrating options.

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