Questions to ask the landlord. This is a followup to yesterdays post, How to Rent Without Getting Taken Advantage of, pt 1. That post addressed what problems to look for when viewing the house. Today’s post details what questions to ask the landlord, and a bit at the end on how to avoid getting scammed out of your deposit and first and last month’s rent.
There are basically two kinds of rentals; ones that are managed by the individuals who own the property, and ones that are managed by management companies. While there are exceptions both ways, in my experience ones managed by management companies are generally more responsive about taking care of the property and complaints, and ones managed by landlords are more likely to be neglected or fixed on the cheap. Management companies have a reputation to maintain for all of the properties that they manage, so they want to keep up with things. Often, individuals that manage their own property seem to do it because they only own one or two rental properties and they are able to keep up with them, or because they are too cheap to pay a management company. Individuals who manage their own properties are really potluck as to how well they keep up with things, especially for cheaper properties. Some of them are great! They care about their tenants and want to keep their property well maintained and usable for years to come. Others are more likely to put duct tape on things, or tell you that it’s tough that it’s broken. I had landlords who, when our swamp cooler broke, gave us another broken one and made us tough it out for a week in the middle of summer until they finally admitted they couldn’t fix it, and begrudgingly paid a handyman to fix it. We took advantage of the handyman being there and had him fix a slew of other problems with the house. I’ve also had landlords who stored their stuff in the house that I was paying them to rent. There were canned goods from the seventies (literally, it was dated) that they wouldn’t get rid of, even though we offered to clean it out. We couldn’t park in the garage because it was filled with junk that hadn’t been touched in years. Our current property doesn’t have managers, seeing as our landlord lives in another state, which would be a part of the reason it’s a dump (we learned all of these lessons the hard way, by the way).
Without further ado, Questions for Your Landlord.
What utilities am I responsible for, and what are you covering? A lot of landlords in Utah pay for water, because otherwise the tenants would never water the lawn, and it would die and have to be replaced. Some have flat rates for utilities, and others cover other combinations of utilities. Talk to the tenants and get an idea of how much they will cost, keeping in mind that costs of utilities varies with how much you use them.
As an extension: lawn care and snow removal. Who is responsible for it? Apartments and condos usually have a company that takes care of all of that, as well as snow removal. Houses or duplexes not managed by management companies might have you care for these things. If these are your responsibility, make sure that there is a hose, a sprinkler, a mower, a weed whacker, and that all of these things work. If there is an automated sprinkler system, make sure that the landlords will come and turn it off in the winter. Nothing is worse than slip-sliding on ice all over your driveway because it’s November and the sprinklers still run even though it gets below freezing at night.
What is the length of the lease? Is it month-to-month, or yearlong? And if it’s yearlong, what can you do to get out of a contract if you have to move for work, or perhaps buy a house?
What is the process for repairs? How long do they usually take? This is also a good question for the current tenants, if they will be honest with you. They’re more likely to give you a realistic picture of it than a landlord who’s trying to get you to rent. Keep an ear out for answers like “Pretty good” and “Most of the time”, and investigate why the answers aren’t more enthusiastic. What kind of repairs take longer, or get ignored altogether?
What is the parking situation? Make sure that there’s enough parking for your cars. Especially in Provo near BYU, there’s a dire lack of parking. It stinks to have to park three or four blocks away because there’s not enough parking at your house.
How much is the deposit, how much is refundable, and is the deposit used for regular wear-and-tear repairs? I think that it’s unethical to use deposits for regular repairs, but some landlords do it. Know up front. Some landlords will keep a certain amount of the deposit to pay for carpet cleaning, or other professional cleaning services, after a tenant has moved out. Some landlords are freakishly proud of how hard it is to pass their move-out inspections, which is usually another way of saying that you’re not getting much of your deposit back. Some landlords can be really good at quibbling over the “white glove” aspect, when the problems are more wear-and-tear damage of living in a house than something that you have done wrong. Landlords who don’t accept any damage, no matter how normal, are more likely to keep your deposit because they are too cheap to pay for regular repairs themselves (even though part of the cost of owning a property is keeping up with it). I prefer landlords who only keep deposits for houses that haven’t been cleaned before they were moved out of, or if there is obvious negligent damage, to landlords who are going to fight you over every dollar. Try and get a sense of how much of the deposit is usually returned to tenants.
Availability. When is move-in? If the previous tenants haven’t moved out yet on your move-in date (I’ve seen this happen, although it is very rare), what will be done for you?
Are there any expectations about internet or cable? I’ve talked to landlords who want you to use a specific company because they don’t want holes drilled into the walls or cables running everywhere. One of the places I’m looking at now would require us to go with Google Fiber for both TV and Internet. Make sure you’re willing to go with that company.
What kind of heat is it, gas or electric? Does it have air conditioning?
Is there storage? Not having any storage is a dealbreaker for me. I have a Christmas tree and baby clothes and unless there is generous closet space in the apartment or house, I don’t want a place with no storage.
Is it furnished? Just know, just to be clear.
I also promised a few hints on how to avoid being scammed. Here they are.
Deal in person when at all possible. See the apartment, speak to the owners and/or managers in person, or at the very least over the phone. Talk to the neighbors about the property and the owner. Try to see if they know the owner and are aware that the property is for rent. If you’re subletting from individuals, check with the neighbors to see if they know why the property is being subletted and if their story matches up, and check with the landlord to make sure that (s)he knows what is going on. If you are renting a place out of state and can’t afford to fly out to look at a place (this happened to us in Phoenix), it might be a better idea to go with an apartment complex with a management company–they are less likely to be scammers. See if they have a website with images. If you know someone in the area, have them look at the property for you in person.
Beware of stories from people who claim that they own property, but live out of state, and will mail you the keys once you send them money. Included in these stories are often bemoanings about how they tried to find some God-fearing person to manage their property, but they couldn’t find anyone. If you can’t find someone to manage your property, you’re probably a scammer or an enormous jerk (most likely both); it’s not that hard to find people to manage a property.
If you drive by the property and see a “for sale” sign in the front yard, investigate to find out why it’s supposedly being rented, while also trying to be sold. This is a red flag.
Try to see the property more than once, especially if you have a weird feeling about it. Usually, scammers “rent” properties sight unseen, but very occasionally they’ll show individuals a property that they don’t actually own. Seeing the property more than once can reduce this threat.
If it’s not clear, I’ve had some pretty bad experiences with renting over the past five years, and I’ve heard of even more. While following through on these things is no guarantee that I won’t have more, I wish that I’d done a lot more of them before learning the hard way. The place you rent is your home. You want it to be good, and taken care of. If you can’t afford a place where you and the property are well treated, then I’m sorry, I know how much it sucks being poor. I’m over the moon about the possibility of buy a home in the next year or two, and no longer having to deal with this particular set of problems. I hope that my experiences can help someone else avoid some of the renting pitfalls I’ve come across.
Best of luck!