Looking for a home to rent has its fun moments, but it can also be a harrowing experience. Walking into a sizable pad that's available and within your budget: fun! Walking into an apartment that doesn't look anything like the pictures: harrowing.
Then there are the downright shady rentals.
"I have seen so many rental scams in recent years!" says Jennifer Okhovat, a real estate agent with Compass in Los Angeles.
So to help you avoid scams and to sidestep prospective rentals that are just a waste of time, we've compiled a list of giant rental red flags to keep an eye out for during your search.
Many renters don't realize that if a broker or management company doesn't offer a receipt for your deposit, it's a big red flag. Before giving anyone a big chunk of change, look up their company and make sure they are legit.
If you know you're dealing with real brokers but they say they don’t have formal receipts, ask them to email you confirmation, and don’t leave them until you see it in your inbox, says Rebecca Brooksher, a licensed real estate salesperson with Warburg Realty in New York.
You always want a paper trail if any money changes hands.
Everyone has a camera in their pocket these days, so a listing without at least a few photos usually means that the place is a dump.
"If listing details are vague or there are no pictures, there’s a reason," says Nicole Durosko of New York's Warburg Realty. "Run the other way!"
You should also watch out for listings that claim the property is decked out with amenities, is below market value, and features photos that look as if they belong in Architectural Digest.
"If an apartment seems too good to be true in listing photos, then it probably isn't true," says Kemdi Anosike of New York's Warburg Realty.
A bait and switch—where fake photos are posted in the listing to lure potential renters—can happen, so let your common sense guide you before committing to anything or signing a lease sight unseen.
"If it feels like you’re making out like a bandit, then you probably don’t have all the facts, and you should continue your search elsewhere," says Brian Davis, a landlord and co-founder at SparkRental.com.
It may seem minor, but trash that has blown into the landscaping or a dirty common area can be a red flag as well.
"If the property manager doesn't care enough to arrive a few minutes early to set the stage for a great tour, what else might they not care about?" says Justin Pogue, a residential property manager and author of RentalSecrets.net. If a rental looks as though it isn't well-maintained, then you are bound to be an unhappy tenant.
A landlord or employee of a management company who doesn't require a background or credit check may seem easygoing. You don't have to hassle with paperwork or pay the fees for these checks? What a dream! But a laissez-faire landlord may simply not care about the state of the property or having a responsible tenant live there.
"A good landlord always wants to have qualified tenants in place, so be careful if you find an apartment and the landlord is quick to ask for money without doing a background check," says Anosike.
In cities like New York, the standard upfront costs for signing a lease include a security deposit plus first and last month’s rent. But if landlords request more than the standard amount upfront, they could be trying to scam you, says Durosko.
Upfront fees vary throughout the country, and local laws dictate how much landlords can ask for. So do a simple Google search to see what's standard in your area.
If the agent or landlord appears to be trying to rush you through the property, there’s usually a reason.
"It could be that every 15 minutes, a subway rumbles underground and shakes the whole building," says Davis. "Or it could be a terror of a neighbor, with loud dogs and a nasty temper."
So to get a clear picture of the property—and the persistent noises around it—take the time to visit the neighborhood at different hours of the day.
Is it difficult to reach the landlord or property manager to set up a showing? Think about how hard it will be to reach them when you actually live there and have a repair or a question about your rent. It might seem like a minor inconvenience when shopping for a rental, but how they conduct business before you sign a lease is usually a sign of how they'll treat you after you're officially a tenant.