5 rental red flags (© Pixtal/age footstock)

Rental hunting can be a daunting endeavor — trying to find a place that suits your lifestyle while playing psychological hide-and-seek with landlords and management companies. And while leaks, irritating neighbors and cracked walls may be easy to detect, many elements to a rental property may not be so obvious. Here are five signs to watch out for. (Bing: Find a tenants association in your area)

1.  Rubber to the road
A building's parking lot can offer the first indication of poor maintenance. In most rental leases, stipulations are added to ensure that heavily damaged cars and those on blocks are not permitted in the lot. Even hobbyists or renters who repair vehicles for some extra cash are obligated to work on their vehicles off-site, and a lack of enforcement in this area often spills into other areas of property management.

Watch out for indistinguishable lines separating the parking spaces, and cars with flat tires or broken windows. All are signs of neglect on behalf of both the renter and the management company, and could indicate more serious issues.

2. Lack of parking
There are plenty of hassles when renting — loud neighbors, absentee landlords and rent increases, to name a few. But among the most annoying can be not being able to find a parking spot around the building.

Buildings that lack parking for residents often represent a larger issue in the community. People could be using the space in front of your building as a communal parking spot for transit stations, malls, stadiums or schools. While it may not seem like a big deal at first, walking four blocks at the beginning and end of each day and not having a reserved spot or an outlet for the cold winter nights will become irritating very soon. This lack of parking can also pose a security risk to both you and your vehicle.

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To check the parking situation around a building, book the viewing (or just drive by) on a Monday morning. This is the time when most tenants will be away and any freeloaders will have taken their spots. The easiest way around the problem is to ensure that a potential rental property accommodates its tenants with heated, underground (or at least covered) parking. This often comes at a cost, but it pays off in the long run.

3. Looking in from the outside
Another way to gauge a rental property's worth is by simply observing the current tenants. This can be done before ever feeling the pressure of a landlord’s sales pitch. The exterior of the building (specifically, the windows and balconies) speaks volumes as to the interior and integrity of the building. Not to encourage snooping, but a five-second peek can save years of headaches.

Basically, if balconies look as if they're being used as extra storage space — holding multiple bikes, boxes, old tires, etc. — maintenance and enforcement issues come into question. Management companies usually write cleanliness stipulations into leases in order to ensure the upkeep of a building, and a messy balcony can indicate health-code violations in an apartment's interior. Basically, if that's the mess that tenants are leaving outside, imagine how the kitchens and bathrooms look.

Besides the cleanliness issues, apartments with an abundance of "junk" on the balconies can also indicate a lack of adequate storage and/or closet space. And the last thing you'll want to do is turn into one of the pack out of necessity, storing those bags of your ex's clothes that you just haven't gotten around to burning yet.

4. Stranger in the night
Usually, it's advantageous to view a building at least twice — once during the day, and once in the evening. And to go a step further, weekend and weekday viewings can shed different lights on a property. But property managers will sometimes insist that viewings occur only during certain times — after dark, during work hours, on weekdays, etc. While you may be limited to viewing the interior of a building during a certain time, there's no restriction that keeps you from investigating on your own at other times throughout the week.

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The condition of the building's fences, backyard and waste disposal areas may not be visually appealing, and therefore property managers are reluctant to shine a spotlight on them during the day. Cracked or damaged sidewalks, poor condition of the lawns and plants and overcrowded backyards can also be disguised by showing rental properties only at night, so it's best to do some due diligence of your own.

5. Self-inspection
Some management companies allow tenants to conduct their own move-in inspections. You get to scour the apartment and list every scratch, nick, ding and stain. Plus, you can account for any mishaps you may have while renting — like that scuff you plan on making while bringing your bed through the front door or the spot you're sure your cat will leave in the closet.

But although conducting the move-in inspection yourself helps you in the short term, in the long term you'll likely pay. After all, there's a great chance that the last tenant was given the same liberty, and who knows if the leaky pipes or the window that sticks were ever addressed.

The best way around this is to insist that you accompany the landlord during the inspection, and casually converse throughout. A few well-placed inquiries on your part could open the floodgates of the apartment’s history. You may not have access to previous inspection and maintenance records, but at least you have the right to ask. And remember: Never take, "We're getting around to it" as an answer.

The bottom line
The strongest tool you have when rental hunting is your gut. There's a reason that not all of your questions are being answered and why you're being held to the landlord's schedule, not your own. Trust your instincts and make an extensive checklist before signing the papers.

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