October rental advice: Don't forget to screen your landlord
Your rental history and bank account are scrutinized, but what do you know about the person you're planning to write a check to each month?
© Kelly Redinger/Jupiterimages
One question continues to stump renters: How do I check out my landlord?
In this month's rental column, we'll tackle this toughie and try to help a reader with an interesting question about lease renewals. (Bing: More advice for renters)
Information advantage: Landlords
First, the great information imbalance. Landlords have it easy. They're regularly reminded to screen prospective tenants and are given the tools to do so. Just request a Social Security number, along with some private banking data and employment information, and fire it all off to a screening firm. Within hours, the vitals appear: credit ratings, bankruptcies, foreclosures, criminal records, civil suits. They even get renters to pay for it.
And what do tenants do? Well, practically the total opposite: Many hesitate to even ask landlords any questions.
"The landlord is in the power position," says Michael Schaffer, general manager of CheckYourLandlord.com, a new service that checks property records for prospective tenants.
"A property owner is never required to give out any information at all," Schaffer says. "There are very few jurisdictions where a property owner is even required to tell you, 'You know, my property is in foreclosure. You might get kicked out in a few months.'"
Why screen? To help you avoid scams and deadbeats
Schaffer launched CheckYourLandlord.com in part to help protect renters against scam artists, who have proliferated since the housing bust. For $20 and an address, the company will verify the legal owner of the property. It will also use public records to check whether the owner has been sued by previous tenants, filed for bankruptcy or been convicted of a crime.
"We get as close to getting a financial picture as we can without running a credit report," Schaffer says.
On the bright side, there are many excellent landlords, too. (Next month, we'll spotlight good landlords. Are you a tenant with a great landlord story to share? Email it to email@example.com.)
5 things you can do
So how can you tell if a landlord is good or bad? The question is particularly pressing now, given the double whammy of a tight rental market (units go fast) and the increase in inexperienced landlords -- investors and owners reluctantly hurled into renting a property after being unable to sell it. (Read: Housing bust forces some to become reluctant landlords.)
- Don't be afraid to ask questions
A friendly conversation can yield a lot of information, including a sense of whether the person you're considering for this pricey business relationship seems trustworthy and respectful. After talking, you should know why he's renting the property, how long he's been a landlord and who is responsible for making repairs.
Being thorough needn't be confrontational. In the end, good questions garner respect.
"A good landlord wants to rent to a responsible person," Schaffer says. "It shows that you are going to protect yourself, and that in turn you are likely going to protect their property."
- Check property records
It's always a good idea to make sure that the person you're paying actually owns the property, and that the property is not at risk of foreclosure. It's a particularly good idea these days.
"It used to be assumed that the landlord and the property was stable and that the tenant was in question, and now you might have a stable tenant and the landlord is in question," says Steven R. Kellman, founder of the Tenants Legal Center in San Diego.
Check the ownership and the financial status of the property at the county courthouse. Often, this can be done online.
If there's a time pressure, tell the landlord that you'd like a few hours to double-check property records, and that this is a routine safeguard you undertake before making out a check.
"If somebody is a reputable landlord, they'll actually appreciate the fact that you're being diligent," Schaffer says. "It shows that you're smart and savvy."
- Ask how long the previous tenants were there
Then ask how long the last tenants lived there. Where did those tenants go?
If this otherwise pleasant landlord tells you that the previous tenants left after one year, and so did the ones before that, it might be a good idea to ask why.
- Talk to the neighbors
Ah, the neighbors. Landlords may have access to tenants' Social Security numbers and massive data banks, but tenants can tap into something far more powerful: gossip.
People love to talk and, when they don't know you, they're often forthright and honest. Ask what they think of the landlord or if they know whether the landlord does right by his tenants.
If the landlord is well-liked, you can bet your first month's rent you'll hear about it. If he's one of the bad ones, you're sure to notice a bit of hedging at the least.
If it's a large complex, check online reviews at such sites as Apartment Ratings.
- Drive by the landlord's other properties
Ask the landlord if he owns other rental properties, or check property records yourself. Are the properties in good financial standing? Do they show signs of disrepair that indicate the landlord may be having financial problems?
Remember, if you're on the verge of signing over $3,000 and a year of your life, ask yourself, "What's the harm in driving to the property and knocking on this person's door?"
Can I be evicted without cause?
This summer, one MSN Real Estate reader asked if the high-rise building where he rented could evict him for complaining about mistakes made by the property's management. Staff members lost packages, made errors on lease renewals and even auto-deducted twice for a single month's rent. Meanwhile, he has paid on time and given no cause for complaint.
"But the management is ugly to me, even though they know the fault is theirs. Should I worry that when my lease is up for renewal they'll just say, 'Get lost'?" the reader asks.
We put the question to Kellman, a tenants lawyer. "Generally there is no duty to renew a lease," he said.
Leases may contain clauses that call for an automatic renewal or an optional renewal. With an automatic renewal, the landlord can decide not to renew the lease without providing a reason.
Leases that give the tenant the option to renew can offer more protections, since the landlord has to cite a reason not to allow the renewal. However, Kellman warns, leases can contain so many loopholes that it's easy for the landlord to find a reason not to extend the lease.
The upshot: A landlord has great leeway in deciding whether to renew a lease, even if he plans to continue to rent the apartment.
Keep in mind that the rules may vary for renewals in federally subsidized housing and mobile-home parks.
Do you have a question about renting or a suggestion for a future topic in this column? Submit either in the comments section below or on Facebook, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Brief questions have the best chance of being selected.
I have a horrible landlord. He never listens, has a very bad temper and a vulgar mouth. He is not honest and not trustworthy. He lies so much! All he cares about is getting his money and never wants to repair his cheap match box apartment. I wish there was a way to check on him before moving in. I wish there was a way to contact previous tenants to learn about a landlords disposition. It has been 3yrs of hell. I have paid my rent every month, I take care of his property and I try to keep an open relationship with him but he is not civilize. It is so expensive to move and I know he will never give back my security deposit. I have myself in a jam wishing I could just move and never have to deal with such an nasty person ever again!
Worst Landlord Ever: Alberto Sapir, 8357 Royal Palm Blvd, Coral Springs, FL
I don't doubt there are some shady landlords out there, but I think the landlords have it worse in general -- there are so many people that do not pay their rent, damage the units, etc. Being a landlord seems like it would be such a risk and never ending headaches, especially with the socialist crowd that expects the government to take care of all their needs.
Anyways, remember that you are paying the rent so if you don't like your rental, you have the power to move to a place that you do like.
We rented a home last november and the property manager swore to us the home is not in foreclosure. well in March we get a notice stating the home will be sold in 2 months. I stopped paying rent to get my deposit back and stayed in the house until we had to move out. We took care of the house as if it was our own. An investor bought the home. I have since put a contract for the owner to sign that states the home is not in foreclosure in if it is and they don't tell me and I get evicted, they are held liable for the deposit and 3 months rent. I know I will have to take them to small claims court and maybe wont collect but at least he will be on record. Then I will put an add in the paper about him and his properties and file with the county. If you do your home work you find when they lease or rent to you knowing they are going to foreclose and take your money that is called fraud. That is against the law. So the next thing I do is have him arrested if at all possible. I never knew the laws until this happened to my family. Next time I will fight back.
If you check the laws in your state you might be surprised.
There are many landlords out there who pieces of sh*t! I for one will not give a bad landlord my rent money but what i will do is pay one of my friends to to rent a place under a false name and basically leave the place in totally unrentable state for those who screw me over!
My son lived on Vine Street in Scranton, PA. The landlord was a real jerk. I knew by looking at the property this was not a place my son should rent. He rented it anyway, and a year later the landlord stiffed him and his roommate for a large portion of the security deposit for things he should never stated that they should pay for, or things that were already wrong with the place. He was a horrible nickle and dimer. When I found out he charged them for his own code violations that he didn't fix but still took the money for, I called the city code office. Apparently they have heard of this landlord before. When we first looked at the place, the landlord Joe was very rude about when I tried to really inspect the place, and when he found out I had done some research on the property. He apparently didn't want people to know too much about what a jerk of a landlord he was when it came to taking tenant's money. Research if you are going to rent in Scranton, PA!
I recently learned a difficult lesson where i last rented. Had i done my research, I would never have considered renting from old landlord. When we had a disagreement, i did a background check on him and discovered that he was listed on megans list, as a child molester. Although he lived 70 miles away, what if I had kids? The thought makes me shudder...I moved as soon as i found a new place (after checking out the landlord) since i would never willingly put money in the pocket of a child molester. soo....be sure to check the megans list on line for your community.