October rental advice (© Kelly Redinger/Jupiterimages)

© 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 refdback@microsoft.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.)

  1. 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."
  2. 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."
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Questions? Comments?
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 refdback@microsoft.com. Brief questions have the best chance of being selected.