Renters' inspection checklist (© House and Home Inspection Services)

You've heard the statistics: Most fire deaths and accidents that cause injuries occur inside the home.

Since there's little oversight of rental units or landlords, it's up to you, the tenant, to make sure that your next apartment or house is safe, sanitary and secure.

You might think that any obvious flaws would jump out at you. But you could easily be wrong. You might also assume that a municipal inspector — or someone — is checking the vitals of a rental unit. But again, not so.

Given that the last thing you want to do is discover problems after you've lugged your stuff in and signed a one-year commitment, proceed with caution.

See the photos in "Are you sure you want to rent that?" for signs that your best move might be straight out the door. Then print out this checklist, with advice from professional home inspectors, to bring along to the next place you see.

What to bring with you
You may think you'll look ridiculous if you arrive carrying tools, but there's no reason to be embarrassed. The alternative may be to miss defects that could prove costly, or even deadly, later.

  • Camera. Snap pictures of any areas that cause concern. Go through these with the landlord before you move in. That way he'll know exactly what needs to be repaired and you'll have proof, if you take the unit, of issues that predated your tenancy.
  • Flashlight. Use this to see under sinks, in cupboards and behind appliances.
  • Outlet tester. Also called a receptacle tester, this is a $5 to $10 device that instantly determines whether an electrical outlet is grounded and wired correctly. "I want two yellow lights," says Bob Sisson, a Maryland home inspector and owner of Inspections by Bob. "If I don't get two yellow lights, there's something wrong. Fix it, because it's dangerous."
  • Tall umbrella. How else are you going to reach the test button on the ceiling smoke detectors?
  • Tape measure. Not only can you check whether furniture will fit, but you can get an exact height on the ceiling and compare it to what you're used to. Will it make a difference?
  • White tennis shoes. Wear these if you suspect fleas or bedbugs. If they're present, you'll spot them jumping on your shoes. (Remember to remove your shoes before going inside your own home.)

As you're arriving

  • Does the neighborhood and parking lot feel safe? Return at night. Is the lot lighted? Would you feel comfortable walking there at night?
  • Is there evidence of unfixed items in the common grounds? If so, this could be evidence that the landlord or management company might not be quick to repair problems in your unit.
  • Does the lobby door lock when you let it shut?
  • Are there sturdy railings along stairways?
  • Do the common areas look well tended to? If not, it could indicate that the management company will not be swift to repair problems.

Doors and windows

  • Can you see who is at the front door? If there's no window, does the door have a peephole?
  • Do the outside doors have deadbolts? Do they work?
  • Open and shut the outside doors a few times. Do they feel secure? Are the hinges tight?
  • Do the windows open and shut easily? Do those on the ground level have locking hardware?
  • Could you escape from both sides of the apartment, and from every bedroom, in the event of a fire?

Kitchen

  • Take the flashlight and look behind the refrigerator, in the cabinets and under the stove, if possible. Are there pest droppings? Are there water stains or indications of mold? Is there a buildup of hair and dust? Does it look like the landlord has done a professional cleaning between tenants? If not, request one.
  • Run water in both sinks and look underneath with the flashlight for evidence of drips. Those need to be corrected before you move in.
  • Are any markings around or under the plumbing and appliances gray, black or green? This could be mold. If you see mold anywhere in the apartment, "that's a place to walk away from," says Tony Smith, chief inspector for House and Home Inspection Services, in Iowa. "Most landlords are not going to clean it up properly. They're not going to hire a professional remediation firm. They'll attempt to clean it up themselves, and what will happen is they'll contaminate the place more."
  • How old are the appliances? Do they have safety instructions and information?
  • Does the fan over the stove work? Is there any evidence of moisture buildup or mold above it?
  • Does the refrigerator have a buildup of frost? If so, the door's gasket could be leaking. That or other problems could spoil your food and cause your electric bill to spike.
  • Is there a fire extinguisher? Check the date on the tag. Has it been serviced within the past year?
  • Run some water and test the disposal. Does it clank or make any other scary sounds? You'll want it fixed before moving in so you aren't held accountable later.

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Bathroom

  • Shake the toilet. Is it loose at the floor? Are there water stains around the edges?
  • Flush the toilet. Is it still running later?
  • Get on your knees with the flashlight and take a close look at the plumbing under the sink and at the floor below. If anything looks loose, leaks or seems sloppily repaired, ask the landlord about it -- and snap a photo.
  • Do the shower and sink drain properly?
  • Is the tile properly grouted so there's no risk of mold? "All the exposed surfaces need to be cleanable," says Claudio Bluer, a California housing inspector and owner of Austral Housing Inspections. "If tiles start to crack, it's not cleanable." This can allow moisture to build up and mildew or mold to grow.