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As renters, we’re all used to getting our backgrounds investigated, whether through credit checks or letters of recommendation. They help protect landlords from taking on a tenant with a history of bad behavior.
But who’s protecting the renters? Most of us have never considered doing a background check on a prospective landlord before signing a lease, and that’s a mistake that can cause headaches and cost time and money.
Here’s how to quickly assess a landlord’s reputation.
Search Public Records
Googling a landlord’s name is a good starting point. Once you’ve done that, dig deeper to find out whether the person has a bad track record. One way to do this is by searching public records to see if he or she has been found guilty of building code violations or has had small claims court settlements with prior tenants. Generally, you can visit your county clerk office’s website to run this search.
Pro tip: If a landlord owns more than one rental property, pull public records for those addresses as well.
Talk to Neighbors
While you’re touring a potential new place, knock on doors and talk to neighbors to find out more about the property owner. Ask current residents whether they’ve interacted with the property owner personally. If so, what was their impression? Did the landlord maintain the property well? Have they had any issues? Their responses can speak volumes about whether management takes care of their residents — or not.
Check for Official Complaints
The Better Business Bureau (BBB), a nonprofit organization that allows consumers to submit complaints about businesses, is another good resource for vetting landlords. The organization assigns A to F ratings for businesses, so look up your landlord on the bureau’s website, BBB.org. If there are multiple complaints, look for patterns — for example, does the landlord have a history of not returning security deposits?
Contact the Homeowner’s Association
If a rental unit is in a homeowner’s association (HOA) or condo association, contact a representative from the board to find out whether the property owner is in good standing — i.e., is not behind on their monthly dues, or is not in violation of community bylaws.
Inspect the Property
Play detective when inspecting a rental property for damage. If the place is in poor condition, that may indicate the landlord is lousy at making repairs. Normal wear and tear, like scratch marks on walls, is common when a tenant moves out. What you’re really looking for are major defects, like mold, water damage, broken windows or other serious flaws. There’s no guarantee those will be fixed before your move-in date.
Ask the Right Questions
Posing a few smart questions to a prospective landlord can help you spot potential warning signs. Here are four worth asking:
- What’s included in the rent? A trustworthy landlord will be fully transparent when explaining what the rent includes, such as utilities, move-in fees and parking costs.
- How do you make repairs? This is a crucial question; after all, you want a landlord who responds quickly when there’s a problem at your place, such as plumbing or electrical issue. You’ll also want to find out who will be making the repairs. Does the landlord fix things himself, or does he hire a licensed contractor or handyman?
- Describe your ideal tenant. Listen closely, as this will help you determine whether you’re a good match.
- How much notice will you give before entering the property? Landlords are entitled to check the property’s condition, but they must give renters advance notice. In fact, many states require landlords give tenants at least 24 hours’ notice before entering the premises.
Confirm the landlord actually owns the property through your local tax collector’s office. Doing so will allow you to verify that the landlord is legitimate — and not someone masquerading as the property owner in an effort to con renters.
A Final Note: Tenants' Rights Counseling Is Free
Make the mistake of leasing from a crummy landlord? Many cities and states have tenants' rights centers that provide free legal counsel to renters. If your landlord is breaking the law, an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant law may be able to help you terminate your lease early without losing your security deposit.