Landlord or slumlord? Checking them out before you write a check

rental homeSpend a year in many university dorms and you may be dying to move off campus into a house with more space, fewer rules and roommates that you get to pick. But before you sign a semester- or year-long lease on a place and hand over a chunk of change for the security deposit, check a few things to make sure you're not getting into a bad deal.

Unfortunately, there are no end of less-than-scrupulous landlords who keep their properties in poor condition and are happy to rent to college students because they know that most students won't complain -- or are afraid to do so. Steer clear and your first renting experience will be a lot more fun.

You might have luck looking up your apartment on sites like Apartment Ratings and Apartment Reviews. Ideally, track down the last residents who lived in a place you're looking at (likely students a year ahead of you, or recently graduated; you should be able to get contact information from your university's directory or alumni office). What did they think of the landlord? How quickly did he or she make repairs or replace broken appliances? If things have gone unrepaired for more than a month or two after the last residents said something, consider that a red flag.

The walk-through

  • For your security – and to save on heating bills – make sure all windows and doors close and latch securely. If there are big gaps under doors, be ready for a drafty place.
  • Make sure the apartment has two exits, so that you can escape in a fire. Lots of sketchy apartments only have one.
  • Check the kitchen: Make sure the stove and oven turn on, and that the refrigerator is cold.
  • Check the bathroom: Is there a working shower head? I didn't bother to look when I scoped out my first apartment. I got a rude surprise when I went to take a shower the first time and discovered there was only a bathtub faucet.
  • Look for stains on the ceilings. That indicates water damage, whether from rain or a leaky toilet upstairs. If the landlord can't show you that the problem has been fixed, that should be a big red flag to look elsewhere. If there is a porch or deck, make sure that the wood isn't rotting.

These represent some of the big things, but there are a number of small things you should also check. True Gotham lists 34 things you should check.

Ask questions

  • The most important ones involve the security deposit and monthly rent. Sometimes listings are wrong, or landlords will drop prices if they're having a hard time getting a tenant.
  • Find out which utilities are included. Most landlords will pay for water, sewer and garbage. Others may also pay for gas, Internet or cable television. Places that charge higher rent may be a better deal if more utilities are included in the price.
  • Don't be afraid to ask the landlord what kind of repairs have been made recently, or if the house has any problems you should know about. If the landlord can't come up with an answer or seems cagey in responding, that's another red flag.
  • Don't forget to clarify the best way to pay rent. Should you mail a check or deliver it somewhere? Will the landlord let you pay online using your bank's bill-paying feature?

Ready to sign?

When you decide on a place to rent, make one more walkthrough with the landlord and fill out a printed checklist (The University of San Francisco and the Utah advocacy group And Justice for All have good ones). Document anything that's nicked or dented: peeling paint, screw holes in walls, stained carpet, gouged counters – you get the idea. You'll want to sign and date this checklist, then put it somewhere safe until you move out. Without the checklist, the landlord could easily claim that you caused pre-existing damage, and you'd have no way to prove him or her wrong.

Make sure you get the landlord's phone number and e-mail address – cell phone numbers are best. You'll want that in case something goes wrong. Follow these tips, use common sense -- and don't let yourself get swept up in the excitement of finding your first place -- and you'll end up with a better home, even if that means paying a few dollars more each month ... one worthy of a housewarming party for your college buds.
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