Desirable features which tend to dominate our focus when we look at rentals include accessibility, parking, stairs, the number of bathrooms in relation to bedrooms, view, privacy, and even wall colors. However, as important as those may be in our decision there are actually additional items which we might give a little more attention, prior to signing a lease. It is not the point of this guide to have the reader become so obnoxious no landlord wants to rent to you. However, some not so obvious clues, to avert future problems, are provided here.
Most city ordinances will favor the renter, when health and safety violations are revealed after-the-fact. It is not the fact it will and must get fixed, or you will be compensated for inconvenience or even to move; but rather the intrusion in your life and routine. So while an ounce of prevention may seem trivial, it can narrow the probability of a situation ranging from inconvenient to disastrous. Know ahead of time which items you can live with, if this is indeed your ideal dwelling! Use discretion as you ask about any of these items, don’t create a conflict. Landlords don’t like tenants who are trivial but this list is sufficient to keep you out of that category.
1. Look under the sink.
· A leaking faucet, or pipe, will leave evidence, either warped boards or tell-tale black marks or growth (indicating mold). If it looks or smells wet, ask discretely as you tour the rest of the premises if or when the plumbing was last serviced.
· If you see rat droppings, or something scooting away when you open the cupboards then you need to ask how often the premises are sprayed. The larger the complex, if you are looking at a condo or apartment, the higher the probability of pests. However, you do need to know how often they spray. Will you be home, will it cause allergy issues, do you prefer an organic solution, etc.
2. Candles burning or every window is open when you arrive
· An empty house should not have an offensive lingering odor. Source of odors can range from a previous tenant who smoked, a/c filters not recently changed, or mold due to a leak within the house or roof. However, if it was recently painted it is possible the person showing the place wanted to clear the air, although most paints are odorless. Also, carpets hold odors from pets or small children. More and more property owners are switching to low maintenance laminate or wood flooring. But ask when the carpet was last cleaned. If the carpet is wet when you arrive, and the air is stifling, that is a sign it was not properly cleaned or an inappropriate cleaning solution was used.
· Odors in the closet WILL transfer to your clothes. A small box of baking powder in the closet will eliminate most odors but no amount of candles or open windows can change the stench of mold or rat feces. You cannot expect to complain about odors AFTER you move in without an uphill battle. How can you prove your clothes didn’t have an odd odor BEFORE moving into this spotless place. You cannot.
3. Turn on the AC and heat
· Some central AC units are located on the roof, be aware of this noise. Is it tolerable or above your bedroom or your children’s room. A stain in the ceiling may not indicate a leaky roof but instead a unsecure drip pan or one which overflows regularly. Address this issue immediately. If you intend to store items in the attic be aware of the drip pan if the AC is overhead.
· Odors transfer into the vents. Be aware of where the filters are and if they have been changed since the last summer. Be aware of the type of heater pilot light, electronic igniter or manual. During the summer you may want to turn it off or have the gas company come out annually if they offer this service.
4. Which way do are the windows oriented?
· A west facing window may offer a gorgeous sunset but if those windows are not insulated and you live in an area with 90degree+ summers you may find it more difficult to keep those rooms or the entire premises cool. Likewise, an east facing unprotected side of the house may prohibit you from having the advantage of the coolness of an early morning.
· While every house has an east and west side, if you are looking at a multi-dwelling structure where all the units have an after-market reflective application, you can discern those rooms heat up significantly. Does the unit come without insulated drapes etc. to reduce the effects of the sun? Are the windows older and therefore do not maintain a tolerable climate indoors.
5. Gardeners & Pool Maintenance
· Single dwelling property owners often use outside services to be their eyes and ears, all within their legal rights. However, if the landlord says he will manage the yard and/or pool make sure it is on a schedule much as a third party service would maintain.
· Landlords cannot force you to water the plants/lawn beyond the State statutes if you are under drought conditions. If you have a vast piece of property with spring green lawn you might want to clarify the watering parameters. Gardeners, in a drought environment, have seen business cut back as water restrictions limit necessity for lawn work and may not change the automatic sprinklers to comply with your budget and the law.
6. Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detectors
· Know the law. Some landlords will bulk about putting a smoke detector in every bedroom (most city regulations define a bedroom as a room which must have a window and a closet) and likewise a carbon monoxide detector in the kitchen. However, you also need to ask when the battery is changed. An inoperative unit is not helpful and may prove to be deadly.
· Turn on the oven. The gas company has a compliance list of how long it should take for the igniter to light the oven. Also turn on the stove. All burners should work. If you are sure you want to sign lease documents ask for the gas shut-off valve location. Some states require gas meters to have an automatic shut-off in the event of an earthquake.
7. Electrical outlets & power source
· If there are no three pronged outlets in the house then ask for a certified electrician to add them in the room. Count how many outlets there are in the room. You don’t want to be running extension cords just to maintain your basic electronic gizmos. How many outlets are in the kitchen. One is NOT enough. While in the kitchen sniff inside the refrigerator, if it is provided in the lease. You don’t want a freezer that taints your ice cream!
· Where is the circuit breaker? If located outdoors, is it covered and accessible during the rain (path is not obstructed). Likewise the water shut off, know the location, as well as sprinkler shut off.
8. Laundry Room & Water Heater
· Turn on the hot water in each shower to see how long it takes for hot water to appear. Also, determine if water pressure is adequate. Now do likewise in the kitchen and simultaneously.
· Does the water heater have a drip pan? Is it located in the garage where if it breaks or leaks it will result in the least amount of damage to your property stored nearby. Is it insulated? This helps reduce your heating costs.
9. The Fruit is Yours and All of the Garage
· Even if the water is paid by the landlord they cannot exclude you from enjoying the vegetation. If there are five fruit trees and the landlord wants to pick the fruit, those parameters SHOULD BE in writing before you move into the house. Check the laws in your community because they are very explicit whether or not a weekend appointment can be imposed for non-emergency visits, without mutual agreement.
· If you allow the landlord to leave his antique car in the garage it means you are renting a house WITHOUT a garage. Do not let him keep his property in a shed, or closet, etc without written parameters when he has access to it, otherwise it could be at a time inconvenient to you, such as a surprise birthday party etc. or a regular visit to inspect your lifestyle and housekeeping.
10. The Rent is Due
· If the rent is due on the 15th and you pay on the 16th will you be subject to a fee? How much? Make sure you know the penalty for a late payment. Many landlords are signing up for electronic payment services which should eliminate dropping off or picking up a payment. However, if it isn’t in writing then the definition of late is very clear, anytime after the date you agreed it would be paid when you signed the lease documents.
· If you always pay by check and discover the landlord, of this absolutely perfect place, wants you to pay in cash offer the alternative to pay by Cashier’s check or Money Order (Walmart has a multitude of affordable options). You do not want anyone to have a predictable, on the 30th of every month, $>2000 in cash on your person.
· The tenant is presumed to have less potential for a loss (given that the apartment, condo, house is usually worth upwards of $250,000). Prospective renters oblige with financial disclosures, employee statements, bank statements etc. However, unless you have a history of not paying rent, or this is your first rental agreement some of this information is too much. When a landlord wants employment details that go beyond a recent pay stub, if they want to look at your tax statements then you have to ask why.
· Conversely, you are taking a risk too. You are entrusting peace-of-mind to someone you presume owns the property (!), and who is not behind in his loan payments (especially a second mortgage). Ask to see proof of ownership and proof of last payment of the mortgage. While the courts have been helpful to renters stuck in a foreclosure it more than likely means you will have to move. Some of the red flags pointed out above are also areas to watch if you meet resistance to fix PRIOR to renting. More than likely there is no money to fix obvious issues, or they don’t care.
Signing a lease protects you as well as the property owner. Knowing ahead of time what is acceptable and what should be fixed is much easier than struggling month after month with one outlet to accommodate all your needs or a soiled carpet etc. Be cautious but don’t let minor issues thwart you from discovering and enjoying the best location, location, location!