I’ve been lucky enough to have several terrible landlords. My last landlord accused us of stealing the dishwasher, kept our security deposit, and refuses to send a letter detailing what he charged us for. In my current apartment, I was bitten by a brown recluse spider (after asking my complex to spray for them) and appeared on the local news. I’ve made many mistakes throughout my time leasing, and I want to make sure no one else makes the same mistakes I did.
When touring apartments or houses, make sure you are touring the exact unit you will be renting. Don’t be afraid to poke around and look for problems, because once you’ve signed a lease there’s no going back. Take as many pictures as you can. Take pictures of everything. We were accused of stealing a dishwasher in my last place (and replacing it with an older one), and guess what? I didn’t have a picture of the dishwasher to prove we didn’t steal it.
Leasing companies will tell you anything to get you to sign a lease. When looking for a rental unit, make sure you read reviews of the property or complex online. Don’t pay any attention to positive reviews; many of them are left by employees of the property management company, or paid for by the property management company (many of them will offer incentives to leave positive reviews online). Knock on doors and talk to people who currently live there. This is the best way to find out if a place is a good fit for you; current tenants don’t have any incentive to get you to move in, so they’ll be honest with you.
Ask as many questions as you can think of before you sign a lease. Know exactly what you can and can’t do with the property; if it has a yard, are you allowed to put plants outside or garden? Can you put nails in the wall to hang picture frames or mount a TV? Can you decorate the exterior of your unit for holidays or special occasions?
The best living experience I’ve ever had was renting a room in a house from a friend. He charged us really reasonable rent, paid for all utilities, and even bought us pizza and donuts all the time. On top of that, we could move out whenever we wanted, and when I was in a bind and needed a place to rent for a few months he came through. A situation like this may not be possible for everyone, but it’s important to explore all your options when looking for a place.
Aside from picking a place, picking a roommate can make or break your renting experience. The only bad roommates I’ve ever had were the roommates I didn’t choose my freshman year of college. All of my other roommates were friends of mine before we lived together, and they were all positive experiences.
If you are looking for a roommate, I would recommend picking someone you’re already friends with or already know. Living with a stranger can either work out really great or really poorly. Vet anyone you plan to live with fully; know how clean they are, how often they’ll have guests over, and what their expected household responsibilities will be. If you can, talk to people they’ve lived with before.
Not all times with the roomies will be good. With everyone I’ve ever lived with, we had arguments, tension, and bad days. Don’t expect to always get along with your roommates; the important thing is knowing how to resolve conflict in your household, and compromising to find solutions. If you are living with more than one other person, don’t always side with one other person in the household. You don’t want the other roommate to feel like you are ganging up on them.
Make time to hang out with your roommates. Even if you’re both really busy, you need to have some roommate bonding time. Being close with your roommates will make your experience that much better, even if you have a terrible landlord. My best friends turned out to be my roommates. They were always there for me when I had a rough day, and were always down to hang out or do something fun.
I’m a very introverted person, but I would still choose to have roommates over living alone. Not only does it make renting more affordable, it also gives you a sense of family that I think everyone needs.
Before you sign anything, read through your entire lease and know what is expected of you and what is expected of your landlord. The property you’re living in is not yours, but you still need to treat it with the care and respect you would treat your own home with. This also means the landlord is usually responsible for any maintenance or repairs. If you try to be a handy-person and end up damaging the property the landlord will hold you responsible, so it’s best to leave maintenance to the landlord.
Repairs or maintenance might not always be timely, but be persistent. Talk to them every day and ask them why they haven’t fixed your problem yet. If all else fails, do what I did and go to the local news. Landlords might not want to pay to have your problem fixed, but I guarantee they don’t want to be on the local news being portrayed as a slumlord.
Landlords aren’t your friends either (well in my case one was, but they’re probably not your friend). They may seem nice and friendly, but their goal is to get as much money from you as possible at the lowest cost.
If you are having trouble with your apartment or unit, know your legal rights. In many states, there aren’t strong tenant protection laws. That means that legally, there isn’t usually a whole lot you can do. Repairs are often required to be made “in a timely manner,” which is pretty open to interpretation. If your landlord is refusing to make repairs or isn’t making them in a timely manner, you probably can’t withhold rent. Withholding rent can lead to an eviction.
If you live in or near a college town, the school might offer free legal advice. There are many different non-profit organizations around the country that offer free legal advice to lower-income tenants, so make sure you use all of the resources available.
I know I said it earlier, but I have to say it again: take pictures of everything. The condition of your unit at the time you move in needs to be fully documented. Things you don’t think matter, like a dishwasher, might turn out to be really important when it’s time to move out. After you take pictures, email them to yourself so you have a paper trail that shows when the pictures were taken.
I hope this guide keeps some people from making the same mistakes I made. Not all landlords are skeevy people, but many of them will try to take advantage of you, especially if you’re a lower-income tenant who might not know any better.