How to spot a bad landlord

How to spot a terrible landlord before you rent

I’m an expert on bad landlords. But not by choice. I’m just lucky, I guess.

My best worst landlord story happened a few years ago. He had an odd habit of showing up, unannounced, just to “check on the place.” When his drop-bys started happening after dark, I told him to knock it off.

A few weeks later, I had been out of town. I came home late one night and headed straight to the shower. Mid-rinse, I thought I heard a noise. Wrapping myself in courage and a towel, I stepped out to the hallway – and saw my landlord sneaking out the front door.

Realizing he thought I was still out of town and had let himself in to snoop, I was furious. I called him, he started screaming, and it all went downhill from there. I moved out a week later.

The moral of the story: Never rent from a terrible landlord. Here’s how to spot one…

1. Do they care about appearances?

Jeremy Schuster knows about bad landlords.
Jeremy Schuster

You may be able to spot a bad landlord as soon as you pull up to the property.

“Inside and out, you can tell a lot just by seeing the property, especially if the general appearance isn’t kept up,” says Jeremy Schuster, a property manager with Metroplex Property Management in Fort Worth, Texas.

As soon as you pull up, Schuster says to ask yourself three questions, “Is the lawn cared for? Is the house cared for? Is stuff left undone?” If the landlord isn’t taking care of the property before you rent it, he probably won’t after you move in.

2. Do they leave the lights on?

On your walk-through, flip on the first light switch you see. If the lights are off, Schuster says, “It’s probably a good sign the landlord is trying to hide something about the property.” Generally, landlords have the option to have the power switched back into their name automatically when a tenant moves out, so they can make repairs, clean up, and show the property.

Without power, you can’t properly test light fixtures, fans, appliances or spot problems in dark corners – and a shady landlord knows that.

3. Are you being rushed?

“The landlord should take at least an hour of his time to let you walk through the rental, ask questions, and test stuff out,” Schuster says. If the landlord is rushing you through the tour, acting impatient, or otherwise trying to get you out faster than you’d like, it might be a warning sign. Either the landlord doesn’t want you to see the place is a slum, or he doesn’t care who he rents to.

4. Are they acting like a pro?

Not long after moving from my old place, I found a rental on Craiglist that seemed perfect. When I pulled up, I was greeted by a man in baggy sweats, a stained tank top, and sandals. During the walkthrough, he bragged about evicting two tenants, complained about another one, and scratched himself in an inappropriate place before trying to shake my hand.

I went with my gut and rented from someone else down the block. After moving in, I learned my neighbors called him “Local Slummy.”

While not all landlords need to show up in a suit and tie, be wary of any unprofessional behavior. That’ll only escalate once you sign the lease.

5. Do they call you back?

I keep a mental stopwatch running from the moment I call about a rental, and for good reason.

“If you don’t hear back from a landlord within a few business hours, it’s a big sign that once you are in there it will be even harder,” Schuster says. If you ever need maintenance or have a problem, you’ll end up having to hunt your landlord down just to get a response – and that will make living there miserable.

If you really like a rental, it may be worth giving the landlord a second chance. But Schuster says you should test their communication skills: “After looking at a property, call the landlord with a few simple questions. If they get right back to you, the first time was probably a fluke.” But if they still don’t respond, walk away.

6. Is the lease legal?

The lease is a big deal, and it’s your last chance to spot a terrible landlord before they’re your terrible landlord for the next 12 months. First, make sure the lease is “from your state office or state apartment association,” Schuster says.

Generally, these leases have the state seal or wording identifying them as an approved rental lease. If the lease looks heavily altered, or like something the landlord typed up himself, proceed with caution. Schuster adds, “More than likely, there is strange and contradictory wording in there that’s likely to screw you over.”

If the lease looks legit, comb over it carefully. If you find anything written heavily in the landlord’s favor, ask him to change it. If a landlord won’t consider adjusting unfair terms, walk away. If he will make adjustments, or the lease looks fine as is, and he’s passed the other tests, go ahead and sign. You’ve probably found a good landlord.

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