Everyone knows signing a lease is a commitment, but before you get to that step, even applying for the place can have sneaky costs. Smart renters should consider a rental application as the multi-thousand dollar commitment that it is. You should be prepared ahead of time with the right questions to ask. For example…
“What’s the tenant screening process?”
Many landlords engage in tenant screening, which often includes running a credit check with your application and costs a fee the landlord will charge to you. It could be a hard inquiry, which hurts your credit score, or a soft inquiry, which does not. Find out what kind of inquiry your potential landlord uses.
If you’re denied your rent application, always ask why. Sometimes, it can be a sign of bank fraud or a mistake. For example, many tenant screening services report whether a tenant has previously gone to landlord-tenant court, without explaining who won or why. Landlords may assume this means you’ve failed to pay rent or destroyed property, when in fact, you were in court because of problems caused by the landlord. If there’s a mistake on your record, call the appropriate companies quickly, because these smudges on your record will follow you around!
If you’re denied, it could also be because of rental discrimination. If you’re denied a rental unit race, discouraged from your desired apartment, or otherwise treated differently based on your color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, disability, it’s considered rental discrimination in the United States. There are some exceptions for smaller landlords – you can learn more and report problems here. It may not be worth forcing a discriminatory landlord to rent to you, but you should help other renters by taking 5 minutes to file a complaint. States and cities sometimes extend these protections to prohibit discrimination by political affiliation, the source of income, appearance, LGBT status, immigration status, age, status as a student, and more. Search RenterPeace to learn more about the rules in your jurisdiction.
“Can I speak to a previous tenant?”
Not a lot of landlords will help you with this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If the apartment is in a building, you might consider investigation yourself by asking the neighbors for their opinions of the landlord and about latent problems that you can’t easily discover with a quick walkthrough. Ask whether they’ve had problems with the landlord and if the landlord has a reputation for not returning security deposits. Also, ask about noise, neighbors, utility problems, seasonal problems (e.g., do the water pipes freeze every winter?), and the open-ended question, “Do you like living here?” Because finding and connecting with previous renters can be hard, RenterPeace is currently working to help renters learn more about their apartment before they move in.
“What are the house rules?”
You should check the lease, but it sometimes helps to ask the landlord directly. Often, landlords will have a standard lease that covers all the landlord’s bases just in case, but in practice, they’re more lenient. For example, the lease may prohibit pets, but the landlord may not care. You should cross out any sections that you both agree should be modified and initial next to them. The most common things to check for:
- Smoking marijuana indoors or outdoors (where it’s legalized)
- Whether Airbnbing and subletting is allowed
- Who fixes broken appliances and furnishings?
- Policy on throwing parties or having guests
“Can you clarify the rent and fees?”
The listing you saw might be outdated or for a similar unit in the same building. If the rent the landlord tells you in person is higher than the one you saw, pointing this out might get you the lower rent. And you never know if asking in person will yield a lower number! As for utilities, remember to factor these into your overall budget. Landlords may have insight into average monthly utility payments.
Find out early about any non-refundable fees and what they’re for. Most state laws prohibit non-refundable deposits, but clarifying this ahead of time helps ensure you’re on the same page!
If you prefer to pay online, it helps to know ahead of time that you’ll have to adjust to paying by check. But, more importantly, a landlord who says they want you to pay cash is a big red flag. Likewise, a landlord who says to pay “whenever you can” probably has a cavalier attitude toward their own lease agreement – another red flag. And you should know ahead of time whether you can afford potential late fees and whether they’re in compliance with your state law.
Applying for an apartment may seem like an intimidating undertaking, but with the right prep, you can protect yourself and find the right place. Happy hunting!