Every time you rent an apartment, you learn something new that you did wrong the time before. There are many types of landlords, maintenance people, problems, and laws that can throw you for a loop. While you can’t prepare yourself for everything ahead of time, there are quite a few things I wish I knew before getting my first apartment.
The first time you go off and live on your own—or at least away from your family—it can be incredibly exciting. Then, within a few months, the weight of your new responsibility can feel like a pretty heavy burden. But even after you pop your rental cherry, you’ll learn more ways that renting an apartment can give you grief. Fortunately, there are also lots of ways to avoid many common issues. Some of it may seem a little obsessive, or at least excessive, but that’s the sacrifice you make for preparedness. Think of it like buying insurance—you hate paying it until it pays you back. Speaking of which, you should consider rental insurance! But that’s another issue for another time. Let’s get on with the show.
You Can’t Pick Your Landlord
When you pick an apartment, you don’t get to pick the owner who rents to you. If you want to move in, you have to deal with them. Some landlords are awesome. My dad used to be one, and he was always very fair and lenient. Conversely, I’ve had a landlord who stole from me and another (my first, in fact) who took 10 months to fix a giant hole in my ceiling, and only did it because I called the city and had them cited. You can never know exactly who you’re going to get, but you can root out the bad ones in advance and foster a good relationship with anyone worth renting from.
You can easily find out if a landlord sucks with a few neighborly visits and/or phone calls. After you see an apartment you like—even after you submit your application—stop by a few other units and ask to speak with the tenants. It may feel weird to knock on a stranger’s door in a building you’ve never set foot in before, but that goes away once someone answers and you have a nice conversation. If you’re feeling too shy to do that, find someone walking around downstairs to ask instead.
Once you’ve got someone, find out what their experience has been with the landlord and what you might want to watch out for. Do they fix problems quickly? Are they organized? Flexible? Decent, kind, and understanding people? Some landlords might be a giant corporation in another city, which means you’ll never get to speak with them. Some might be a 90 year old woman who could drop dead in the middle of your lease. Find out who they are before you move in and what difficulties you may face if you choose to rent from them.
If you do decide to sign a lease, meet your landlord face to face if at all possible. Get to know the maintenance guy and any other key employees. If you ever need a favor, such as an extra few days to pay your rent or an urgent resolution to a broken toilet, you don’t want to be a faceless tenant to anyone who can help you. When problems occur, they want to think of you as the nice, responsible, happy tenant they met and enjoyed talking to. So pay your rent on time, keep your apartment in good shape, and foster a good relationship with your landlord. If they like you, they’ll be more willing to help you.
Sometimes all of this hard work can go down the drain. How? When your landlord decides to sell his or her building to another. Then you get a new landlord and have to start mostly from scratch. When this happens, try to get to know the new owners. Usually they’ll come by for inspection before they buy, so accommodate them and be friendly. As soon as this happens, however, scope out other places to live. You may not want to or have to move, but you don’t want to get stuck with a problematic new landlord you didn’t agree to have when you moved in. You won’t be able to break your lease, but if you’ve gone month-to-month or will have to resign soon, you’ll want a plan to vacate in the event things go south.
You Can’t Pick Your Neighbors, Either
Obviously you can’t pick your neighbors. Homeowners can’t either, but when you live in a multi-unit dwelling you’re a little closer to those neighbors than someone who just bought a new house. Furthermore, people who own their property are literally more invested in its upkeep and—especially with condos—who they live near. Renters, regardless of their merits, don’t have a reason to care that much. As a result, your odds of getting an awesome neighbor are considerably worse.
That said, I’ve had great ones. I’ve also had a variety of terrible ones. One used to get drunk and try to break into my apartment at least once a month. Another was a flight attendant twice my age who regularly tried to get me to have a threesome with her coworker. A more recent neighbor let her cat pee on my doorstep and blocked my car in the parking lot like it was her job. Some are weirder than terrible and others more terrible than weird. You’ll rarely draw the same card, but dealing with these problems requires mostly the same strategy.
First, talk to the neighbors and discuss the problem. Don’t write notes. You can make them as polite as a sugar plum fairy, but your neighbor will still probably read them like you mean to be annoying and rude because you’re criticizing their behavior. Knock on their door and be a nice human being. Let them know what’s bothering you and suggest a fair way to resolve the problem.
If talking to them gets you nowhere, contact your new friend the landlord. Ask them for help, and—whenever possible—cite a clause in your lease that the neighbor is violating. Most leases specify quiet hours. Whether you’ve got someone blasting dubstep through the walls or a drunk fellow waking you up because he can’t remember which door is his, you have cause for complaint. The landlord will then contact your neighbor and ask them to stop their behavior.
If this fails, file a complaint with the police. You can call to complain about noise and all sorts of legitimately inappropriate conduct. You shouldn’t resort to law enforcement if you can avoid it, but if your neighbor can’t shut up or you worry about them causing you harm, know that you can put your tax dollars to work to solve the problem.
You Should Pretend That You’re Buying a Home
Most apartment renters don’t think to ask if the water heater was replaced in the last six to eight years, if there’s a history of mold problems, or the last time the building was re-roofed. These are often questions left to prospective home buyers. It doesn’t hurt to ask these things, though. If you plan on renting for even just a few years, you want a building and a unit in good condition. You’re only going to find that out if you ask.
What should you ask? Start with what’s relevant to you. Perhaps you really don’t want to get lead poisoning, so you could ask if there’s any lead in the walls or lead paint on them. If you enjoy functioning appliances, find out when they were installed and how long they’ve been in use. If you live in a place that gets lots of rain, ask about the condition of the roof. If you live in a city prone to earthquakes, find out what level of impact the foundation is rated to withstand (if it is at all).
You might have trouble getting answers to all of these questions right away, so it helps to start with an easy one the person showing you the apartment will likely be able to answer: how old is the building and when, if ever, was it last renovated? Landlords love to brag about newer construction and renovations because they’re both big selling points to prospective tenants. It’s always a good question to get the ball rolling before you get into the nitty gritty details. Of course, there are plenty of good things to ask. We have a checklist to help you stay on task.
You Need to Know Your Neighborhood
You might think you know a neighborhood, but if you don’t spend a lot of time in the specific area you’re moving to you may find yourself surprised. I currently live in a wonderful apartment with a handful of downsides I anticipated and don’t mind that much. Because I didn’t pay close attention to traffic in the neighborhood prior to moving, however, I later found that it’s nearly impossible to turn left off of my street. I still would’ve moved in, but I could’ve started petitioning for a stoplight earlier had I noticed.
Sometimes you’ll find annoying downsides in your neighborhood after you move in and you’ll deal with them. Every neighborhood has its problems. Sometimes, however, you’ll find yourself in a place you have to live for a year and you’ll wish you didn’t. Perhaps you moved into an area with lots of crime because you failed to check crime reports. Maybe you moved to an apartment with your mostly outdoor cat and didn’t know it was feeding ground for coyotes. Neighborhoods offer all sorts of surprises, both good and bad, so it helps to get to know them in advance so you don’t pick one you’ll hate—even if the area seems ideal at first glance
At risk of sounding like a broken record, you avoid this by talking to people nearby. Fortunately, I’m not going to tell you to go talk to every person who lives within a mile radius. You don’t need to, because you can just connect with enough of them through the magic of the internet. Nextdoor is a social network for neighbors. You register an account with your address and you get to talk to other people who live near it. You can do this before you move, tell the community you’re thinking of relocating, and that you want to know what to expect—both good and bad.
I figured nobody used Nextdoor when I signed up. I was very surprised. I live in Los Angeles so I’m in a large city with more candidates for that kind of site. If you’re in a smaller town, you probably won’t have as much luck. In that case, just spend a good amount of time in the area you intend to move. Walk around. Talk to a couple of people you run into. Do things in proximity to your prospective apartment. You may not learn everything you need to know this way, but you’ll get a lot more information than if you just wing it and sign a lease.
Circumstances Change With the Seasons
Most people rent in the summer, and—generally speaking—things look great in the summer. But then the seasons change and your once wonderful apartment has problems. You’ll learn the heater isn’t quite as effective as you thought, or snow and rain somehow seep through your poorly-sealed windows. Weather can change your opinion of a place pretty quickly, so you should prepare yourself for these potential problems.
You can’t prevent all weather-related issues. Sometimes your landlord just won’t know, and they may not be forthcoming with the information you want. As previously suggested, this is where talking to existing tenants can help. Ask them if they had an trouble during extreme weather conditions. If so, find out how the landlord handled the situation. If it wasn’t well-managed, maybe you shouldn’t sign a lease. If it was, great. In fact, if you know you’re going to need something fixed come winter, ask the landlord to take care of it before your move-in date. You won’t be able to preempt all weather-related troubles, but if you do your due diligence you may save yourself a headache or two down the road.
Read the F@!*ing Lease!
To be honest, I knew I needed to read my lease when I moved into my first apartment because my dad told me repeatedly. But I didn’t want to read it, and just about everyone I knew at the time just signed theirs without actually paying attention to what it said. Yes, it’s a boring legal document. Yes, you’re unlikely to find any dealbreakers in the text. Yes, you’re part of a culture that’s used to scrolling to the bottom of EULAs and clicking “I Agree to Sign My Life Over to Google.” Still, you need to read your damn lease.
First, if you know what it says you can cite things in it when there are problems later. For example, the aforementioned quiet hours policy make it easy to prove you’re right in the event of a noise issue. If you don’t read the lease, you get to go back and search through it every time you need to see if it supports you in the event of an issue. This will waste more time than reading it before signing.
Second—and more importantly—you can request changes. I’m going to say this again for effect: you can request changes to your lease. Just because your landlord went through the trouble to download a lease template off the internet, change a few words, and print it out for you to sign doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. Han Solo was frozen in carbonite and Luke and Leia got him out. Your lease is written on paper and you can alter it with a twelve cent pen you stole from the office. If you don’t like something, cross it out or change it to what you do want. Next, tell your landlord why you changed it and ask them to either initial those changes with you or print a new and improved version with said changes. They don’t have to agree, but they probably will if your request is reasonable.
So read your damn lease, because you might be able to change the stuff you don’t like.
There’s a Thing Called the Tenants’ Rights Handbook
Believe it or not, you have rights as a tenant and they’re all summarized in a convenient handbook. Where do you get this handbook? On the internet! All you have to do is perform a web search for your state (or even city, if you live in a large one) and the words “tenant rights handbook” to find a PDF. It can teach you a lot of things you’ll hopefully never have to know but want to anyway.
The book tells you what your landlord can and can’t do and what recourse you have in the event of a problem. For example, in some states your landlord cannot charge rent or fees for pets. Nevertheless, many do anyway because most people don’t know whether or not that’s illegal in their location. If you read the handbook, however, you will.
What do you do in the event your landlord does a bad thing? You can tell them to stop and cite the law in the handbook. If that doesn’t work, you can take legal action. While this costs money if you actually hire a lawyer, state legal aid may assist you free of charge depending on your circumstances. If you find yourself in a dire situation, search the web for legal aid and your city (or county) and call the office to request their support. In many cases you won’t need much legal help, however, and can just file in small claims court where you can represent yourself. This only helps if there are monetary damages, but most problems worth this kind of time will involve you getting screwed out of a good chunk of cash.
This list could be a lot longer. I could write a book on what I’ve learned from years of renting for myself and renting to others. That said, this covers the essentials. While it might make renting seem like a horrible nightmare, if you’ve never rented before you shouldn’t worry too much. It can get overwhelming at times, but it’s not as much work as owning a place. It’s also a non-issue on most days. Just do your research, ask lots of questions, and the problems you do encounter should be pretty minor and easy to resolve.
Images by vipman (Shutterstock), John Hanley (Shutterstock), Goodluz (Shutterstock), Andreas Meyer (Shutterstock), alexskopje (Shutterstock), Zastolskiy Victor (Shutterstock), and auremar (Shutterstock).