By Daniel Bortz
Renting an apartment is no walk in the park: In this era of Craigslist scams and jargon-filled lease agreements, so much can go wrong, landing unwitting renters in a financial mess, stuck in apartments they regret.
So before you start swooning over “dreamy” apartment listings, wake up and take note of all the potholes that might trip you up on your way to moving in. The good news? These soul-crushing problems are totally avoidable, as long as you enter this fray prepared. So heads up! Here are some of the top mistakes renters make, so you can steer clear.
Not investigating the neighborhood
Before you start viewing apartments, you need to figure out where you want to live, says Marin King, a real estate agent at Keller Williams Realty in New York City. King recommends narrowing down your search to one or two neighborhoods. Look at important factors such as safety (My Local Crime or SpotCrime can help) and school quality (GreatSchools.org) if you have school-age children.
You should also stroll around the neighborhood at different times of the day to assess intangibles, says Joe DeFilippo, a real estate agent and rental specialist with City Chic Real Estate in Washington, DC. What’s the noise level at night? What are the neighbors like? Is there enough outdoor space to walk your dog?
Underestimating your total monthly costs
This is one of the biggest mistakes renters can make, says DeFilippo. After all, if you stretch your budget too thin, you could wind up in serious financial trouble. Hence, “You need to know your numbers,” says DeFilippo.
Ideally, your rent should be no more than one-fourth of your take-home pay. So if the rent is $1,000, that means you’ll want to take home $4,000 per month. But don’t forget about additional living expenses like food, utilities, and renters insurance. Plus you should have a chunk set aside for “start-up expenses,” such as a rental application fee (usually $30 to $50 per tenant over 18 years old), security deposit (typically equivalent to one month’s rent), moving costs, and, of course, the cost of furnishing your new digs.
Oh, one more thing: If you use a real estate agent to help you find an apartment, you may have to pay your agent a fee. The most common amount charged by real estate agents is one month’s rent, but in some rental markets—and some buildings—the owner of the rental property pays the renter’s agent. In other words, it may be free for you to use a rental agent, who can help you find properties, schedule showings, guide you through the application process, and even negotiate rent with the landlord.
Not researching the landlord or property management company
You want a landlord or property manager that’s going to be responsive and efficient when maintenance issues arise—and you can easily assess these things before you sign the lease. Look at online reviews on sites like Yelp! and ReviewMyLandlord.com to see what previous tenants have to say. However, “take online reviews with a grain of salt,” says DeFilippo. “Normally, people only leave reviews when they have a horrible or amazing experience, and you also don’t always know the specific circumstances if someone leaves a terrible review.” Also do a Google search of the landlord or property management company’s name to see if there’s a criminal record.
Moreover, some consumer advocacy groups publish lists online of bad landlords, like The Landlord Watchlist, which culls data on New York City’s 100 “worst” landlords, so see if there’s one in your city.
Skimming the rental agreement
Your lease will spell out your rent payment, the size of your security deposit, lease period, rent payment due date, and obligations as a tenant, among other important terms. But because this is a legal document, the language can be confusing, says Marin. The good news is that a number of tenants’ rights centers offer free legal advice to renters, so “don’t be afraid to get help if you don’t understand something,” says Marin.
Not documenting the apartment’s condition before you move in
You should always do a walk-through for pre-existing damage before you move in, says DeFilippo. If you discover any damages, dents, or marks, take photographs and share them with your landlord via email, so that you have documentation. If your landlord doesn’t provide you with an inspection checklist, we recommend using this condition of rental property checklist. (Make sure your landlord signs it before your lease starts.)
Forgetting to transfer utilities to your name
Unless utilities—such as water, sewage, gas, electric, and oil service—are included in your rent, you’ll probably have to change them to your name before you move in. (Your landlord or property manager should provide you with contact information for these companies.) Usually, transfers can be done without turning off utilities, which is particularly important if you’re moving during the peak of summer or winter, since air-conditioners can conk out when they get overheated, while pipes can freeze and burst from extremely cold temperatures.