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The Renter’s Guide to Avoiding a God-Awful Landlord

First things first: Outside of a rent-controlled crystal ball, there’s no real foolproof way to be sure your landlord or property manager won’t suck. Like most people in most relationships, they may represent themselves as cool, chill and fair when they’re anything but, and it takes some time before you realize they’ll never really fix anything, and are actually snooping over the fence and digging through your trash to find out what beer you drink so they can tell your next landlord (true story).

Yet, unlike most relationships, they have almost all the power — after all, they hold the literal keys — so they don’t have to care what you think of them. And why should they? There are 20 other suckers in line for this overpriced hovel with a broken showerhead, too. Worse, some 65 percent of adults under the age of 35 are renting, and they’re doing it on wages that won’t budge — not to mention, with an increasingly lower supply of rental housing.

That means we’re more fucked than ever when it comes to finding a place to pretend is home. It’s bad enough to struggle to pay the rent, even worse to do so at a place where the property manager is a grade A hosebeast.

Of course, some landlords are terrific, well-adjusted people with boundaries, a smidge of humanity and the wherewithal to fix your refrigerator when it’s on the fritz. But all it takes is a couple of really bad experiences to put you on guard.

So how does the average renter sniff out the typical pain-in-the-ass stuff from the living nightmare? Let’s do our best to figure it out.

To be clear, yes, landlords gotta landlord. Which means a certain amount of landlording is expected. Collecting rent? Yes. Enforcing basic rules about noise and trash disposal? Sure. Do they get to check in with landlords of Christmas past to find out whatever they can about your character? Unfortunately.

But why doesn’t that go both ways? Why can’t we find out as quickly if they’re the sort of landlord who never fixes the drip in the kitchen, or the caved-in rotting shelf under the sink? How do we find out if they’re the constantly suspicious type bordering on paranoid?

In my experience, you get the completely MIA landlord who never bothers you, but never fixes anything, either. Or you get the landlord who will fix everything, but only within an inch of its life, and the price is constantly having to talk to them and submit to their scrutiny. Both are utterly agonizing experiences that I’m convinced will be revealed as some kind of epic real-life Punk’d.

Still, we should be able to pick our landlord poison before we start sipping. A few tips…

Search the Internet

Just as you would search a future Tinder date to make sure you aren’t meeting up with a complete nutjob, or employer to see how people like working there, plop the management company, property manager, address or whatever info you’ve got into a search engine and see what turns up. Sites like the Better Business Bureau, Apartment Ratings, Whose Your Landlord, Review Your Landlord, Rate My Landlord and others purport to have some of this information.

This should be automatic any time you’re about to lock yourself into a year of anything. But there are caveats: They rely on crowdsourcing, so you’d have to be dealing with a known quantity, and if, like me, you’re mostly renting from individuals or investment groups, you can’t find diddly squat online about them.

No one I’ve ever rented from shows up on any of these databases, so it’s likely that many renters quietly put up with having to stick rent in cash in the freezer so the landlord could pick it up at an undisclosed time, or with living with a dryer that requires that you click six times to the left, four to the right, hit start three times, unplug it and repeat to get the damn thing to work. (And that’s the version they claimed to “fix.”)

Second, people who complain on the internet are often outliers, so aggrieved that they will make the actual effort to create some kind of log-in just so they can go to town on someone. This means they’re offering somewhat useful information, but maybe the kind that should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s merely one piece of the puzzle.

Third, you are legally allowed to ask for a background check on the landlord. But even landlords who pass the test of any criminal convictions can still be a big, giant, nosy pain in your ass. In other words, there’s no official background check to tell you they like to rummage the recycling.

Look at the Condition of the Apartment

Many sites insist that if the place looks like a shit show, it’s proof of a bad landlord, but this is only, again, somewhat useful. It’s often hard to tell how good a place is until you live there. What looks freshly cleaned and painted could be the lipstick on a black mold pig. Sure, you can (and by god, you should) check the water pressure before you fork over that deposit, but you’d have to move in and shower completely to know that the water heater cuts out in three minutes, or that there’s a weird smell every time you use the garbage disposal, and so on.

Another caveat, though: I’ve lived in places where the landlord is such a pain to deal with that many tenants will simply live with broken shit rather that have to invite a busybody into the place. It could still be proof the landlord sucks, just not for the reason you think. Basically, your shit might get fixed okay, it’s just you’d take a dishwasher that doesn’t actually wash dishes over the headache of getting your landlord in there, to have them act weird, pissy and annoyed, only to then lecture you on every perceived violation in sight.

Turn On Your Bullshit Detector

In my experience, property managers are typically fairly defensive people who, in exchange for living on the premises, have to harass everyone who lives there to make sure they keep their jobs, and can only “fix” things for the cheapest amount of labor so as to maximize profits. Maybe they’re used to dealing with squatters who host meth parties, but this naturally puts you at odds with them even when you’re a law abiding citizen who pays the rent on time and isn’t hosting chainsaw demonstrations in your living room.

If you can see clear problems with the place, like water stains, a weird smell, rusty pipes, ask. If the landlord is evasive or weird about it, it’s not a good sign. But even if they answer quickly and professionally, it doesn’t mean you’re getting the truth.

A bit of personal experience in this regard: While looking at one place, the deafening screech of several fire trucks roared by, which is when we noticed it was directly across from the fire station. Seeing the look of disapproval on our faces — we had a four-year-old, after all — the landlord quickly rushed in with a good spin: “Oh, they’re not that loud, are very respectful and always drive two blocks up the street before they hit the sirens.”

Four years later, I can say with utter certainty: Two blocks? More like two seconds. Sirens around the clock, at all hours. Like, you know, you’d expect from a fire station. We believed it because we wanted to, sure. But also: Big fucking landlord lie!

Talk to the Other Tenants

While plenty of guides mention that you should be a great tenant, document everything, brush up on your renter’s rights in your state (because they vary), they all undercut your best bet: Ask questions of other tenants.

I wish I had. This might not be easy unless they’re hanging around. It only really works if it’s an apartment complex, and not a house, because the previous tenants are often already long gone. If you can knock on a door or run into someone in a common area, ask what it’s like to live there, how laidback the landlord is and how good he or she is at addressing repairs in a timely manner. This will likely bring you much closer to the truth.

That said, if you really want the place, and you’re desperate for an apartment, you might take it anyway, or you might not believe the warning. In my case, a guy on his way out of my complex warned us that the landlord looks through the trash (in his case, uncovering gluten-free beer). As such, she knows everything you buy and throw out — and worse yet, she’ll mention it to the next landlord calling for a reference.

We thought he was joking, but turns out the joke is on us: My next landlord already knows I always pay rent on time, didn’t violate the lease, but I really like beer. Luckily, she doesn’t mind.