Before signing a lease it is prudent to know what you are getting into. That means a close reading of lease terms and taking a good look at the apartment. Does it reflect professional maintenance? Have low-budget handymen cut corners over the years? What needs repair today? Think like a housing inspector and avoid unpleasant surprises later.
In a roundtable dialogue one landlord said that prospective tenants should simply do some “due diligence” before renting from a landlord. But there is no way for a tenant to do that diligence: the city posts no landlord rating and even a search of code enforcement records will produce no instance of a code violation or penalty. There is little diligence to be done!
The broader issue is the challenge of assessing the reliability of a prospective landlord. There is no screening service or credit check available to prospective tenants. Sometimes a longtime tenant won’t ever know the identity of the owner. Managers and management companies rotate. ‘Bad landlord’ stories abound and what they have in common is that none of those tenants knew what she was getting into.
Think Like a Housing Inspector!
A careful inspection of the premises before renting goes a long way toward suggesting the business practices of the landlord. We suggest any prudent prospective tenant should think like an inspector: come armed with a checklist and look for problems.
Pay careful attention to bathrooms and kitchens. An apartment that does not meet the state’s ‘clean and sanitary’ condition is not ready for occupancy.
- Check the shower/tub for cracked caulk or signs of mold;
- Look for oddly textured areas on the walls or ceiling that may suggest a water leak (spongy is giveaway);
- Check inside bathroom vanities and kitchen cabinets for wall holes that can allow vermin to enter;
- Watch for bugs and mouse droppings.
Test the fixtures. Switch on the heater and stove. Check for sufficiently hot water, sufficient water pressure, and the rate of drainage in bath vanities and tubs. Try the lights and even inspect wall sockets: do they look secure? If you plug in an appliance do they arc?
Try the windows and doors. Do they close tightly? Are they secure?
Check the floors. Is any part of the floor covering coming loose from the underlayment? Are floorboards warped or springy? Is the carpet worn or in any place buckled or rippled?
An Inspector Works From a Checklist
Use a checklist or inventory to structure the inspection. Use this all-in-one handy habitability checklist [pdf] and bring a pen to check things off as you inspect them. The California Tenants Guide inventory checklist is another thorough survey template. (It will be invaluable for conducting the final inspection before move-out too.) The Apartment Owners Association provides landlords with an premises inventory that covers the same ground but also includes an area for both tenant and landlord to sign-off on the inspection. Great idea!
Document conditions. Images are indispensable. File them away with a digital copy of your lease in the cloud. The images will come in very handy should a dispute about the security deposit. Do conditions today at move-out show more than ordinary wear-and-tear compared to the move-in inspection?
Use the apartment survey to create a to-do list for the landlord. A responsible landlord will be amenable to reasonable repairs. But get it in writing! The objective is to lock-in the landlord’s commitment to fixes you would like to see made before you move in. How the landlord responds will suggest something about how he will handle problems as they arise later.
Remember: our leverage is never greater than before we sign the lease. Get the landlord to formally commit to fixes now rather than haggle about them later.