I've rented upward of 20 different apartments and single-family homes over the years. After a few less-than-ideal situations, I learned to ask questions. When I meet with a prospective landlord for the first time, I bring with me a list of topics I want to cover. What renters should realize is that an interview works both ways; the landlord wants to know about you, but you should also want to know about the landlord.
No. 1: How are maintenance issues handled? I lived in one apartment owned by a landlord who would take two or three weeks to fix a leaky faucet or repair a malfunctioning appliance. It was miserable because I had no recourse unless I wanted to hire someone or make the repairs myself.
How should you, as the renter, make the landlord aware of a maintenance request? And in what time frame should you expect a response? If the landlord doesn't give you a specific answer, or if she does not seem concerned about the issue, you might run into problems once you become a tenant.
No. 2: How many people have lived here? In my experience, a rental property is always more desirable if the landlord has lived in it or if there have been few other tenants. When a rental unit has changed hands dozens of times, it is impossible to know what problems might crop up during your tenancy.
Furthermore, if tenants move in and out quickly, this could signify an issue with the unit. Maybe the neighbors are noisy, or perhaps the landlord is slow to correct problems. You might also want to ask about the history of the building. Any fires? Burglaries? Are the plumbing and electrical systems updated?
No. 3: What is your policy on upgrades? Some landlords, in an effort to secure a responsible tenant, will make upgrades to the unit or allow the tenant to make changes himself. Ask about painting, flooring, landscaping, and other upgrades that could increase the appeal of the property.
My family recently moved into a new house and we asked that the carpets be removed and replaced with laminate wood flooring. Carpet traps allergens and bacteria, and is more difficult to keep clean. This change benefited us as tenants as well as the landlord because the laminate is more durable, and therefore will not have to be replaced as often.
No. 4: Is extermination offered? A common problem I've encountered in rental properties is infestations: bugs, mold, and mildew, in particular. Find out from the landlord whether an exterminator will service the property on a regular basis (every six months to one year). Find out how mold and mildew are handled; for example, most of my landlords have asked to be notified so they can solve the problem themselves.
No. 5: What are the utility expenses like? I lived in one house where I paid a $400 electricity bill every month because the water heater was old and inefficient. Now I ask to see the previous six months of utility bills (water, gas, electric). Not only does this help me budget, but it also alerts me to a potentially expensive rental that I might want to avoid.
If the utility bills are high and you really like the unit, ask if appliances or fixtures can be replaced prior to move-in. Replacing an outdated water heater or a leaky sink can make a big difference in monthly living expenses.
No. 6: Are there any special rules? It doesn't matter how thoroughly you read your lease (and you should -- before signing), because little things can get past you. I had one landlord who did not allow tenants to burn candles in the apartment, and another who did not permit tenants to install bird feeders in the backyard.
This also helps you get to know your potential landlord a little better. You'll learn about his personality and you'll be able to gauge whether you will get along down the road.