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What to know before you talk to a prospective landlord

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Just as you check the Blue Book value on automobiles before you go car shopping, you should arm yourself with information before you go to an appointment with a potential landlord. With the right facts in hand, you can help ensure that you'll pay a fair rent, that you don't end up in court and that you and your roommates remain on speaking terms.

What is the going rate?

"With residential rentals, as opposed to commercial, the 'per foot' measure isn't common," says attorney Janet Portman, co-author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide" and managing editor of NOLO, which publishes do-it-yourself legal guides. "Instead you'd want to study the comps just as you would if you were buying a house. What does a place like this rent for, in this neighborhood, with these amenities? Check the listings on Craigslist, the local newspaper and wherever landlords advertise. Once you know the going rate for comps, you can decide whether the rent charged for the place you're thinking of renting is market rent."

Who owns the property?

You'd assume the person handing you the rental agreement would be the owner or at least the owner's representative. Not so fast. Do your homework first to make certain.

"Make sure the person presenting himself or herself as the owner actually is the owner," Portman says. In some states with high foreclosure rates, such as Arizona, California and Florida, unscrupulous people are breaking the locks on homes and then advertising those homes as rentals, Portman says.

How often does the landlord end up in small claims court?

Whether the landlord is suing or being sued, too much time in small claims court is a red flag. You don't want to waste your valuable time in court or live among problem-causing neighbors.

"If the landlord is often the plaintiff or defendant in small claims court, that tells you there's something not professional about the way this person runs the business," Portman says.

Get a roommates' agreement

Even if she's been your best friend since kindergarten — especially if she's been your best friend since kindergarten — get everything in writing to keep conflict to a minimum and preserve the friendship.

"Roommates are probably the main reason for everyone's biggest headache in a rental situation," says Barney Fadal, CEO of the National Renters Association, an advocate for renters. "Most people move in as best friends and move out as enemies." Make a roommates' contract that is separate from the lease to cover rent, utilities, borrowing clothes and keeping the property clean, he says.

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