How to Spot a Rental Nightmare

You landed a great rental, you’re getting settled in, and everything is awesome—or so you thought. Night falls, and the smell of Chinese takeout wafts through your living room. The college guys upstairs start playing a video game (loudly), and suddenly you feel like you’re in a war zone. You try to take a shower to escape, but the water pressure is so bad you can’t even wash the shampoo out of your hair. As you finally drift off to sleep, you’re jolted awake by … what is that? Are they bowling? Welcome to your new nightmare. Lease term: one year. It could have all been avoided if only you’d spotted these problems in the walk-through. Here are the top things you need to do before you sign on that dotted line.

Test Everything

The first step to finding a truly great rental (and not a stink-and-noise machine masquerading as a two-bedroom walk-up) is to make sure everything actually works.  It may feel a bit silly turning on faucets and opening drawers while the landlord is watching, but follow this checklist anyway—you’ll thank us later.

  1. Doors: Do all the doors latch? Do the locks stick?
  2. Windows: Do the windows open? Does it feel drafty?
  3. Lights: Do the lights flicker or buzz?
  4. Pipes: Do the faucets have good water pressure? Do the pipes rattle or bang?
  5. Drawers and cabinets: Do the drawers stick? Is there enough room for your stuff? Are the cabinets at a practical height?
  6. Heating and cooling: Is there central AC or a wall unit? How loud is the heating and cooling unit? Are you hot or cold even though the air is on a good temperature?
  7. Electrical sockets: Are there enough three-prong sockets in every room?

Keep your Ears Open

Ever notice that anytime you view an apartment it’s almost eerily quiet? That’s because landlords know ideal times to show a vacant unit, usually when the other tenants are out.  And, unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell if the walls are paper-thin.  New apartments usually have better construction, but they probably still have half-inch drywall and very little insulation. But that doesn’t mean you have to take a gamble. Check for possible sources of insanity-inducing noise.

Check out the Neighbors

If the neighbors are around, introduce yourself. If not, spy (within reasonable legal limits of course). If you’re checking out an apartment on a high floor, you should look below you in the stairwell to sneak a peek at the downstairs tenant’s patio or entryway. If the area is littered with kids’ toys, expect some noise. If there is an overflowing ashtray, expect an occasional smoke smell.

Beware of the Night

Rentals can feel a lot different in the evening. Since you’re likely doing a walk-through during the day, you’ll have to use your imagination. Look for external lights that might cause a problem. Is there a street light right outside your bedroom window? That might not seem like a big deal during the day, but at night you’re going to have a hard time sleeping. Check the window coverings as well. Even if it looks good, it might not function well. People love those plantation shutters for looks, but those shutters don’t block light well.  When all else fails, do a drive-by at night and see if you can spot potential annoyances.

Pest Patrol

It may be impossible to tell if you’re about to move into a pest-infested hell—some insects are really good at hiding. But there are a few things you can be on high alert for during the walk-through.  For bigger and nastier insects, such as cockroaches, check the backs of countertops, corners, and behind appliances for the telltale sign of black specks. They’re, ahem, droppings, and they’re an indication of infestation.  For mice and small rodents, be on the lookout for shredded paper, tissue, or bits of clothing along baseboards. Mice and rats typically shred trash to make nests.  Unfortunately, some serious infestations such as fleas and bedbugs are nearly impossible to spot in a vacant apartment. But if the place is still occupied, you can peek between the mattress and the box spring, where bedbugs often leave their droppings.  And if you get bit—run. That apartment is probably infested with something you don’t want to be your problem.

Survey your Location

We all want to live in a cool neighborhood. But consider this: It may seem convenient to have amenities nearby, or you may end up hating it. Always question how loud a business will be, how late it operates, and if it will make traffic outside your door unbearable. And if you do run into any potential snags in your walk-through, go ahead and ask the landlord about it.