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Don’t Fall For This: Common mistakes to avoid when renting a house or apartment
Finding a new home is stressful. Follow these tips to make sure the process goes smoothly. Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Moving is no one’s idea of a good time. It’s time-consuming to pack and unpack every belonging, it’s expensive to pay for movers and brokers and it’s emotionally exhausting to say goodbye to one phase of life and hello to a new one. Then there’s finding the home itself.

In some American cities — say, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago — all most renters can hope for is a space they can actually afford that’s anywhere close to work or a social life. But the apartment-hunting process is stressful no matter where you live. When you’re handing over your pay stubs, Social Security number and several major checks to strangers, you might wonder if all of those middlepeople have your best interests at heart. It is a business, after all.

Luckily, the majority of the people involved in renting a property don’t have any reason to screw you over, said Douglas Pope, the co-founder of rental-marketplace site HotPads. “For the most part, property managers and brokers work with good intentions,” he said in a phone interview. “Their main concern is just getting a good tenant who pays on time and doesn’t wreck the apartment.” Still, the best defense is a good offense. Here are some examples Pope gave of mistakes he sees tenants make again and again.

Failing to research the management company, the broker or the building

If the internet is good for anything, it’s endless reviews. Websites like HotPads, Zillow, StreetEasy, RealEstate.com and so many more will let you check out the financial history of the property and how much similar spaces are going for; if you’re beginning your search, they can let you know what type of space and neighborhood you can afford on your budget.

“Renters need to take control of their own search process,” Pope said. “There are so many different options online. You can at least get so much of the research out of the way: You can see exactly what’s available in your price point, in your neighborhood, what you can afford and where.” You can also use Yelp or Google reviews to find out if your property manager is known for never returning security deposits, or not answering phone calls when a pipe bursts.

Not checking in with current tenants

There are some things the internet can’t replace and one of them is face-to-face feedback. Yes, it’s awkward to approach strangers in a hallway, but if you’re making the effort of visiting a building, why not talk to people while you’re there? Or, “Talk to the landlord about getting access to current tenants,” Pope suggested. “Ask them how they like the building and if there are any issues you should know about.”

Recoiling from broker’s fees

New York City is notorious for requiring renters to pay a “broker’s fee,” an amount around one month’s rent or 15% of the annual rent which goes to the broker, but you may spot them in cities like Boston and San Francisco as well. They’re highly annoying, but immediately ignoring any apartment with a fee “means they are eliminating a sizable portion of the inventory,” Mark Martov, an agent at the Corcoran Group, said in an email interview. “I can get my clients access to off-market listings by showing them what is still being renovated, or coming to market so they don’t have to compete. To justify the broker fee, Martov noted that he can sometimes negotiate the monthly rent for clients.

Only visiting the place once

“We’ve done research into this, and more than two-thirds of renters have regrets about the apartment they’re currently renting, which is a lot!” Pope said. “It’s a sad figure! The two most common regrets are the noise in and around the apartment building, and then safety — how safe the neighborhood is.”

“Nowadays, whenever I move, I visit the place during different times of day.”

There are some annoyances you only learn by living in a space over time (like how the shower goes cold for 20 seconds if someone on the third floor flushes their toilet), but consider all the idiosyncrasies you can check on by stopping by again. You don’t even need the landlord or agent to come back with you. “I moved into an apartment in [Washington, D.C.,] and didn’t realize the back bedroom faced an alley shared with a restaurant.” Pope said. “It wasn’t a problem in the afternoon when I viewed it, but you have to be mindful of noises. Nowadays, whenever I move, I visit the place during different times of day.”

Maybe your possible apartment abuts a restaurant, but you may also want to figure out if you’re sharing apartment walls with, say, a bunch of loud partiers. “The most-overlooked thing is people never check who their neighbors are,” said Martov. “We had a few situations where people moved because the next-door neighbor was a smoker or an artist that was working late with the music playing.”

Getting psyched about amenities you’ll never use

A weight room sounds cool, but only if you save money on your current gym membership to go there. “A lot of people end up signing leases on apartments that have amenities they’re not going to use,” Pope said. “The fitness center? You’re paying for that in your lease. We did research a few weeks ago that showed the price of apartments with fitness centers cost $62 more per month. Or a lot of people don’t need parking anymore, because they’re doing car shares. Make sure the place has the amenities you can really use.”

Falling for incentives

“Some people give a percent off the first few months, or they waive certain fees, or they offer Amazon gift cards, American Express gift cards,” Pope said. Though the offers may seem scuzzy or bizarre, they don’t automatically represent a scam. “It means they need a little more help turning over the property. We see promotions increase when the market slows down,” he said. So then why should you be careful? Because that discount may only last the first month, or first few months, and you have to make sure you are ready and able to pay the full-priced rent for the rest of the year.

Trying to recreate what you had

Hey, change is hard. But don’t spend too much time lamenting the fact that a possible new apartment has only one window in the bedroom, when you’re used to two. “I see renters comparing the new apartment to their old apartment, whether it’s the extra closet (usually Ikea fixes this), or the neighborhood pizza or local bar,” Martov said. “Most people usually don’t like change in general, but that’s why we’re here — to tell them about how amazing the new local pizza is.”

Accepting the price as is

Even in a notoriously tight market like New York City or the Bay Area, there is some wiggle room, said Pope. “You definitely can negotiate your rent — and maybe it’s not the price itself, but the size of the security deposit, or the length of the lease agreement,” he said. “You can offer to sign a longer lease for less monthly rent.” Or, if you find a really great deal and love the place, you could ultimately save money by signing a two-year lease, thus locking down the current monthly price. It’s always worth a shot.

Skimming the lease, instead of reading it fully

Again, Pope spoke from experience. “I lived in an another apartment in D.C. once where, if I would have read the lease more thoroughly, I would have known the maintenance requests were much more intense than I thought,” he said. “They kept the security deposit, but if we had talked to previous tenants we’d have found out they keep everyone’s security deposits.”

Pore over your contract to see what is expected of you: Are you allowed to sublet? What’s the penalty for breaking your lease? Which utilities are you paying for? Also find out what is expected of your landlord. This document will be your starting point if you have a real argument and wind up in court.

And not knowing when a deal is shady

Shady dealings are certainly possible when it comes to renting a home, like Pope’s experience with a landlord who conned him out of his deposit. More rare is straight-up fraud, but it certainly does happen. “There are three main kinds of renter fraud: people collecting application fees for apartments that aren’t available; asking for your financial info when you haven’t even stepped foot in the apartment; and the main one is trying to convince people that the landlord is out of town, and they need to rent the place now and you have to wire the rent money,” he said.

Renting a property does mean handing over a lot of precious, private info, like your Social Security number, pay stubs, tax returns and more. But if you’re asked to send that info online or over the phone before you’ve seen the space, gone to the management office or met a human in person, your Spidey senses should be tingling. Better to be safe than to be sorry that an untraceable internet person stole thousands of dollars from you.

Kaitlin Menza
Contributing writer, Payoff