Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2012 and has been updated with the most recent information.
Real estate agents are good communicators, and when they're working with renters, who are often on a time-sensitive mission and have looser standards than buyers, they know how to work it. Our advice? First and foremost, don't get distracted by the chitchat.
Some of the things we suggest are going to sound ridiculously nit-picky. But you can tell a lot about your landlord just by looking at small things—the doorknobs, for instance. Are they jiggly? How about the switch plates? Do they have specks of paint on them? Every square inch of that property says something about your landlord's pride of place—or lack thereof. It also tells you who they think they're renting to; if certain things aren't done, that's because they know their renters generally don't care if it's done.
If the answers aren't convincing or the place is a wreck, don't listen to the reassurances that the defects are just temporary. A really good landlord won't show a property in poor condition. They may show it while it's being renovated, but if sawdust isn't the issue—if it just looks like a dump—move on. Otherwise you're going to end up sending us a rental horror story one day.
1. Vermin check
What you're looking for when you check a place out are signs of infestation. We know there's going to be that one evil water bug in your tub every summer that makes you want to never shower again. But if you open a fridge, cabinet, or oven and more than one cockroach comes scuttling out, don't take the place. If you're more flexible on the subject of roaches, just make sure the landlord bombs the heck out of the place before you move in.
Philadelphia also has problems with mice, so look for mouse poop. You'll most likely see it on the surfaces in the kitchen, in the corners of the rooms or in the closets, where they like to nest. Really take a good look; the poops can be as small as poppy seeds.
2. Fire check
Make sure there are smoke detectors and fire extinguishers and a building-wide fire alarm. If you don't see this stuff, the landlord is not in compliance.
3. Noise check
Be perfectly quiet and see if you can hear your neighbors/cars driving by/trains/any other aggravating noises that might turn up. Ask how old the house is and how thin the walls are.
4. Water check
Turn on the faucets. Make sure the water comes out cleanly (not brown) and that the faucets turn off without leaking. Check the water pressure in the bathroom and flush the toilet.
5. Squeak check
If you're going to be living above someone, walk around the whole apartment to see if the floor is squeaky. If it is, know that you'll have to buy rugs and factor that into your cost.
6. Eagle-eye check
Take a look at the way the place has been painted. Are there swipes of paint that have been left on the windows? Was it a sloppy job? This will tell you something about the kind of people the landlord hires to do work for them. Speaking of paint, if the rental is old (built before 1978), make sure the landlord has a lead paint certificate that assures you as a tenant that the property is lead safe).
7. Window check
Open and close each of the windows. Check to see if there are screens and storm windows. See if there are drafts.
8. Odor check
Do a little sniffing. Do you smell gas? Sewage? Try it in each room (it's okay to be subtle with this one).
9. Appliance check
Turn on the burners, check the freezer, turn on the oven—make sure the appliances work.
10. Security check
Check the locks. Is there a deadbolt? What kind of deadbolt—the legal kind or illegal (double-keyed deadbolts are against the fire code). Are there bars on the windows if it's a first floor? Do you need bars? Is that something they'll do? Make sure you're comfortable with the level of security.
Have any other tips? Add them in the comments. And remember, don't rely on verbal agreements. S Anything you want a property owner to do, get it in writing in the lease before you sign (you might consider taking photos during your tour, too). You'll be really glad you did later on.