7 Signs an Apartment Isn't Right for You
Finding an apartment to rent has become increasingly competitive as more and more Americans have shifted away from homeownership in favor of rentals after the housing market's collapse. As a result, today's apartment hunters may find themselves with a limited supply of rentals and a higher price tag for those that are left.
"People haven't been that picky with apartments lately because there is simply a lack of inventory on the market right now," said Paul Campano, senior real-estate associate at Keller Williams Realty.
But just because fewer rental options are available doesn't mean you should settle for a place that will make you miserable. Whether you're searching for an apartment for the upcoming school year or looking to relocate your family, it's just as important as ever to be able to distinguish the good apartments from the lousy ones. Here are the red flags that can tell you if an apartment will end up being more of a hassle than a home sweet home.
It's one of the first things you see when you walk into a room, but all too often apartment hunters overlook the quality of the windows, and that can cost them money and aggravation in the long run.
"If you have old creaky windows, a lot of your heat will go out the windows, so your heating bill will get very costly if heat isn't included in your rent," Campano said.
The ideal for an apartment, Campano and other experts say, is to have double-glazed windows with low-E glass that provides better insulation. If nothing else, make sure all the windows are in good working order and ask how old they are.
Most apartments get a touch-up paint job between tenants, but if you notice a substantial amount of paint peeling from the walls on your walk-through of a room, it's probably a bad sign.
"Just in general, if you go to a place and the paint is peeling, it's a telltale sign that (the owner) is not taking care of the property," said Jim Hamilton, regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors.
Even worse, in older buildings, Hamilton said peeling paint can be a health hazard as the paint may be lead-based, a factor that is particularly important if you are moving with young children.
Basic maintenance issues
Along the same lines, Hamilton recommends doing a thorough examination of the apartment to make sure everything is in working order and that everything has been well-maintained.
For starters, Hamilton suggests turning on the air conditioner to make sure it works and turning on the faucets to see how long it takes to get warm water running. Next, try peering into the back of each of the cabinets to make sure there are no mouse droppings. Yes, it's gross, but it will be much worse if you find out after you sign the lease.
You should also examine the showerheads and faucets to see if they are leaky, which Campano says could result in moisture buildup behind the walls and ultimately mold and mildew.
"If it's a poorly kept building, chances are you will have maintenance issues going forward and it will be harder to get them fixed," Hamilton said. "So you may end up having to fix it yourself if you move in there."
At the very least, Hamilton says apartment hunters should make a list of all these issues and make the property manager sign an agreement saying he is aware of them and will fix them. Otherwise, not only could it take longer for the repairs to be made, but you could be held responsible for the apartment's maintenance issues.
No cable/Internet access
One might assume that every apartment in the 21st century is wired for cable and Internet, but plenty of buildings either aren't or have a less-than-ideal connection and restrictions on what you can install on your own.
Hamilton says every apartment hunter should ask these three questions: Does the apartment have a cable option? What's the accessibility to the Internet? Can I bring cable or Internet service in to the building?
"Even if state law says you can bring in your own service, you may still have a hassle getting it done," Hamilton says, noting that some buildings may be against the idea of having a satellite installed on the roof for TV reception, for example. Don't wait to have that conversation after you sign the lease, or you may find yourself trapped in an apartment with no TV and a dial-up Internet connection, which in today's world is pretty much the same as living in a cave.
Unfair rental price
It may not be a renters market right now, but that doesn't mean you should let yourself get ripped off. Traditionally, it has been harder to compare prices on rentals than on property that's for sale since there is no multiple listings service for the rentals, but that's beginning to change.
"There have been a lot more resources launched online in the last year or so to learn more about rentals and fair rental prices," said Amy Bohutinsky, chief marketing officer for Zillow, a real-estate listings service with one such tool. Zillow's service, called Rent Zestimates, uses public property records to calculate the rough value for a rental in a certain area so the user can compare the asking price to nearby properties.
Other services such as PadMapper, a website and smartphone application, let users visualize apartment listings on a map to get a better sense of the asking price and availability in a given neighborhood. After all, you wouldn't walk into a car lot without knowing something about the prices of the cars you're looking for, so why should you make that mistake when searching for an apartment?
A building that's too noisy (or too quiet)
If there's one thing that an elderly couple and a group of college students have in common, it's that they probably have no interest in living next to one another. For that reason, each of the real-estate experts we spoke with recommends doing a little digging to find out what you can about the denizens of the building.
Campano recommends checking the building and roof for empty liquor bottles and listening for any loud music, which he says is a dead giveaway that you're about to live in a quasi-frat house. You can also ask the property manager and the real-estate agent about the people who live in the building or, better yet, ask one of your potential neighbors since they will likely be the most forthcoming.
Unfortunately, if you only spend a few minutes in the building, it can be difficult to decipher the culture of the building, which is why Hamilton suggests visiting the apartment several times at different points in the day. That way you can see what the building is like at night versus during the afternoon and get a better sense of whether it's too noisy or perhaps too quiet for you.
Even if the apartment meets all of the above criteria, it could still prove to be a bad choice if the area surrounding the apartment isn't to your liking. Perhaps the neighborhood has an above-average amount of crime or perhaps, similar to the previous point, it's simply too loud or too residential for your tastes.
Zillow's Bohutinsky has one simple rule when apartment hunting: "Don't fall in love with the house without knowing what's going on in the neighborhood."
First and foremost, you should walk around the neighborhood surrounding the apartment at different times of day to get a sense of what restaurants and stores are around, what time everything closes, and generally whether you get a good vibe from the area. If it's a place you are serious about, you can also use census data on the demographics of each neighborhood, which can tell you everything from the median household income in the area to the percent of homes that have children.
As for concerns about crime in the area, Campano recommends checking out the crime heat map available on Trulia.com, another rental listings site, which shows where crime is most prevalent in each neighborhood. At the moment, this feature is available only for a few areas in the U.S. If you don't see your neighborhood on there, Campano suggests calling the local police department, which should provide you with basic crime stats. That said, it's important to keep in mind that crimes happen in every area, so what you should really look out for is a higher than average number of burglaries, vandalism and other petty crimes that could affect your safety.
Seth Fiegerman of MainStreet