10 Common First-Time Renter Mistakes

After I did first-time buyer mistakes for Monday it occurred to me that there’s other real estate virgins out there who might need a few warnings. Tenants, for example, are often the newest of all to the housing market, and they do tend to make some common errors that mark them as newbies in the apartment hunt. Whether this is your first apartment or your twelfth, avoiding these missteps will save you a world of grief.

It may be pretty, but can you cook in it? (Photo: ApartmentTherapy.com)

1. Choosing the prettiest apartment. I did this back in 2003. Found a lovely vintage apartment on the lakefront with crown molding, dining room chandelier, lots of space, and a shiny new kitchen. It was cheap, the landlord would accept my pet bunny, I rented it. I failed to take into account that the only bathroom was inside the bedroom. It turned out to be a very impractical location for me as I had a lot of overnight houseguests at that point in my life. Much like when choosing a spouse, it’s what’s on the inside that counts more than the apartment’s looks. Make sure the room layout and amenities suit your lifestyle.

Here’s one quick benchmark for practicality. Each of us has a ritual that we have to do on a regular basis at home, or the rest of the day doesn’t feel right. For me it’s my morning coffee and breakfast – I will NOT leave the house for the first hour or so after I wake up. For others it will be going through the mail right after they get home from work, or taking a pause from gaming to refill your water glass from the fridge. Figure out what you ritual is. As you go through each apartment, play out how that ritual will work for you in the new space. If it doesn’t work, nix the listing.

2. Searching based on rent rate only. The monthly cost of housing varies and includes far more than just the rent. What about heat? Electricity? Parking? Are you going to have to buy more food containers to hide your food from a new roomie? Do you need to haul your laundry to the laundromat? Is the only nearby grocery store a pricey Whole Foods? Will you need to drive around the block for half an hour looking for parking every night? Will you have to pay for an extra zone of Metra transit to live in one apartment vs another? Make sure that you’re ranking your apartments of choice by the total cost to live there, not just the rent itself.

... maybe not that dramatic of a problem.

3. Going to showings without all of your roommates. I’ve been marketing a 3 bedroom coach house for rent in West Town lately. In the past 24 hours I’ve received 3 separate applications. The first group saw the place tonight, with all three roommates, and filled out the applications on the spot. The second group saw it last Friday and was missing one of the 3 roommates involved. The third group sent a single representative 8 days ago, and it’s taken him this long to get all of his buddies to agree that my 3 bedroom is “the one.” He could have rented it easily if everyone had come at once, but now he’s got to outbid all the others.

Unless your roommates are not in town at all, bring everyone to every showing. The market is moving quickly. You don’t want to waste time sending videos back and forth and trying to convince your indecisive absent party to make up their mind while your favorites are getting picked off by other renters.

4. Not reading the lease. From 2005 to 2010 I worked for a property manager with over 800 apartments. I sat through thousands of lease signings. I always was amazed at the number of tenants who would just look for the signature lines without reading the documents that they were signing. I would generally encourage these tenants to take a moment to read through before they signed. My “talk throughs” were often greeted with comments like, “thanks, nobody has ever bothered to explain this to me before.” Your lease is a binding contract. It could be standard boilerplate or it could have wacky rules in it requiring you to mop your floors once a week and receive questionable packages on behalf of your landlord. While no lease can make you waive your rights as outlined in the Chicago Landlord Tenant Ordinance (or the Illinois Ordinance if it’s an owner-occupied small building), you won’t know that you’ve done so unless you’ve taken the time to read it all. Oh, and if your landlord makes you sign without allowing you the time to read the lease, I strongly suggest that you go find a better landlord!

"... so that's one closet for my clothes, two for my shoes... and you can have the linen closet." (Photo: Redbook)

5. Forgetting to check storage space. Have you ever viewed an apartment that was so messy, it made you wonder “how the heck do people live like this?!!” While some renters are just plain old slobs, others are suffering from lack of storage. A lot of the pre-WWII walk-up apartments in Chicago don’t have a lot of closet space. Without somewhere to hide all your stuff, your place will also wind up looking pretty darned cluttered. When you see a really messy apartment, consider: is the tenant really that messy, or is the apartment forcing them to act that way?

Before you head out in the field to view apartments, measure the closet space you have and assess if it’s enough for all your gear. As you go through your showings, make sure the storage dimensions are adequate – and make sure that they’re deep enough! Many vintage closets were designed to have hooks running along the side and are too shallow to hold hangers. A room will never look completely tidy if you’re unable to close your closet doors.

6. Apartment hunting during the work day. Many agents and landlords only make themselves available from 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. This has never made sense to me, as most landlords want their tenants to have jobs. Regardless of the landlord’s common sense, though, let’s think about why taking time off from work to go view apartments might not be the best idea for you. The time when you’ll actually be out and about in the neighborhood, or at home wanting some peace and quiet, is the time after hours when everyone else is home from work too.

Neighborhoods take on an entirely different feel once the sun sets. You’ll want to be sure that the hallways and sidewalks are adequately lit. You’ll want to see how parking will be when you get home from work. You’ll want to listen to make sure that nobody’s blasting music, throwing stuff out the windows, or practicing opera at odd hours. Heck, in college I lived in a dorm room right across from a pub. Every night there would be an earthshattering crash at 10pm and another at 2am as the bartenders dumped their trash bags full of glass bottles off of the 2nd story into the dumpster below. While you cannot be viewing occupied apartments after 8pm in Chicago it’s still a good idea to view the neighborhood itself at that hour before you devote a year of your life to living there.

7. Setting up showings without knowing the exact address. Ok, for you newbies out there, this is how many of the apartment locator services work. They take listings from many different landlords, and those landlords in turn can list their apartments with multiple different locators. So that you can’t tell that they’re showing the same apartment as all the other guys, they take photos from a bunch of different listings that they have in stock and combine them into a Frankenstein’s monster of an ad. They then post this fake listing on Craigslist as if it were a real apartment, listing it at an unattainable price in a popular area.

Not all apartment locators do this. Some are good peeps.

You then call in and are informed that this particular apartment has just been rented to someone else, but they’d be happy to meet you and show you a bunch of other stuff. You’ve just been baited and switched.

Landlords who are listing on their own and Realtors working under exclusive marketing agreements will be completely comfortable revealing the exact address of the subject property and meeting you there. This is important to know so that you can verify ownership and avoid one of the more awful scams out there…

8. Renting without verifying the ownership of the property. This is possibly the most heartbreaking scam on the market, and tenants all over the country are falling for it every day. Here’s how it works: a landlord in Chicago posts her apartment for rent at, say, $2000. A scammer in another country steals her photos and ad text, notes that the building is vacant, and posts the same ad for $1200. Some poor soul looking for an apartment sees the fake, cheap ad and calls the scammer. They say, “I live out of state but feel free to go take a peek in the windows.” The prospective goes to take a look with the real owner and agent none the wiser. They sign a lease with the fake landlord. They send the first month’s rent and security deposit to the fake landlord. They may even get a phony set of keys in the mail from the fake landlord. But come move-in time the keys don’t work, the real landlord knows nothing about the supposed lease, and the tenants are out 2 months of rent.

As I mentioned in Tenant Hacks: How to background check your landlord Chicago makes it easy to verify if the owner on your lease is the real owner of the property. Go to Cook County Property Info and look up the address. If you do no other research on your landlord before signing a lease, please at least do this.

9. Looking for too small of a place. When you’re trying to save money you may want to cram lots of people into a very small space. One guy can sleep in the bathtub, another on the couch, a third in a closet somewhere à la Harry Potter at the Dursleys. Everybody pays $200 and you’re renting a 1 bed in shifts. It would be lovely and cheap, right?

Tasty snack? or Lakeview in September? Who can tell?

Chicago landlords do tend to follow the Keating Memorandum from HUD when it comes to maximum occupancy: 2 people per bedroom, one person in a studio apartment. In order to avoid accusations of age discrimination they should make no exceptions even if the additional occupant is an infant, although some of them will be swayed by a couple with a baby wanting to rent a larger one bedroom apartment. Regardless, to maximize your options you really do need to search for the size of apartment that fits your group, otherwise you’ll wind up wasting a lot of time and application fees getting turned down by landlord after landlord.

Oh, and if you do find a landlord willing to fit six of you into a junior one-bedroom apartment, remember that she’ll probably be willing to do that for every other apartment in the building too. Overcrowded buildings mean run-down hallways, excessive water usage, a greater risk of pets, and probably general ignorance of lots of other code restrictions on the part of the landlord. Those codes keep you safe. It might be a good idea to find a landlord who knows and adheres to them to the best of their ability.

Next time your TV acts up, threaten to plug it into this mess. It'll behave. (Photo: VirginiaElectrician.net)

10. Overlooking the wiring. Look, this is 2012. Many of Chicago’s apartment buildings are already over a century old. Ever since 1978 there’s been a rule on the books saying that if one outlet is repaired, every bit of wiring in the unit needs to be upgraded simulaneously. Needless to say, this means that a lot of apartments are still running on wiring that’s over 3 decades old. I’ve seen many buildings using fuses instead of breakers to handle circuit loads, and any number of apartments with only 2-4 breakers at most to cover the entire space.

You’ve got stuff. You’ve got high def TVs and Xboxes, computers and hair dryers, microwaves and vacuum cleaners. You’ve got window air conditioners in a lot of the buildings with the oldest wiring in the city. Make sure you at least count the outlets and make sure that they’re grounded (have 3 prongs instead of 2). You’re supposed to have access to your breaker box in Illinois – if you’re a real gadget head ask to see the breakers and make sure that you’ve at least 1 breaker per room, plus a separate one for major heating & cooling appliances like furnaces, air conditioners and fridges.

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