10 Questions to Ask Before Listing an Occupied Apartment

The sweetest tenants in the world can become your worst nightmare once it comes time to show their apartment.

A good and prosperous landlord will do everything in their power to minimize the time that their rentals sit vacant in between occupants. In an ideal world, the outgoing tenants would leave and the new tenants would move in on the same day, but unless you keep a model unit sitting empty this means showing the apartment while it is still occupied.

Show an occupied apartment adds a layer of complexity to the situation, risks harming the relationship with the outbound tenants, and bucks the expectations of the prospective tenants in the market. Before you put your occupied apartment on the market, give some thought to these 10 questions.

1. Does the apartment need less than 24 hours worth of work to get it into move in ready condition? Unless your lease specified a move-in and move-out time, your outbound tenants may expect that they've got until midnight to remove their stuff, and your incoming tenants may expect that their lease starts at midnight. By showing the apartment while it's still occupied you are telegraphing that you intend to spend less than one day getting the place ready in between. Make sure that the place looks like it would be clean and habitable with very little work before you put yourself through the madness of a 2-4 hour paint, patch & clean at midnight.

2. Are my current tenants tidy enough to keep the place clean for showings? Some renters are aware and accepting of things like moving boxes, laundry baskets and general signs of life in an apartment. However, those coming from outside the big city or from college situations may expect the apartments to be sitting empty for weeks or even months in between occupants. In either case, none of them will find an apartment acceptable if the bathroom is dirty, the stove caked in grease, the living room cluttered with toys and the beds unmade. Make sure that you are clear with your outgoing tenants that the apartment needs to be not only accessible but clean during the showings. Some renters are just messy by nature. If you've got one of them, just hold off until they leave. A dirty showing is a wasted showing.

Oh that suspicious looking lump under the blanket? Don't worry, it's just... um... the dog. Yeah, that's it. Nice doggy.

3. Do my current tenants keep a traditional schedule? Over the past 7 years I've walked in on tenants doing a whole range of different things, but sleeping tenants are some of the most awkward for showings. There's nothing like having your prospective tenant distracted by something moving under the blankets. If your clients work nights or party late into the evening they may think it's acceptable for you to come into their rooms and show while they're burrowed under the covers. It isn't.

4. Who will be doing the showings? I hate to take my fellow agents to task on this but some of them can be pretty careless.

First of all, very few of them are aware that occupied units require two days notice under the CRLTO. Out of the 215 rentals listed in the MLS as occupied until August 31, 2012, only 22 of them specified the legally mandated 2 day notice. 193 of them said "24 hour notice" or "one day notice" instead, and you'd best believe that some of those were for the convenience of the listing agent, not the occupants. Now, very few tenants even know about the two day requirement, and provided your relationship with them is good they will probably not stand on ceremony if you warn them a day beforehand. If they're in the market for an apartment they'll understand that a two-day wait is death to a rental listing. However,if an agent repeatedly enters without any notice at all or if your tenant is the type to insist on following the letter of the law regardless of practicality, you could wind up with a lawsuit on your hands.

Beyond the legal aspects of agents showing without notice, there's also two potential hazards that I see all the time with overbooked or careless agents. One involves agents who put a the keys in a lockbox at the property and indiscriminately hand out the lockbox access code to anyone who calls. We're only supposed to give out the codes to licensed Realtors. Not every agent is diligent about checking, and some tenants' agents will pass the codes on to their clients in violation of the MLS rules and regulations. This is never a good idea with an occupied apartment. I do not put lockboxes on any of my listings and attend all showings personally. I recommend that other rental agents follow suit.

A different type of careless agent will not bring keys at all. Instead, they stand out front and press every buzzer on the intercom panel until a neighbor opens the door, and then pound on the door of your listing until the tenant responds. Generally Realtors know better. I'm sad to report though that when I was working in property management I fielded multiple complaint calls from tenants complaining about newbie leasing agents running the buzzer panel at 8am on a Saturday.

If you are going to list your apartment with a high-volume Realtor or one of the locator services, I definitely recommend that you wait until it's empty before risking any of these situations.

If your tenants have turned the apartment into a mini golf course like this CalTech student did, you may want to hold off on the showings.

5. Are my current tenants using the space in a non-traditional manner? I remember one case where the outgoing tenants had skipped the regular furniture rig in favor of an enormous 16 foot by 8 foot table that ran the entire length of their living and dining room combined. They were caterers who used the space as a home office and prep area, so it worked perfectly for them. I thought it was a stellar use of the space, but incoming renters had a hard time visualizing the space with more normal furniture. I had to show a neighboring apartment with a more traditional setup in order to get it rented.

6. Do my current tenants have any pets or kids that might complicate the showings? If you want your incoming tenants to be employed, you want the apartment to be available to show during evenings and weekends. (Sorry night shift folks, you're still outnumbered.) If your current tenants have special needs pets or children with early bedtimes/nap times that would make the apartment inaccessible during these peak hours, you'll have to go to extra lengths to set up a showing schedule that works for everyone while still maximizing accessibility.

7. Are my current tenants angry with me for any reason? This one is pretty obvious. Has there been an ongoing maintenance issue that you haven't repaired to your tenants' satisfaction? Did you charge them for negligent damage when they broke the toilet seat? Have you given them a 30 day notice that their lease will be terminated whether they like it or not? It may be for the best for you to lay low until they're out. There's nothing like an angry tenant screaming at you in front of your new prospectives to scuttle your reputation as a landlord very quickly. Any way out of that kind of encounter will wind up with you either looking like a wuss or like a hardass and neither is going to help you rent the apartment.

8. Is there still enough time before the lease expiration date for me to find a tenant willing to move in on the day after? The bulk of tenants are looking for apartments 4-6 weeks before they need to move. That's when their lease renewal offers arrive and nudge them into action. If it's less than a month before the lease expiration date, your chances of finding someone to do a dovetailed lease start are very slim. The only exceptions I can think of to this amount of lead time are studio apartments and locations that attract a lot of folks moving to town from outside of Chicago. This is definitely a minor concern and should not be a deciding factor on its own, but it's worth considering.

"So the TV is under the north window, the light switch is on the left, and the dog sleeps in the southwest corner. Thanks, Craigslist!"

9. Will my current tenants allow me to post pictures of their belongings on the internet? Renters get really angry with landlords who don't post photos of the actual unit that's for rent. The apartment they view must pass the bait-and-switch sniff test when compared with the photos that they saw online. (And yes, most of them will find it online first. You need pictures.) If the apartment is occupied, you'll want to post photos of it with furniture in. You may have archived shots, but if the tenant has changed the paint colors or set the place up really differently you're out of luck on using them.

If I were a tenant I might consider posting photos of my stuff to be an invasion of my privacy. If I were an interior designer, I might consider it an infringement on my copyright to post my designs without permission and attribution. In terms of safety, if you're posting the address online you do NOT want to show the current furnishings as well. There's nothing like giving a potential thief a clear illustration of where all the valuables in an apartment are situated.

Before you post photos of your current tenants' stuff online it's a really good idea to warn them and get permission first. After all, chances are good that they're browsing the same sites for a new apartment that you're using to advertise their current home. There's a good chance that they'll find out anyhow and believe me, you don't want to be on the receiving end of that phone call.

10. Are my current tenants likely to renew their lease at a very late date? While all of the other items on the list have been reasons to avoid listing an occupied unit, this one focuses on a secondary reason to go ahead and get that puppy on the market ASAP. Apartment turnover costs are expensive. The best thing for your cash flow is to get your current tenants to stay on with you another year. If you've offered your tenants a renewal with a clear deadline for response and they haven't replied, they may be in the process of shopping for a new apartment or they may just be forgetful. Either way, putting the unit on the market may be what gets them off the fence.

But Don't Let This Discourage You.

If you feel that you can have the place ready for a new tenant rapidly, then by all means do everything you can to show it before the current tenants leave. A well-furnished apartment will rent far more quickly than an empty one, and cooperative tenants who are willing to go to bat for you can be your best advocates in persuading a new renter to choose you and your apartment. If one or two of these questions are making you pause, then it may be worth planning around the potential issues and showing it anyhow. Alternately you could hire an experienced Realtor to serve as a buffer between you and your current tenants. (Hint Hint.)

If you're hearing alarm bells ringing in your head as you read through this essay, though, it probably isn't worth the annoyance factor of listing it while it's still occupied.