10 Things that Renters and Home Buyers Forget to Check

"Do you have any questions?"

I always ask this at the end of a showing. It's really an unfortunate question, don't you think? Unless you've prepared well and assembled a list, it's easy to forget a few of the big questions when you're in the middle of a showing. Here's a few you can take with you next time. They may help you to avoid some major annoyances. Some you can answer on your own, while others will require feedback from the listing agent or landlord.

1. Do the doors close securely?

Look at the outside doors. Do they have deadbolts and doorknob locks? Are there privacy chains or latches on the inside? Is there a peephole or some other way to see who's outside without opening the door? Is it possible to accidentally lock yourself outside on the porch? Now look at the interior doors. Can you close the bedroom door securely? The bathroom doors? Is it possible to accidentally lock yourself into or out of a room? What about the kitchen? If you have pets, is there an area where you'll be able to securely store their extra food?

2. Does the tub drain quickly?

A shower/bath combo is fine, but not both at once. (By Steve Hallo via About.com)

Prospective buyers and renters will usually check the water pressure and how quickly the water heats up, but they'll rarely stick around to see if a slow drain might cause them trouble later on. Make sure you can stop the tub. Many older apartments may be missing the means to do so. Then fill it a bit and see how long the water takes to drain out.

3. Can a hanger fit in the closet?

Many old fashioned closets were designed to have hooks along the walls, but not to hold hangers. In fact, if you go out to the Frank Lloyd Wright home & museum in Oak Park, you can see that the closets are preserved in this structure. (That's why many closets will have a wooden rail at about head height running around all of the walls.) Hangers didn't really come into vogue until the late 1930's, so a lot of closets are too shallow to hang them properly and still close the door. You can test if a closet will hold your hangers by entering and turning so that your shoulder touches the back wall. If your shoulders won't fit, chances are a 17" hanger won't either.

Signs you might be a real estate nerd: You go to the Frank Lloyd Wright museum and obsess over the closet space.

4. Are the windows drafty?

This one can be tough to test during the summer, but in the winter it's pretty easy. Put your hand next to the base, sides and midpoint of the windows. Do you feel any movement of air? Look at the windows of neighboring units. Do you see any windows sealed up with heat-shrink plastic? Needless to say, if you have to pay for the heat then you don't want it escaping into the winter air. Drafty windows may be acceptable to you if the landlord is paying for heat, but they will still make it very tough to cool your apartment in the summer.

5. Can I get cell phone service inside?

This is a big one. Most of us rely on our cell phones as our primary means of contact these days. Make sure you can get a signal on all of your wireless devices. Don't just look at how many bars of service you're getting. Send a friend outside to call you and test the voice quality. Make sure your tablets and other internet devices can also get service indoors.

There are worse alternatives.

6. Where are the circuit breakers?

This is one you may have to ask the landlord. In newer construction buildings and condos your breaker box will probably be in the unit. In older buildings they may be in the basement. Make sure you know how to find them, and make sure that you'd be able to access them reliably without calling the landlord to let you into a locked boiler room. Check if there are breakers or fuses. If there are fuses, ask the landlord who is responsible for replacing them when they blow. Most will expect you to replace them, as they would for light bulbs. Chances are good that you'll blow a breaker at least once while you're living there, or you may want to cut power so that you can install your own custom light switches or maybe a ceiling fan. Locating the breakers will also give you a good idea of how much power is running to the unit.

7. Are there enough outlets for your gear?

Image © 2010-2012 Farley Katz, Kids Are Dumb Webcomic

Related to the breaker issue is the number of outlets in the space. A modern home will have outlets every six feet or so, and Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupting (GFCI) outlets anywhere within six feet of a source of water. In older apartments you'll be lucky to have one outlet per room, and they may or may not be grounded. While you're counting, ask if they all work. Some older outlets may have been disconnected from the mains but never removed from the wall.

8. How are package deliveries handled?

Those nice locking security doors on the outside of the building are great most of the time, except when you're waiting for a delivery from UPS or FedEx. Will you be stuck dealing with sticky notes on the door? Will you have to send all your packages to your workplace instead of to home? If you're looking in a large building with a receiving room, find out the hours and the policies for larger items. While you're at it, check out the mail area in general. Is it clean? Tenants and condo associations will often leave messages for each other in the mail area. Check if you see any worrisome notes about missing mail or other security concerns.

9. How long does it take to get from the outside to your apartment?

This is a bigger problem for folks looking at high rise buildings and larger complexes. Poor elevator-to-occupant ratio can be a real pain. If it takes 10-15 minutes to get from your unit's door to the sidewalk, that's something you'll need to plan into every trip you make. It's also something to consider in case of fire. Ask how often elevators have been out of service in the past month. (You may want to ask this of the front desk staff instead of the landlord.) A bank of 5 elevators is no good if 3 of them are out of service on a regular basis and one's reserved for moving. If the building amenities are on another random floor, check how long it takes to get from your unit to that level as well.

On the bright side, you'll be in fantastic shape after 3 months of taking the stairs to your 33rd floor apartment.

10. Are there gutters or downspouts attached to the outside?

Gutters and downspouts allow water to flow from the roof to the ground without damaging the building. Unfortunately if they are poorly maintained they have the opposite effect. Clogged gutters can result in big ice dams and enormous icicles that press against the exterior walls and can allow water to seep into your home. While I wouldn't totally rule out a home or apartment with gutters or downspouts, you definitely want to be aware that they are present and make sure they stay in good repair. Spotting the spouts requires some good spatial orientation. Inside the unit you may be able to see them by leaning out the window and looking to the left and right. Alternately, once you've viewed the unit, head outside and try and find it again from the street. Look at the walls on all sides. Of greatest concern are corners of gutters (the horizontal pipes that run along the edge of the roof), and places where downspouts (the vertical pipes) are separated from the wall. Look for any signs of unevenness, stains on the adjacent walls, or sagging.

Of course, damage from water can be spotted inside with a quick glance at the walls. Look at any walls that lead to outside, and the ceilings within about two feet as well. A water-damaged wall will form a crunchy crust of paint on the outside, or it may look stained from the calculus that the water picked up as it traveled through the wall. Water will run along a horizontal plane until it finds a way down, so you may want to even look at ceiling light fixtures if you suspect there's a problem with water seeping in from the outside.

There's not enough topical cream in the world...

Good luck on your housing search! Let me know if there are questions you think I omitted.

One Response so far.

  1. Adam Burley says:

    A polarized (3-prong) outlet tester is a great tool for apartment shopping and basic renter electrical diagnosis. I bought mine for finding good outlets while on the go but I definitely used it when I first moved in to my apartment too.
    This gives a little info on how to use one: http://www.thecircuitdetective.com/test.htm

    Your basic tester will be under $10 and will check if an outlet has power, is grounded, and if the hot / neutral wires are reversed. Some of the nicer ones also have a GFCI tester that should pop GFCI-protected circuits or outlets.