Tenant Hacks: How to background check your landlord

Magnifying glass looking at a house

Time to turn the tables.

Chicago Renters, I have to confess something - landlords these days hire as much for my skill in background checking as they do for my ability to market their apartments. Renters have this crazy reputation of being uniformly unemployed former sex offenders with bad credit who skipped out on their last lease. If you're applying for an apartment chances are good that you will be subjected to a security check more thorough than those they apply to new police officers. I encourage this behavior - it helps to keep neighborhoods clean.

However, landlords have an equally unsavory reputation for being layabout shady shysters from foreign countries who are just a single late payment away from foreclosure and/or running off with your security deposit. It's only fair that you should be able to do some background checking of your own, and fortunately a lot of the information is available free of charge.

When I'm representing renters I normally perform all of the following background checks as part of the service, but if you're renting without representation in Chicago (or you're working with an apartment locator instead of a real agent) you'll have to do it yourself.

A quick disclaimer before we begin: this info pertains to Chicago renters only. Much of it works anywhere in Cook County, but if you're renting elsewhere I'm afraid your situation is beyond my expertise. However, you're welcome to try the techniques below and let me know if they successfully transferred to your state or city!

If you're renting a condo

  1. Go to the brand new Cook County Property Info site and search for the unit by address. This is a unified site combining info from the Treasurer, Assessor, Recorder, Board of Review and Clerk. It is awesome. I've included a screenshot of a sample detail page for my own condo, although I've blacked out bits and pieces for obvious reasons. I like you guys, but not that much.
    Cook County Property Info screenshot

    My condo's data page. Click to make it larger.

    • If there's a photo, make sure it matches the building that you saw!
    • Copy down the PIN number. (#1 in the screenshot.) You'll need it if you need to drill down for details on anything you find here.
    • Find the name of the owner and their current mailing address. (#2) When your lease arrives, make sure that the names match. Don't be a victim of the Craigslist scams! (That's four different links there. All worth reading.) Big investors will buy properties using trusts or company names, don't necessarily be alarmed if you see this. However, you may want to look up corporations and LLCs at the Illinois Secretary of State's site to make sure they're in good standing.
    • Check to make sure the owner is current on their property taxes. (#3) If taxes go unpaid for too long the county can step in and sell off the property for the balance due. It can also be a sign of a greater problem with landlord negligence.
    • If the property was recently sold at a Tax Sale it will be indicated in the section by (#4).
    • Section (#5) is the most important, in my opinion. These are the documents on file with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds and will indicate property transfers, mortgages, liens for unpaid water bills, and foreclosure attempts. Go ahead and click on the "More Property Information" link at the bottom of this section to go to the Recorder's site. Do a search by PIN number using the number you copied down above to read back at least 5 years into the property history. Here are some terms to watch out for:
      • LIS PENDENS FORECLOSURE: indicates that the mortgage lender filed a foreclosure suit.
      • LIEN from the Chicago Dept of Water Management: indicates unpaid water bills
      • DEEDs or ASSIGNMENTS involving Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal National Mortgage Association, Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, Judicial Sales Corp, etc.

      If any of the above terms appear during the years since the current owner purchased the building, you may be looking at an owner in trouble.

  2. Check out the building.  Find out the age and if there are any violations or recurring problems that could cause you harm, as well as the scenario on the condo association.
    • Cook County isn't the only one going digital. The City of Chicago has made its building violations database available online, with only a 21 day lag. That's pretty impressive for the government if you ask me. Head over there, agree to the terms, then search for your new prospective address. While you're there, take note of the full range of addresses for the building. If it's a very large complex it could have several numbers on multiple streets!If you're covered by the CRLTO, your landlord is supposed to disclose to you any building code violations for your unit and/or the building common areas from within the past year, but very few landlords know about this requirement. It's always good to do your homework anyhow, as something from 2 years ago could still be unresolved.
    • Find out the age of the building at the wonderful CityNews Chicago site. It was a great project that hasn't been updated since 2003, but for the majority of Chicago buildings its data is still valid. (Hey CNC guys? If you're reading this? Can you update it?) You will need to know the age of the building for obtaining renters' insurance. If it was built before 1978 you'll want to make sure you get a Lead Paint disclosure.
  3. Research the condo association. The association will be responsible for maintaining the common areas and associated perks, and for paying the water bill and building insurance. It's also made up of your new neighbors to be. Make sure it's in good shape!
    • Do a quick search on a site like Realtor.com to see how many units are for sale in the building. If too many people trying to sell at once, the association may be having issues with communication.
    • Check and see how many condos you see for rent in the building, too. Too many renters could mean that you'll be faced with resentment from the current condo owners while you're living there.
    • Search for the building address and association on Google and on Yelp. Some larger associations will publish their move-in policies and tenant rules & regs online. Check for undisclosed move in fees and deposits. Check for pet policies and cable packages. Some condo buildings have a nasty tendency of treating their tenants like second class citizens. Dig around and find out anything you can, or you'll be sad watching your neighbor go for a swim in the pool that you're not allowed to use.
    • A special note about Yelp: Most tenants do not think of their landlords as business people who can be affected by Yelp reviews unless their landlord does something wrong. This means that Yelp reviews of landlords and property managers see a heavy bias towards the negative. It is very difficult for a Chicago landlord to get above 2 stars.
  4. Check out the landlord.This is particularly important if the building is owner-occupied.
    • Take a look at the criminal background checking how-to for landlords. It can easily be reverse engineered for your use.
    • I definitely recommend checking the Cook County Clerk of Court's website for the landlord's name, both as plaintiff and defendant, in civil cases, to see if he's really eviction-happy or has been recently sued by a prior tenant!
      Unless you're sharing the building with the landlord, it shouldn't really matter if they're an ex-con, a former sex offender, or a former President. Everyone's allowed to make a living. Isn't it better if they can do so legitimately?
  5. Check out the property manager(if there is one).
    • If the association has retained a property management company, be sure to do some reading about them as well. Google and Yelp will be your friends here.
  6. When you get your lease, make sure your landlord includes all the necessary disclosures based on what you've learned.
    • If you're covered by the CRLTO, you'll need:
      • A copy of all building violations from the past 12 months that pertain to the apartment or the common areas, as well as a copy of any utility shut-off notices.
      • The name and address of the bank where the landlord will be stowing your security deposit.
      • Proof that she's changed the locks to the apartment since the prior tenants moved out.
      • A copy of the CRLTO summary including security deposit interest rates.
    • If the building predates 1978, you'll need a lead paint disclosure
    • If the building is below the 3rd floor, you'll need a radon disclosure.
    • If you're required to pay for heat, you'll need a heating cost disclosure.
    • If you're required to pay for any common-area shared utilities, your landlord must disclose this before you sign a lease, and must provide you with the past 12 months of bills for these areas.

If you're renting a regular apartment

If you aren't renting a condo, but rather a regular apartment in a multi-unit building where the whole building is owned by one person or company, the procedure is slightly different.

It can be a little tough to find the right address on a big complex, so it's better if you start with step 2, above. Between the building violations database and CityNews Chicago you should be able to find most of the street numbers for the property.

Going back to step 1, you won't find any data about your actual unit in the Cook County Property Info search, but you will find data about the entire building. (It may make you feel better about your landlord when you find out how much she's paying in property taxes!)

Step 3 is not necessary, as there is no condo association for a regular apartment building.

Use your common sense, too!

While we've discussed there being no safe neighborhoods in Chicago, some will give you a better feeling than others. Your landlord won't be around in your life every day, but you'll be exposed to your neighborhood constantly. The rental market is very tight this year, so make it a point to investigate potential new areas before you start viewing apartments. Get off the train at different stops and walk around to get a sense of the community flavor. Make sure you feel secure and confident in saying you want to live there for a year.

Lastly, I shouldn't have to say it, but read your lease before you sign it! I was always amazed when working in property management by how many new tenants would have just blindly sign page after page without the slightest glance if I hadn't taken the time to go through each document with them.

Do you think this is not enough scrutiny for a future landlord? Too much? Landlords, are you surprised that tenants can find so much info about you? Let's discuss it in comments!