You learn from your mistakes, everyone says, but if you can learn from other people’s mistakes, all the better. That’s never been more true than when it comes to renting a home.
People tend to think of renting as a fairly cheap way to pay for shelter, but between paying rent every month, furnishing a security deposit (and sometimes the last month’s rent) upfront and factoring in moving costs, renting property isn’t exactly cheap.
But plenty of renters make rookie errors that make renting even more expensive. If you’re a first-time renter, or you will be, remember to avoid these six common traps.
Skimming the lease agreement. Do yourself a favor and look over all of the terms.
For instance, are pets allowed? Anna Dillulio, a rental agent in Monmouth County, New Jersey, who has a business RentinMonmouth.com, says a common mistake people make is not verifying whether the landlord allows pets.
“So many tenants have been heartbroken to learn on moving day that Fido isn’t allowed to stay,” she says.
Skimming the home. You’re going to live here. You want to do more than a casual walk-through that involves little more than eyeballing whether your bed will fit in the room.
“Many tenants do not measure their furniture to make sure it will fit and often get carried away by the aesthetic of the home, rather than if the rooms are the right size for them. The eye itself is tricky. Sometimes things seem like they would fit, but pay attention to doorways, too,” Dillulio says. She suggests bringing a camera, a notebook and a measuring tape.
And there’s one more thing you may not think about, says Elli Bishop, a spokeswoman for SafeWise.com, an advice site about home security systems.
“Make sure that all of the appliances are working properly, especially anything that uses gas, like a stove,” she says. “When you check out a home or apartment, test the burners, the fridge and all water taps before signing a lease.
Lying. There are plenty of bad landlords out there, but not every tenant is going to win a good conduct award either.
“In my years of doing business, I’ve seen many types of mistakes on the part of the tenant, first and foremost being dishonesty,” Dillulio says.
You’re a good person. Dillulio isn’t suggesting you aren’t. But you might lie to a landlord, and if you do, it’s probably because you’re cracking under pressure.
“When people rent, they often have a strict time frame to move out of one unit and into the other,” she says. “Even honest people are tempted to say whatever they think the landlord wants to hear.”
So don’t say it’ll just be you living here if you have a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend. Don’t say you don’t have a pet and figure you’ll hide your furry friend somehow. Don’t add an extra zero (or two) when you list your income on an application. If you’re caught in a lie before being accepted into a place, you can pretty much forget about moving in, Dillulio says. And if you’re caught in a lie after you become a resident, that could really be costly.
Lisa Kanarek, of Dallas, owns several rental properties and an 88-unit property with other investors. Once, she found a tenant with two bedrooms reeking of cigarette smoke.
“According to our lease, the tenant could have been evicted the next day and lost her entire deposit,” Kanarek says.
Instead, they gave the tenant another chance, and as far as she knows, the tenant doesn’t puff in the property any longer.
Failing to get or understand your renters insurance. It probably sounds like a scheme the insurance industry came up with, but renters insurance really is important – almost as important as having homeowner’s insurance.
“Your landlord likely has an insurance policy that covers structural damage to the house or apartment you’re living in, but that policy probably doesn’t cover your possessions,” Bishop says. The average renter’s policy costs less than $200 per year, she adds.
Still on the fence? Rachel Drake, a marketing executive with the insurance shopping website Obrella.com, offers up a cautionary tale.
“We recently had a renter call us because a water pipe burst in the apartment above him,” Drake says. “The pipe was pushing out 25 gallons – a minute. The pipe burst in the middle of the day and went a few hours without being stopped.”
Drake says that the landlord was, indeed, insured, but just for the property. The tenant was out luck.
He asked if there was anything that we could do to provide him coverage, but it was too late,” she says. “His TV, his furniture, his speakers, his books, his Blu-ray player, his DVDs, his digital media controller and a painting on his wall were all ruined.”
Drake echoes Bishop’s claim that renters insurance isn’t expensive. She pegs it at about $12 a month. “If you do have to make a claim, that $12 a month will be the best money you’ve ever spent.”
(That said, make sure you understand the renters insurance policy and have gone through the terms thoroughly. For instance, if you work out of your home, and you have business-related items that are destroyed, those may or may not be insured.)
Not putting a new financial agreement in writing. Your apartment manager might be a really nice person but have a faulty memory, especially if he or she is overseeing dozens of units. Or your manager might be a snake. Either way, don’t chance it. Get whatever you’re discussing put down in writing.
Melanie Baravik, who works for a surety bond agency in Columbia, Missouri, says she learned this lesson the hard way. When she and her boyfriend rented their first apartment, they needed to exit their lease a few weeks early. They talked to the landlord, who agreed that they could move out without being charged for the remaining rent.
Except the landlord did charge them, taking the rest of the rent from their security deposit. “While it was unfair,” she says, “we should have gotten the agreement in writing.”
Not thinking about your exit strategy. You should be thinking about the day you move out before you move in. That may sound like a drag, especially if you’re all excited about your new home, but especially if you think you’re only going to be living here for a year or two, or less, you have to prepare for the end game.
Landlords and leasing companies know that “when you move out, the odds of you ever coming back are close to zero,” says Jonathan Macias, a real estate broker and the president of the Macias Realty Group in El Segundo, California.
Because they aren’t too worried about customer loyalty, “management will try to take as much as possible [from your security deposit] for whatever reason, whether that be cleanup, scratches, paint chips and so on,” Macias says.
So take photographs and document any problems with the place before you sign the lease, Macias stresses. Not doing so can potentially cost you thousands of dollars upon moving out, he adds.
And forking over a lot of money you didn’t plan to pay will just make your next move harder. Renting can be a wonderful experience with the right landlord and a little forethought on your part, but with all the blunders that can be made, it’s a safe bet that expensive errors are why many first-time renters soon go on to become first-time homeowners.