When you’re a renter, it can seem as though there is an infinite number of hoops to jump through just to get a foot in the door of an apartment you actually want to live in. You have to provide your prospective landlord with lots of personal information about your income and employment history. Sometimes they ask for references. And in most cases, they run a background check on anyone whose name is on the lease.
While landlords fear problem tenants, plenty of renters have also suffered due to problem landlords whose rental practices are not all above board. For example, negligent landlords may not keep their properties up to code, putting tenant safety at risk. They could have been sued for violating tenants’ rights. Or they may lack the proper licensing.
You may not be able to run a formal background check on your landlord, but you can vet them (or their property management company) in other ways. The exact resources available to you will depend on where you live—rental regulations are generally city- or county-specific—but there are a few steps anyone can start with to screen their landlord (hopefully before signing a new lease).
Gather the basics
To vet your landlord or property manager, you’ll need to know who they are. Ask for their name, and their business name if they have an LLC. You may also want to know the addresses of other properties they own, which will help you collect information from public records and search for reviews from past tenants.
Search for a business license
In many places, landlords must have a business license to legally rent property. If this is the case in your area, you can generally find license databases on state or local government websites where you can search for your landlord’s name, business title, or the property address.
Look up property and tax records
Find your local government database of property records (a Google search like CITY + PROPERTY RECORDS should get you there) and search for your rental using either the address or your landlord’s name or LLC. This should return information on who owns the property and whether there are any liens, fines, or legal actions against it, such as a foreclosure in progress.
You should also be able to find tax records, which will show you information like property values, purchase prices, and ownership history, as well as unpaid tax balances. This may be a separate database or search depending on where you live.
Finally, search for any public inspection records or building permits for the rental property. These will tell you if your landlord has violated city ordinances or building codes.
Look up court records
If your landlord or property management company has been sued by a tenant (or has sued a tenant), you may be able to find the records in your state or local court database. Evictions or disputes over security deposits may show up here.
If nothing notable comes up in public records, you may find helpful information from past tenants. Google your landlord, property management company, or apartment building name. Sites like RateMyLandlord, Whose Your Landlord, and OpenIgloo (NYC) compile tenant reviews and ratings. Even neighborhood-specific sites like NextDoor may offer insight.
Talk to current tenants
When you check out the property, try to meet current tenants to ask them about their experiences with your prospective landlord. Do they keep the property clean and safe? Do they respond to maintenance requests? Do they stop by unannounced? How often do they raise the rent? No one knows—and is more likely to share grievances—than current tenants.
Read up on tenants’ rights
Renters may be taken advantage of simply because they don’t know their rights. Some cities are friendlier to tenants than others, so it’s helpful to understand what recourse you have with a shitty landlord in your city and state. You can Google this, or check out legal info sites like Nolo. You may also find information on your state’s or city’s apartment association website.