Most people these days look for places to rent in the same place: the Internet. There are many services that can help you narrow your search for a new home, from big sites like Zillow, Trulia, Apartments.com, or Homes.com, to ads on your local paper’s site and, of course, Craigslist. The advantage of these resources is that it can quickly put you in touch with property managers and reduce the need to drive all around town or make a dozen phone calls. The downside is that sometimes unscrupulous people can take advantages of these services to scam potential residents.
The solution to avoid being scammed is to be diligent and keep these things in mind:
Meet or Talk to the Landlord
One of the most common tricks in the scammer textbook is to pretend to be the legitimate landlord. This can happen by copy-and-pasting a legitimate listing but with false contact information, or hacking the real property manager’s email. Fairly early in the process of checking out the property, you need to insist on meeting the landlord in person. If you’re long-distance and can’t do that, you should also try to talk to them on the phone. But do your homework: do searches on public records sites for the property and see who is listed as the owner or who manages it. Always be wary of property managers who only want to communicate through text or email. You should also be able to search for the supposed landlord’s name and see if they are who they say they are. Also, established property managers will have a reputation and an office that’s been around for a while.
Don’t Send Money First
A common scam is to charge a fair amount of money, usually a couple hundred dollars, for a “rental agent” to generate a list of properties for you. Another scam is to ask for some kind of fee before you’re ever shown a lease or given a tour of the property. While many legitimate places charge an application processing fee, these should be relatively small. Also, avoid sending money through non-traditional means. This includes PayPal or through any third party. Wiring money or mailing a check are also dangerous propositions.
Does It Seem Too Good To Be True?
If the property seems like a dream, it probably is. Watch out especially for unusually-low security deposits, rents, or lax policies about moving in, or not caring whether you have pets. Also, they should want to check you our carefully: no one really likes credit checks or filling out applications, but it’s a necessary step. If the landlord doesn’t want to take this important step in the rental process, then you should be wary.
It’s a good idea to see what other properties are offered by this landlord, what similar places in the neighborhood are going for, and see if you can verify the owner independently. Also, trust your instincts–if that four bedroom, two bathroom, two-car garage house built in the past five years is renting for hundreds less than any similar property in town, you already know that sounds too good to be true.
Always Ask for a Lease
Never deal with a property manager who doesn’t use a leasing agreement. The lease is there to legally lay out rights and responsibilities for both parties, and anyone who doesn’t use one will find it a lot easier to lie or cheat the other side. Even if you’re dealing with a legitimate property manager, make sure the lease clearly lays out things such as who owns the place, the rent you will pay, who is responsible for repairs and maintenance, and other policies. The moment a landlord wants to avoid using a lease, or the lease leaves out important parts, or the landlord won’t let you show the lease to a lawyer if you ask, it’s time to walk away.