Looking for and Inspecting Rental Units

When you are looking for a rental unit, the most important things to think about are:

  • The dollar limit that you can afford for monthly rent and utilities. 
  • The dollar limit that you can afford for all deposits that may be required (for example, holding and security deposits). 
  • The location that you want. 

In addition, you also should carefully consider the following: 

  • The kind of rental unit that you want (for example, an apartment complex, a duplex, or a single-family house), and the features that you want (such as the number of bedrooms and bathrooms). 
  • Whether you want a month-to-month rental agreement or a lease. 
  • Access to schools, stores, public transportation, medical facilities, child-care facilities, and other necessities and conveniences. 
  • The character and quality of the neighborhood (for example, its safety and appearance). 
  • The condition of the rental unit (see "Inspecting before you rent"). 
  • Other special requirements that you or your family members may have (for example, wheelchair access).

You can obtain information on places to rent from many sources. Local newspapers carry classified advertisements on available rental units. In many areas, there are free weekly or monthly publications devoted to rental listings. Local real estate offices and property management companies often have rental listings. Bulletin boards in public buildings, local colleges, and churches often have notices about places for rent. You can also look for "For Rent" signs in the neighborhoods where you would like to live. 

Inspecting before you rent 

Before you decide to rent, carefully inspect the rental unit with the landlord or the landlord's agent. Make sure that the unit has been maintained well. Use the inventory checklist as an inspection guide. When you inspect the rental unit, look for the following problems:

  • Cracks or holes in the floor, walls, or ceiling. 
  • Signs of leaking water or water damage in the floor, walls, or ceiling. 
  • The presence of mold that might affect your or your family's health and safety. 
  • Signs of rust in water from the taps. 
  • Leaks in bathroom or kitchen fixtures. 
  • Lack of hot water. 
  • Inadequate lighting or insufficient electrical outlets. 
  • Inadequate heating or air conditioning. 
  • Inadequate ventilation or offensive odors. 
  • Defects in electrical wiring and fixtures. 
  • Damaged flooring. 
  • Damaged furnishings (if it's a furnished unit). 
  • Signs of insects, vermin, or rodents. 
  • Accumulated dirt and debris. 
  • Inadequate trash and garbage receptacles. 
  • Chipping paint in older buildings.(Paint chips sometimes contain lead, which can cause lead poisoning if children eat them. If the building was built before 1978, you should read the booklet, "Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home," which is available by calling 1-800-424-LEAD or at www.epa.gov/lead.) 
  • Signs of asbestos-containing materials in older buildings, such as flaking ceiling tiles, or crumbling pipe wrap or insulation. (Asbestos particles can cause serious health problems if they are inhaled.) For more information, go to www.epa.gov/asbestos. 
  • Any sign of hazardous substances, toxic chemicals, or other hazardous waste products in the rental unit or on the property. 

Also, look at the exterior of the building and any common areas, such as hallways and courtyards. Does the building appear to be well-maintained? Are the common areas clean and well-kept?

The quality of rental units can vary greatly. You should understand the unit's good points and shortcomings, and consider them all when deciding whether to rent, and whether the rent is reasonable.

Ask the landlord who will be responsible for paying for utilities (gas, electric, water, and trash collection). You will probably be responsible for some, and possibly all, of them. Try to find out how much the previous tenant paid for utilities. This will help you be certain that you can afford the total amount of the rent and utilities each month. With increasing energy costs, it's important to consider whether the rental unit and its appliances are energy efficient.

If the rental unit is a house or duplex with a yard, ask the landlord who will be responsible for taking care of the yard. If you will be, ask whether the landlord will supply necessary equipment, such as a lawn mower and a hose.

During this initial walk-through of the rental unit, you will have the chance to see how your potential landlord reacts to your concerns about it. At the same time, the landlord will learn how you handle potential problems. You may not be able to reach agreement on every point, or on any. Nonetheless, how you get along will help both of you decide whether you will become a tenant.

If you find problems like the ones listed above, discuss them with the landlord. If the problems are ones that the law requires the landlord to repair, find out when the landlord intends to make the repairs. If you agree to rent the unit, it's a good idea to get these promises in writing, including the date by which the repairs will be completed. 

If the landlord isn't required by law to make the repairs, you should still write down a description of any problems if you are going to rent the property. It's a good idea to ask the landlord to sign and date the written description. Also, take photographs or a video of the problems. Use the time and date stamp, if your camera has this feature. Your signed, written description and photographs or video will document that the problems were there when you moved in, and can help avoid disagreement later about your responsibility for the problems. 

Finally, it's a good idea to walk or drive around the neighborhood during the day and again in the evening. Ask neighbors how they like living in the area. If the rental unit is in an apartment complex ask some of the tenants how they get along with the landlord and the other tenants. If you are concerned about safety, ask neighbors and tenants if there have been any problems, and whether they think that the area is safe.

SOURCE: California Department of Consumer Affairs