Housing & Mortgage
Why You Should Investigate Your Landlord
Records may reveal maintenance problems and tenant complaints
Your landlord knows a lot about you, but what do you know about your landlord?
Building owners and managers routinely use personal information from tenant applications to conduct in-depth background and credit checks themselves, or turn the job over to a private tenant-screening company.
Renters may lack the time, experience and money to scrutinize landlords. Many tenants do not even know who owns the building they live in, because they interact only with property managers, and investors create limited-liability companies, or LLCs, to actually own properties; only the LLCs’ names appear on leases and other documents.
Technology is starting to turn the tables. Crowdsourcing sites like RateMyLandlord.com and ReviewMyLandlord.com give prospective tenants a renter’s-eye-view of property owners and property managers. And state and local governments are posting building code violations and other information online.
Tenants would be wise to do a little snooping before signing a lease, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says. “Landlord screening databases … give the tenant some visibility into what is normally a blind spot in the unit leasing process,” the agency said in an email. “The landlord-tenant relationship is a two-way street, and ideally screening is viewed as beneficial to both parties.”
Not unreasonably, property owners screen potential tenants to see if they have the resources (usually a steady job at a certain salary) to reliably pay the rent every month and to see if they have recently filed for bankruptcy.
But the questions don’t end there. Property owners or their proxies may call your last landlord to ask if you were ever late with the rent, loud or obnoxious or damaged the property, and whether they would rent to you again. They also may search court records to see if you have a criminal record or ever filed a civil lawsuit.
You might not know until too late that your landlord has been sued by tenants, cited for building code violations or used one of the tenant-screening services named in hundreds of lawsuits for having falsely identified innocent applicants as criminals, deadbeats or registered sex offenders.
You can start a background check at the crowdsourced rating site Yelp, where many a victimized tenant has unloaded their story. Use specialized sites like RateMyLandlord.com or ReviewMyLandlord.com to read the reviews critically. And remember that online opinions — good and bad — tend toward hyperbole. However, if the same problem appears in multiple reviews, take it seriously.
To draw a complete picture of your landlord, you may need to learn who is behind the LLC that owns your building and see what tenants at other properties the LLC owns have to say about it. Tenants’ rights groups in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area and Philadelphia offer online databases you can use to look behind the LLC. Intended to help tenants in eviction cases, these sites also are used to investigate potential landlords.
Court records may contain a wealth of information in bankruptcy filings, criminal complaints and lawsuits. Many counties make these records available online free or for a small fee. If you do not want to search county-by-county and can pay more, try private vendors such as Casetext, Lexis and Westlaw.
Property records, which many local governments also make available online through assessors’ or recorders’ offices, can alert you to foreclosures and liens. Landlords in financial trouble often delay repairs or ignore maintenance; if you rent month-to-month, a cash-strapped owner could jack up your rent or evict you to make room for a higher-paying tenant or to make the property more attractive to a buyer.
Violations of building codes and health and safety regulations also are useful, and more local governments are posting them online. The District of Columbia’s Landlord Violations Tool, for example, identifies every building with unresolved violations such as rodent infestations and dangerous wiring. Tenants can use it as a list of landlords to avoid. Ernest Chrappah, director of D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said it is achieving its primary goal of reducing the number of violations.
These digital checks should not replace a little face-to-face research with the current tenants of the building you are considering and other people in the neighborhood. Yes, it’s a little awkward to ask tough questions of strangers, but they can tell you how well the landlord maintains the property, how quickly it makes repairs, whether its interactions with tenants causes high turnover. Better to hear about a rat infestation before you sign a lease.
In Atlanta, the Home Park Tenant Association is doing some of this work for people looking to move into that neighborhood on the west side of the city. In 2019 it issued a “report card” that ranked landlords in the area. The grades ranged from 100 (perfect) to 40. The group is in the process of surveying tenants for an updated report.
Each of these services, public and private, are trying to level the playing field for renters and landlords, and perhaps take the rancor out of the process.
“We’re trying to inform and empower residents so they can make better decisions,” says Elisa Davidson, the spokeswoman for WYL.co, which has crowdsourced reviews of properties in more than 350 US cities. “We want them to know what they are getting in for before they sign a lease.”