It’s not a secret that the coronavirus pandemic has made renting a home or apartment stressful for both landlords and tenants.
About 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, according to Moody’s Analytics, and rental rates in big coastal cities have fallen year over year as renters flee to the suburbs. But rents in fast-growing cities and spillover markets like Rochester, NY, and Tacoma, WA, are on the rise, according to realtor.com’s September rent report.
But no matter where you’re renting—or how many times you’ve rented in the past—looking at and leasing a home safely during a pandemic is complicated. It requires forethought and consideration, taking into account your budget and additional safety measures so everyone involved in the process can stay safe.
With the pandemic still presenting a risk for apartment shoppers, here’s what renters should be asking about and what red flags should send you running.
1. Suspiciously low rent
Everyone wants a deal, especially in the face of economic challenges. But if you’re seeing a too-good-to-be-true deal, especially in historically high markets like New York City or San Francisco, be wary.
“These historic low prices aren’t going to last forever,” says Beatrice Genco, a real estate adviser with New York City’s Triplemint. “There are some properties giving away one, two, even three months free, but what does that mean for next year? Landlords are hurting and want to increase prices as soon as they can, so lock yourself into a longer lease or make sure you understand how much the landlord is going to increase the rent.”
2. No COVID-19 policies
Your potential new landlords should be able to share the ways in which they are keeping their community clean and healthy based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes the measures they’re taking for disinfecting high-touch areas and enforcing social distancing. If this information is not presented to you up front, ask. Landlords should have a clearly outlined policy in place to safeguard tenants, and if they don’t, you may have to walk away from the deal.
It’s also important to find out what has been done to clean the individual unit you’re interested in since the last tenant vacated.
“Have the rugs been deep-cleaned?” asks Deidre Woollard, a real estate expert for the investing service Millionacres in Alexandria, VA. “Have all walls, floors, and countertops been wiped with bleach or antibacterial cleaning products? Have they replaced HVAC filters?”
3. Pricey shared amenities
Shared amenities like gyms, roof decks, and pools are normally a draw (and a justification for above-average rent rates) for larger apartment complexes. But during the pandemic-induced era of social distancing, many of these amenities have been closed or significantly limited.
Woollard reminds would-be renters to “find out what shared amenities are open and what precautions are being used to keep those spaces safe and clean. If a gym or pool is closed, will renters be compensated with a rebate?”
4. No social media presence
It’s almost 2021. Virtually every business and individual have a presence online, and that includes apartment complexes, brokers, and landlords. Part of a prospective renter’s due diligence should include checking out potential leasers on social media.
Greg Bond, president of Greater Orlando Home Buyers, warns that if you can’t find their social media accounts, that might mean they’re using a fake identity. These untraceable individuals are the same ones, he says, who “try to reel you in quick so you don’t notice the small details that can derail their shenanigans.”
5. Neglected maintenance
Whether they’re working with an agent or not, renters should consider conducting their own pre-leasing inspection of appliances and utilities in the apartment.
“As a renter, you need to make sure that everything in the property is in working condition before signing a lease,” says Max Cohen, CEO of Sarasota’s Florida Home Buyers. “A lot of landlords are dealing with cash flow shortages and are pushing off major repairs that can end up costing you. For example, an inefficient air conditioner can raise your electric bill significantly, and a slow-leaking toilet can cost you hundreds of dollars over the course or your lease.”
So before you sign on the dotted line, go ahead and turn on the air conditioner, turn on sinks, flush the toilet and let it fill up, open and close windows, run the shower and tub, inspect the microwave and other appliances, and switch on the oven.
6. Freshly painted wood
A newly painted trim may seem like a welcome sign of diligence on the landlord’s part, but it may actually be hiding a problem.
Rotting wood can require extra effort and cost to replace, so landlords often paint over it. This hides it temporarily, but by move-in day, the problem is often visible.
Paige Nejame, a Boston-based house painter who sees this a lot, suggests pressing or poking freshly painted wood to check for soft spots, especially near the seams and edges of rooms where water can gather.
7. The landlord won’t show you the apartment
Be on the lookout for property owners or agents who won’t let you tour the space, citing fears over COVID-19 as the reason. If your city or state is on lockdown, you may be forced to delay touring the apartment. However, there are ways to tour an apartment safely; some properties are offering self-guided tours while others give the option of a socially distanced tour with face masks and gloves.
“Many owners are trying to rent out units sight unseen, saying they want to limit in-person interactions,” says Ashley Romiti, a senior associate at Vantis Capital Advisors in Irvine, CA. “But photos and virtual tours can be misleading.”
If you’re adamant about touring the apartment before leasing, say so.
“If they refuse to accommodate your requests, you have probably dodged a bullet,” Romiti says.