By Kellie Artis for MILLIE
Congrats! You’ve finally gotten orders to a new duty station, done your research on where you think you’ll want to live, and have curated a short list of properties you’d like to look at more seriously. Time to celebrate all your hard work thus far? Not so fast. You still have a bit of due diligence to perform before signing on the dotted line.
We asked some experts, a.k.a. MILLIE Scouts, for help with identifying what sorts of things you should be on the lookout for when searching for a rental property. They work with military families day in and day out to help fact-find and provide objective information for decision support, so they know a thing or two about what to avoid!
Below are six big red flags that you should be aware of during each stage of the house hunting process. If more than one of these pop up, you may want to move on to another property.
🚩 #1: Misleading Listing Information
Double check information listed about the home, and if there are any discrepancies, beware. For example, does the home claim to be zoned in a desirable school district, but when you research the address (using the school district’s website), you find it to be zoned to another school?
“Make sure that the actual schools assigned match what’s in the listing.” -MILLIE Scout Heather
It’s also a good idea to use apps like Google Earth and Street View to recon the home and surrounding area. Be on the lookout for bordering industrial or commercial zones, as that too can impact your decision and be conveniently omitted from a listing.
“Some areas are not zoned, or back up to a different type of zone (commercial, industrial, etc). Love Google Earth!” -MILLIE Scout Jena
“The satellite picture is worth a thousand words as the listing’s pictures can be incomplete or even downright misleading. Just a few of the things that we noticed on our most recent long distance hunt for a home: High voltage power lines too close for comfort, a very stagnant pond just beyond a few trees at the back of the property, one property backed up to a horse farm…” -MILLIE Scout Heather
While you’re poking around online, also look at the surrounding homes. Are they well taken care of or dilapidated? The overall condition of the area should be something you take into account, not just the perceived condition of one home.
🚩 #2: Seeming Too Good to Be True
You know the saying, “If it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.” Though a rental with a super low price tag can be appealing, do some market research and get the full picture. If the home or unit is priced well below comparable homes, it could be a scam (i.e., no home is actually available, and someone is looking to make off with your deposit). It could also mean that there is something significantly wrong with the place and can only bring in super low rents.
“[Watch out for] a house in a neighborhood where there are LOTS of homes for sale/short-sales/sitting on the market, and they're offering it to rent. I'm so glad we passed on a certain neighborhood as we watched more than one friend have to move because the home they were renting was foreclosed on without their knowledge. Who knows where their rent payments ended up! One couple [we know] had to move TWICE, in the same neighborhood, in two years because of this.” -MILLIE Scout Lynn
The inverse of this red flag is also true: if the property is priced too high compared to other rentals, it could be a sign that you’re dealing with an inexperienced landlord. Ideally, you want to work with someone who treats their property as a business and has done the appropriate market research to support a competitive rental rate - not just asking what they’ll need to cover the mortgage.
"[I once contacted a landlord who] mentioned that they would be listing [their home] by owner, and the price would be higher than comparable rentals in the area...because that’s what they needed to cover their mortgage. Red flag! They were way too inexperienced and impulsive, offering it to anyone without first doing their homework. Rent should be based on the market, not the owner’s mortgage. I had zero confidence that they’d researched anything about actually being a landlord. You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re educating your landlord-- that just smacks of drama and legal trouble that no one has the time or budget for!" -MILLIE Scout Heather
🚩 #3: MIA Property Manager
The tenant + landlord (or property manager) relationship is an important one! As the tenant, you’ll want to know that your feedback, or any issues that arise, will be taken seriously and addressed promptly. During your initial communication, if the contact person is slow to respond, hard to coordinate with, or merely unorganized, you may want to reconsider working with them. While an incommunicado landlord could be a one-off case of crossed wires, it could also indicate something more concerning. If you have a burst pipe, flooding basement, or another emergency, you need to know that you’ll have someone standing by to help! Any last minute shifts in appointment times or canceled showings could also stand out as concerning.
“[We once rented a home, but the landlord] had no representation here because he moved out of the country and the house was falling apart. Looking back I should have made them put a representative in writing. It’s so hard to know what you’re working with off one meeting. They made [the house] look great initially and by the time we moved in it had totally changed.” -MILLIE Scout Megan
🚩 #4: Property Doesn’t Pass Muster
Don’t discount funny smells or dingy walls. Some normal wear and tear on a home is reasonable, but pay attention to odors like mildew, smoke, and pet urine. The home may have underlying issues with moisture retention, which could cause big time health issues. Also, take heed if you're rushed through the home tour or if the person showing it continually diverts your attention. Take your time and pay attention to the details.
“We’ve decided to never rent a home that has been winterized again. We viewed the home using our phone flashlights and didn’t see that it was a bit rundown.” -MILLIE Scout Becky
🚩 #5: A Flimsy Lease Agreement
The lease is more than just an agreement on the rental term and rental rate. This document should be thorough and hefty, explaining things like what’s considered to be normal wear and tear, and what repairs are considered urgent.
“[Red Flag:] When there is no plan for maintenance or repairs laid out in the lease. You need to know what they will cover.” -MILLIE Scout Jennifer
If the lease is too “basic,” looks like it’s been copy and pasted from a generic website, or worse yet - has blanks, take a step back. Every single field should be filled in appropriately before you sign.
🚩 #6: Miscellaneous Shady Requests
If you are asked to obtain a P.O. box to receive mail at the property or if the rent includes utilities, these could be glaring red flags. The owner likely doesn’t want another name associated with the address, meaning that they’re renting it illegally.
If the listing mentions wiring money to a service like Western Union, MoneyGram, or an “escrow service,” that’s a HARD PASS. You’re probably chatting with an industrious scammer.
If you are asked to send cash before seeing the property, be cautious. Things like application fees and reference check fees would be less concerning, but a chunk of cash like a deposit and/or first month’s rent before viewing the rental is a big no-no.
“I've seen some landlords require the deposit before you are allowed to look at the property. I understand in areas where there is low rental inventory, I get having people fill out applications and maybe even pre-qualifying before showing a house. But a full deposit on a house can be a stretch, especially if you aren't sure you will get that money back, like the property, etc. There are better ways to gauge interest or seriousness of applicants.” -MILLIE Scout Kim
Renting a home for any length of time is a commitment, and your experience in that home can make or break your time at a new duty station. Make sure that you enter into all rental agreements informed and vigilant for any red flags that arise. And don’t forget, if you are facing signing a rental agreement sight unseen (as many of us often do), you do have options! A MILLIE Scout can be your eyes, ears, and nose on the ground providing you with objective feedback on the property to support your decision to sign that lease - or not.