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5 ways to check if your landlord is a slumlord

landlord-slumlordWhen picking a place rent, you ideally want to find a nice rental in a decent neighborhood, a location that's convenient to work, school or social activities, not to mention a place that fits your budget.

Finding a good landlord or property manager is also vital, even though that's often an overlooked aspect of apartment hunting, because a bad landlord can be a nightmare.

Renting is on the rise

There are currently more than 43 million renter households in the United States, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

The Urban Institute predicts that the rental market will increase significantly, surging to nearly 48 million and 54.1 million in the years 2020 and 2030, respectively.

If you're among the nation's growing ranks of renters, or you might become a renter down the road, here are five ways to check out a potential property and investigate a prospective landlord to avoid a slumlord.

No. 1: Cast a critical eye beyond aesthetics

When you visit an apartment, trust your instincts and don't allow yourself to be fooled by surface details that can mask deeper problems - like mold, bedbug infestations or serious code violations.

Just because you see neatly cut grass or a fresh coat of paint doesn't mean everything is fine, says Ken Volk, president and founder of Arizona Tenants Advocates, Inc.

Beyond pure aesthetics, note the construction and working order of things like doors, locks, windows and faucets. Also look for the presence of adequate lighting, security cameras, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors - the latter of which are required in some states.

"Walk through the apartment and observe it carefully," Volk suggests. "Take pictures, try the electrical outlets, turn on the fans, and make a list of anything that isn't working."

Especially note any major red flags related to routine upkeep, as well as common safety and security features.

No. 2: Talk to current renters

Speaking to other renters can give you valuable insights into what it would be like to live as a tenant in a given building - before you sign a lease.

Tenants will be able to tell you everything from how quickly maintenance issues are handled to whether the property manager respects tenants' rights.

In certain instances, renters may candidly tell you that a landlord has a history of neglect, or that all of his units suffer from leaking roofs, faulty plumbing or no heat.

"You can also ask a local Landlord Tenant Association about the number of complaints against a property or landlord," says Sherese Brewington-Carr, a human services consultant and paralegal in Wilmington, Delaware.

Even if current renters don't badmouth the landlord directly, be sure to ask residents about tenant turnover. An apartment complex that seems like a revolving door may signal trouble with either the landlord or the facilities.

No.3: Visit the county courthouse

One nightmare for some unsuspecting tenants is when they pay their rent but the landlord doesn't pay the mortgage. The property winds up in foreclosure, and renters get unfairly booted out of their homes.

While some states have laws requiring landlords to inform renters if a property goes into foreclosure, not all landlords follow the law. Unscrupulous landlords even continue accepting new tenants without disclosing a pending foreclosure.

To prevent this scenario, check the status of the property in the clerk's office at the county courthouse before you rent an apartment.

Conducting a public-records search of county records can alert you to past-due mortgages, liens for unpaid water bills or code violations. "If there have been documented safety problems with a building, the office of Licenses and Inspections will know," says Brewington-Carr.

If you see a "notice of default," that signals the first step in a foreclosure proceeding. Also look for bankruptcies, court judgments against the property owner, as well as civil or criminal lawsuits brought against a landlord.

Look for the landlord's name as both plaintiff and defendant in civil cases. That'll show you if they've been sued by tenants and why, along with how aggressive the landlord is about evicting people from their apartments.

No. 4: Do an online public-records search

You can even check out a landlord or rental property from your computer or smartphone because a growing number of towns, cities and counties are going digital.

For example, those seeking rentals in the Chicago area can use the Cook County Property Info website to search for an apartment by address. This database is a wealth of information, with data from multiple departments, including the Tax Assessor, Treasurer, Recorder, Board of Review and Clerk.

Additionally, Chicago has made its building violations database available online.

No. 5: Check out online apartment reviews

When you're planning to rent a new place, the wisdom of the crowd can often be a good guide, Volt says.

That's why he recommends perusing the online apartment ratings service ApartmentRatings.com. "Check it out and get a feel for what people are saying about the place you're considering," says Volt.

ApartmentRatings.com has amassed more than 2 million ratings and reviews of apartments across the U.S., making it the largest such database in the country. Two similar services are Rent.com and Apartments.com.

While each site touts its own unique features, they all share one thing in common: the collective voice of renters who've lived in a place and reviewed it.

With online reviews, take certain overly negative comments or petty complaints with a grain of salt.

However, for reviews of any apartment, landlord or property manager, if the overall comments show a pattern of disgruntled residents, you'd be wise to steer clear.

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