Community Advice Column

Clever Manka, · Categories: Community Advice

Doc Paradise asks:

Hey Mankanauts,

I know that we have quite a bit of moving and renting experience here. I’d love to see some of that.

What is the best way to go about finding the ideal place to rent? What steps do you go through? What do you do to ensure that it is safe and the landlord is good? What do you avoid? What is a good mindset to approach it in so that you don’t just say “fuck-it, I’ll live in the woods”?


clevermankaIf you need some advice, drop me an email. If you want to be known, please include your username. Otherwise, let me know you want to remain anonymous.

43 Responses to “Community Advice Column”

  1. vladazhael says:

    Oh. OH. I could talk about this for ages.

    First, I would like to report (because it's tangentially relevant and also because I'm excited) – Manfriend and I have secured a place! Details in comments so I don't immediately hijack this thread.

    After this experience, my number one advice for finding a place would be to know what assets you have and use them as wisely as possible to balance out any disadvantages. My superpower is an obsessive mindset that had me trolling Craigslist ads like a fiend and gathering an encyclopedic knowledge of the current local rental market, as well as a professional's way with contact phone calls and emails; Manfriend took a more boots-on-the-ground approach, as he knows the neighborhood well, walks around with his dog a lot, knows a lot of people who know people who know people, and is very good at humaning and building rapport. Disadvantages included my distance (made up for by his presence), his credit (made up for by mine, at least as long as people were willing to think critically about it), and his uncooperative current landlord (which individual landlords are generally more willing to understand and overlook than larger property management companies tend to be). We didn't have a set approach for finding something, but mostly what happened was that I would find a lead we both liked and screen it for our needs, chase it down as far as I could remotely, and then pass it on to Manfriend to arrange showings and get a feel for the actual dwellings and humans involved. I can say without exaggeration that his charm was ultimately what won us the place we got in the end.

    As for safety and good landlord – that kind of depends on what you're looking for and what the rental market is like in any given area. Larger, more corporate places tend to have a lot of oversight but less flexibility; small or solo landlords can be worked with more creatively as humans and might make special accommodations if they like you, but that relies on them actually being decent humans, which some of them are not. I'm right now going from an inflexible (if friendly) corporate entity to a single owner who "goes by vibe" and comes with a glowing recommendation from a trusted source and former resident (Manfriend has a friend who used to live in that very house), so I feel pretty good about it. But Manfriend's current landlord is also a single owner and is an absolute nightmare, and getting out of his lease before it expires at the end of July will be somewhere between troublesome and impossible. So knowing people is very good insurance, but sometimes that's not a thing for us introverts and the corporate model ends up being better protection. Ultimately I don't know if I'd be so eagerly avoiding large corporate setups if not for Manfriend's boots on the ground, but I'm glad that's an asset I have now because I much prefer just living in someone's extra house.

    Mindset… I don't know; there were times where we joked about just living in a barrel in the woods. Try not to burn yourself out (which I ABSOLUTELY did), have your shit together ahead of time so you can move fast if you need to, try not to get too attached until you have signed papers. Commiserate with your online community as needed.

    • vladazhael says:

      The story: while we were inexplicably not getting any answers or even contact from the property manager of the amazingly gorgeous 1910 architectural marvel, I called back on a delightfully misplaced little southwestern hacienda that Manfriend had seen but we had been forced to pass up due to timing, and it turned out to be still available. The landlord remembered Manfriend being really awesome, and as it turns out, he has a soft spot for urban coyotes rooting through Taco Bell dumpsters and doesn't really believe in applications and is willing to meet us in the middle on lease start date and I just signed the thing this morning and sent it off to manfriend to sign and deliver with a deposit check.

      This place… good lord. I spotted it on a dog walk months ago and wanted it then, well before it was up for rent. Manfriend has been eyeing it for years. It's perfect. I'm not even tempted to look on Craigslist. There is nothing better. The gorgeous 1910 apartment would have been a solid consolation prize, but this place is a whole house, has better parking, is cheaper, and is more in "our" neighborhood. I used to live 2 blocks away from it. Other friends live a few blocks beyond that. It's a couple blocks from one of the bars Manfriend and I and our mutual friends used to hang out at every week when I lived there before. Apparently fate was just making us go the long way for this kind of like it made us do with each other. And I don't mind.

      Coyotes in a hacienda. Perfect.

    • Doc_Paradise says:

      Congrats on getting a place.

      What kind of background checks were landlords asking for?

      Also, how does one background check a landlord? Especially a private landlord?

      • vladazhael says:

        Thank you. πŸ™‚

        Place A, which we did not get: social security number, TransUnion credit report (or credit card info, loans, etc. – I just let them run the report instead of giving everything), rental history from current landlord, salary info from me, employment confirmation from supervisor (in Wisconsin they are not legally allowed to ask for salary, but clearly they find ways to piece it together). They ran my report and presumably Manfriend's and called both our supervisors. They also tried to call his landlord but could not get through, which they turned us down for, so fuck them.

        Place B, which we got: a good vibe. Seriously. That's it. I'm sure it helped that Manfriend knows the neighborhood and is friends with a previous resident and is altogether charming, but we did not have to fill out an application at all.

        Place C, which took so long that we turned *them* down: social security number, credit card and/or loan info, bank account info, possible credit report (but they never contacted me back about whether I needed to unlock one for them – either they never got that for or the egregious amount of other financial info was enough), salary info from me, employment confirmation from supervisor (which they still had not done when we called it quits), and rental history from current landlord, which is apparently where the hangup was, only from MY landlord. They weren't even going to bother with Manfriend's landlord because he was a known scumbag, but apparently they had tried to contact mine and they said they needed my authorization to give confirmation which a) apparently they had no qualms about a month ago with Place A and b) someone from the property management company could have mentioned one of the several times we tried to make contact after far longer than the 48 hours they stated it would take had elapsed. I actually got a call from the manager's assistant yesterday to check on that, at which point I told her that after trying to make contact several times and not hearing back, we had found another place. Her name was Felicia. I did not say "bye, Felicia," but I thought it.

        Landlord background checks: word of mouth is your best friend with private landlords. A lot of the time local landlords have opinions about each other, which would have been to our advantage in Place C had they gotten their shit together in terms of keeping in touch. You can also check for legal judgments against them, which are generally a matter of public record. Wisconsin's version is here: https://wcca.wicourts.gov/ And I would guess other states/provinces have similar resources.

      • Fancy_Pants says:

        I think we've gone so far as to search our city's subreddit for chatter about potential landlords, but that probably wouldn't work for really small-scale landlords (which I think is always a high-risk high-reward type situation that I've had both great and terrible experiences with).

  2. Heathered says:

    If there is ANY way to consult with any other human who has any connection, however tenuous, to a place you're interested in, work that connection like mad. The place I'm in now is not perfect–no place is– but I moved in sight unseen with no regrets, and only got it because I ran into former coworkers at a memorial service, messaged my old boss on Facebook and she just happened to know a guy with rentals. I had already paid the property manager he works with twice on their word that they'd let me know if something opened up, and they sat on their hands while places came and went. They were assholes, but the fact that it was rented through property management also meant all the minimal requirements were in place, no surprise rats nests or safety violations, and that was important to me as a fraidy cat single person. The landlord checked me out through my ex-boss, but I also checked him out through her, and that was good to have in place, too. The process is a grind at the best of times, best of luck to you.

  3. phantom says:

    I'm actually not sure, so maybe I shouldn't comment. Most of my renting was for college, and the college gave us a sheet of paper of probable addresses and I checked them out and found one I liked then stayed there every year of college which is obviously not the norm and not really applicable outside of college towns.

  4. Fancy_Pants says:

    From my experience, a good mindset to approach renting with is to be mindful of the type of rental market you're in, and if you're looking for something atypical, give yourself lots of time to find something.

    So for example, I live in a very student-heavy town, so most of the bigger rental units are geared towards students who want to live cheaply with lots of roommates. If you want a one or two bedroom apartment, no problem! There is a fairly decent range of price points and unit quality. If you want a three bedroom apartment, you are either looking at a rat-infested student slum, or a mega-fancy house meant for mid-career professionals with children. Crappy real estate inventory is basically the death of all my happy roommate commune dreams πŸ™

    In general though, ask your friends for their landlord's contact info if they like them (your friend might even get a referral bonus out of it), check Kijiji listings (you might be able to swipe a hidden gem by taking over someone's lease). Right now I'm in an apartment I took over from a friend, and it's the best ever, so luck has a lot to do with it.

    • vladazhael says:

      Seconded on knowing the market. I'm also dealing with a student-heavy area – to the point where almost every lease in town flips in August – so there were entire regions of the city that I just didn't even bother to look at because I am too old and grumpy for that nonsense and also I don't want to live in a single family home that's been split up into 6 weird mini-apartments with carpet that has soaked up decades of parties.

      • Absotively says:

        Where I went to school, a substantial chunk of the cheap student apartments were managed by the same property manager, and they all had identical ceramic tile floors throughout. They also tended to split houses into only one apartment per floor, each with three to five smallish bedrooms sharing one smallish kitchen/living room and one bathroom.

        Which isn't particularly relevant, really, it's just interesting to me that there's apparently more regional variation in cheap student housing than I expected. Mini-apartments with carpet! Who knew!

        • vladazhael says:

          I may also be being particularly ungenerous to the student housing. πŸ˜‰ I was never a student in that area myself and only have word of mouth, the occasional friend visit, and (a lot of) housing ads to go by.

          • Absotively says:

            It's definitely not the sort of housing you were looking for, anyways!

            The apartments I described were not particularly well loved, because they were a bit cramped and in older buildings and no one really wants tile floors in their bedroom. But they were fairly well maintained and reasonably priced.

            I suspect the local real estate market affects things a lot. Housing was expensive enough in Toronto, even a decade or so ago, that apartments with bigger rooms or fewer rooms per apartment were out of reach of a lot of undergrads.

          • Doc_Paradise says:

            From everything I hear, Toronto is a tough market and worse for buying.

          • Absotively says:

            I'd like to move back there, but I'd want to live near downtown, and yeah. I keep saying I'll move back after the bubble bursts.

  5. Lynn says:

    Renting in NYC sucks in a LOT of ways, but on the other hand because so many people rent here there tend to be a lot more tools at your disposal (I'd imagine this is true of most urban centers with a lot renters). I hesitate to name exact sites since I don't know which ones are available wider than NYC, but definitely google around for "apartment listings+ [your city]" and see if any good search engines pop up. The best ones will allow you to save your searches and/or email regular updates with new listings that fit that search. There's also websites here that basically operate like Yelp for individual buildings which can be pretty useful in sussing out landlords or building management issues, at least for the larger corporate owned rentals.

    I prefer starting to look at listings at least a couple of months before I really need to buckle down and start going to units in person — it's a good way to both get an idea of what the market looks like in your price range AND to start spotting any of the scammers/sleazy brokers that post to good to be true apartments and then bait and switch you when you call (in NYC at least they tend to be super lazy and post the exact same wording and/or photos for listings in wildly different areas). If you live in an area that relies heavily on brokers, be prepared to be very firm about your boundaries and don't let them talk you into looking at a bunch of stuff that only kind of fits your criteria.

    It also helps to be pretty clear on where you are willing to compromise and for what reasons. In NYC I've never been able to find that 100% perfect apartment, but knowing going in where I'm willing to be flexible and where I'm not has made it easier to find places where the compromises are things I can easily live with.

  6. Xolandra says:

    GentlemanX and I found our place through, I shit you not, the newspaper. That was a decade ago, but the place we found was amazing, with an amazing landlord.

    My criteria was always "will my mother weep if she sees me here"? So, no places that are in disrepair; if you have a problem, disrepair upon viewing is a preeeeeeeeeeeeeetttttttttttty good indicator that nothing will happen while you're living there.

    Nothing that smells funny.

    I almost always rented from humans, not companies, and generally speaking, I found this to be a good way to go. Humans are much more interested in protecting their assets, IME, than are companies. My MO was always to gush effusively about how much I loved a place; that along with my race and class privilege meant that I rarely didn't get a spot that I wanted IF the renter was invested. Supers for large places, for example, tend to care only about credit history and don't tend to look for someone who will _care_ about the property.

    So my advice is to walk. Walk the neighbourhood you want to be in, and jot down phone numbers. The advice might be 10 years old, but I still regularly see place-for-rent signs in my hood, and they regularly come down so they must be being rented πŸ™‚

    • littleinfinity says:

      The apartment I shared with J before our current one was a tiny studio apartment with no storage, so we basically stashed a bunch of our stuff along one wall and put up a divider. My mother actually, literally wept when she saw my apartment. Made me feel super shitty about my life, but it was what we could afford on one (1) grad student income (me) plus semi-regular gig/ acting income (him). I am happy to report that we now have a much better place.

      • Xolandra says:

        Yeah, my mom is a pretty solid prairie mom, so I think she'd be able to deal with small spaces, but, like, large unidentifiable stains on the kitchen counter? Less so. Of course, not all moms are a good bar, you know?

        • littleinfinity says:

          My mom is an okay bar although not a prairie mom (I like that category!). I grew up in a somewhat smallish house (3 br/ 1 ba bungalow for mom and 3 kids), in an area where a lot of our friends had bigger houses, so I think the small space might have been ok if it had looked a little nicer or had updated fixtures, less filled with various piles of our crap, etc. I will fully admit it was a shitty apartment. Of course, in retrospect I have good memories because it was our first place together πŸ™‚ but we were happy to move out of there too.

    • Doc_Paradise says:

      There is a place on the corner that goes up for rent regularly. But the sign goes up and down so often that I'm suspicious.

      • Xolandra says:

        I share your suspicion! But the next time that goes up, I would arrange a visit, just to see, curiosity being what it is, you know?

  7. phantom says:

    Oh I also recommend the looking at the market at checking out what rental rights are where you are.

  8. littleinfinity says:

    I wouldn't say I'm an expert on rentals but I will tell you the tale of how we got our current place! I found it on an LA rentals website and we went to the open house, which was run by an uninterested college kid who was unrelated to the landlord. So after the open house, with application in hand, we went upstairs and knocked on the door of the people living in that apartment (it's a triplex) and put on our best "help me" faces, and said excuse me kind folks, may we please have the direct number of the landlord? They invited us in, answered all our questions, and hooked us up with the landlord's number. Then J basically called the landlord, said "I am littleinfinity's real estate agent, and she is VERY interested in this place, please call me back etc." Meanwhile, I applied on my own as a single woman (i.e. without J on the lease) and submitted the application through the usual channels. And we got the apartment! So I think TL;DR: establish direct contact whenever possible; if you have a friend who can fake some real estate knowledge then get them to call on your behalf; seem educated and responsible?

  9. CleverManka says:

    There is a similar conversation to this going on on DreamWidth if anyone wants to check it out.

  10. dirtymagpie says:

    All of the above are great! It's the same sort of lookeesee as if you were buying a house. Check the neighborhood on Saturday night, you'll learn quickly if it's not so great. When you're checking out the neighborhood, pay attention to windows..steer clear of blocks with foil or blankets for curtains, LOL.

    I rented my first apartment when I was in Albuquerque at the tender age of 17, and have just seemed to have good luck. :does a quick run through of life:
    Let's see, I've had 19 rental places in six states, so my luck is above average, I'd say.
    If I had any really bad landlords, I don't remember them, I think the worst was just lazy about maintenance, but we did the work ourselves and billed them; and a woman with a large house split into units that definitely crossed the line (came in my place when I wasn't there and nosied around).

    I've never lived in a big property management place, and have gotten a lot of places through the local pub/coffee shop. Most recently, my Lawrence places were found through a For Rent sign, and a local neighborhood BBS. (Yes, it's been awhile). I highly recommend getting on the equivalent group on FB and ask around. I admin a BST group and see folks put rentals and (college town) sub-leases on there or ISO with a list of what they want as far as bedrooms, garage, pets, etc.

    • Doc_Paradise says:

      We got our present place from seeing a for rent sign. I hadn't thought about FB. Thanks.

      • dirtymagpie says:

        Oh and I meant to tell you.. I finally got to my post box and found your wonderful card! I love it. Thank you so much for the cheer-up

    • dirtymagpie says:

      Oh, ha! I blocked it out of my mind. We did have a lovely old house with sewer problems, ie, the basement flooded with raw sewage. Many calls to the landlord, who was a good guy but a coke fiend, got nowhere. We did end up going to the city, nada. A friend who had a friend in the County Health Dept sent an inspector over, who served the landlord with a 3 day fix it or fine notice. At this landlord's father came to see it, and announced "Holy sh*t!" when he saw the excrement flood, and the next day had workers come to clean up and put in a ball check valve on the line. That was really messy, but other than that, it was a great place and they never bothered us.

  11. Flitworth says:

    Bone up the renting laws, flush the toilet and run the faucet at the same time to check water pressure:)
    If you can check out neighbors in smaller places I recommend. We had a place we loved but the people above us got drunk and fired bottle rockets off the porch and got mad when, a year in, we threw out a mattress they left on our side of the basement (landlord told us it was previous tenants). Place before that, weeks before he moved out, downstairs neighbor left us a note after I left my shoes on and walked around (the one time) saying we were too loud and always had been, even though he never mentioned it in the months prior. If you can avoid passive-aggressive types it helps a lot because they are very hard to resolve issues with.
    Once you pick a place, I strongly recommend introducing yourself and providing an email or number they can reach out to if there's a concern/conflict instead of going to the cops or landlord when they get knickers in a twist.

  12. maggie cooper says:

    It's Mardi Gras. I don't go out to do carnival anymore, but do realise that this is a holiday, both Catholic and pagan. We here do observe it.

  13. jenavira says:

    Most of my advice has already been listed, so a few specific details:

    I enjoy fantasizing about moving, although I don't enjoy moving itself, so I spend a lot of time looking at HotPads and PadMapper, which is useful when I actually am ready to move because I have a good idea of what's out there and what I should expect to find. (Apartment shopping when it's not actually necessary can be fun, like looking at decorator magazines.)

    Figure out when rents tend to go up – is it the end of the year, July/August, some random other time? This isn't 100% accurate but it does help you figure out if you're looking at last year's numbers.

    Apartment reviews (like apartmentratings.com) aren't very good at telling you what the apartment is like, but they're very good at telling you what the management company is like. If you're looking at a complex, it's worth doing your best to figure out who manages it and how long they've been doing so. (Sometimes new management is just what a place needs; sometimes it means the level of institutional knowledge just bottomed out and there will be lots of issues no one knows how to cope with. If there are enough dated reviews, you can usually tell which is going on.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*