Choosing the right rental can be a challenge. For all the happy renters, experts say, there are others who have endured hassles, hardships and headaches. Here are eight red flags to watch for before signing an agreement.
1. Access to the landlord
Before you're actually living in an apartment, you can gauge how attentive a landlord is likely to be. If he or she is hard to reach right from the start, that could be a sign of what you'll encounter if you run into problems after you've moved in. If you're working with a real estate agent, ask if he or she has ever worked with the landlord, says Linda Michael, a saleswoman for Laffey Real Estate in New Hyde Park. To ensure you’ll be able to reach the landlord at any time, Michael advises getting his or her cellphone number and email address from the start. And note, some landlords may be more hands-off, relying instead on management or maintenance to tend to day-to-day issues. Ask up front who you would be dealing with.
2. Illegal dwellings
Many apartments on Long Island are illegal, says Michele Gottlieb, a real estate broker with Signature Premier Properties in Locust Valley, because homeowners haven't gone through the municipal process -- documentation, passing inspections for safety and building code violations -- to have an accessory apartment within their home. In order to be a legal rental, an apartment needs a certificate of occupancy, says Jamie Ezratty, of Horing Welikson & Rosen, a Williston Park-based law firm specializing in landlord/tenant law. “So, if there’s a certificate of occupancy for a one-family dwelling and it’s being rented to two families, that landlord is renting the premises in violation.” Be leery of basement apartments, says Ezratty, because many are not legal in certain communities.
3. Extra fees
Most landlords require an initial payment of two months' rent, one month’s security and one month for the broker's fee, says Michael. If the tenant has a pet, the landlord may request a pet deposit, sometimes as much as a month’s rent, for potential damages, she adds. Other fees could be an additional month’s rent for a renter with bad credit or irregular income, as well as payment for a background check on the renter, adds Michael. Unless an apartment is rent stabilized or regulated (and there are about 450 of those in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to the Long Island Housing Partnership), landlords have leeway as to what they can charge — from air conditioning to snow blowing to lawn maintenance — as long as it’s agreed upon upfront by both parties, Ezratty says. Larger developments often charge application, amenity, trash and parking fees, says Wendy Sanders, an agent with Douglas Elliman Real Estate. "They're not hidden, but they're not part of the base rent. And they add up."
4. Questionable questions
Under the federal Fair Housing Act, landlords face fines of up to $50,000 for discriminating against potential tenants because of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin. State law offers prospective tenants similar protection. Landlords should not be asking questions about children, age or marital status, says Victor Ambrose, a pro bono attorney for nonprofit Nassau/Suffolk Law Services and the Empire Justice Center at Touro College. They also may not legally ask whether a renter is on public assistance or using public housing support. Such inquiries are "against the law," agrees Manny Kottaram, assistant public information officer for the state's Division of Human Rights. If a landlord asks questions that fall into any of those areas, a tenant is not obliged to answer and can report the landlord to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ambrose says. The exception is housing developments that have permissible age restrictions, such as 55-and-over communities, Ambrose says.
5. Too many vacancies
If you’re looking at an apartment in a development that’s not brand-new and there are a lot of vacancies, you should question why that’s the case, says Sanders. “The reason could be maintenance. The reason could be price. It could be any number of things,” she says. With new developments, vacancies can be expected. Agents say it takes at least a year — one full rental cycle — for residential complexes to establish themselves. For Sanders, a vacancy rate of 15 to 20 percent is too high. Prospective renters, she says, should do some research by reading online reviews from previous and current tenants.
6. High turnover
A high rate of apartment turnover also could signal a problem with a rental, perhaps with maintenance or noise — but not always, Sanders says. For example, in Great Neck, where she conducts much of her rental business, people often move to the community to work for a year or two in area hospitals or local businesses and then relocate. Others, moving from the city, start out in an apartment before buying a home. “It’s just the first stop heading east,” Sanders says.
7. Obvious eyesores
Take a good look at the building and the entire property to see how well they’re maintained. “During the course of a business day, do you see people actively working there and maintaining the property? What’s going into keeping it at the level that you want it to be at?” asks Sanders. Another way to get a sense of how well a development is cared for is by searching the internet for information on both the property and the management company. Don’t take every review as gospel, but use them as general guidance, says Sanders.
8. Limited lease options
A lease, which is essentially a contract between two parties, offers protections for both tenant and landlord over a set period of time. Without a lease, tenants have less security, Ezratty says. “After the tenant moves in, spends all the money fixing up and painting," he points out, the landlord could give the tenant notice to leave. Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services, a Bohemia-based fair-housing advocacy organization, says the landlord's notice must come at least a full rental period in advance. In some instances, both the landlord and tenant might prefer forgoing a lease, as it gives both parties more flexibility, albeit with more uncertainty, adds Ezratty.