Renting an apartment can be scary. This is going to be your home, after all, no matter how short or long a time you choose to live there. As you consider available options, you are probably looking for it to be clean and smell-free. You also likely want it to be large enough to at least fit a bed and a refrigerator. And the surrounding neighborhood should be safe, or at least not downright dangerous. All those qualities being equal, you of course want it to be something you can afford, even if it means skimping on some other luxuries. But, most of all, you want it to be real and not one of many rental scams.
Rental scams are one of the fastest-growing frauds nationwide. With sites like Craigslist or Apartments.com, apartment searching is now easier than ever. Unfortunately, though, that ease of access comes with a price. Anyone can list anything as “for rent” and for any price. Most of these listings are legitimately posted by a real person who wants to rent their living space. In some cases, though, they’re not. With only a few pictures and e-mails, scammers can convince you that they actually do have a luxury apartment for only $500 a month. Your job is to be on your guard.
Here are three ways to help keep your money safe from rental scams:
1.) Rental scams are too good to be true
It’s smart to check the rental prices of other apartments that are about the same size and in the same area. You can check the average renting price in most major cities at Rentbits.com. If the available apartment is considerably cheaper than what you find there, it’s probably a scam. Even the most desperate landlords need to cover their expenses!
If they have a tragic or heroic reason for the low rental cost, don’t be fazed. If the story is true, someone else will help your poor landlord-to-be, but odds are good there’s no one in need on the other side of that advertisement.
Is the posting written in poor English? That’s a yellow light; proceed with caution. Legitimate companies almost always use listing agents who have experience writing these things, but individual lessors may pop up from time to time. If anyone asks you to wire them money – especially if you haven’t seen the apartment in person yet – that’s one of the rental scams. There are no such things as “showing fees” or “pre-screening charges.” If the person offering you their apartment can’t meet you in person, run away. Never rent an apartment, sign a lease or pay a deposit without seeing an apartment first.
2.) Guard your personal information
As in most other online scenarios, don’t give anyone personal information they don’t need. Your e-mail address and phone number are important for follow-up communication, but your address or credit card number would allow them to take much more than a down payment on your rent. You may need to leave a copy of your driver’s license with a rental agent while you tour an apartment, but no one else should need personal information prior to showing you a potential apartment. Anyone who wants to run a credit check prior to showing you a property does not want you as a tenant; they want you as a victim.
Wherever possible, try to work with someone local. Ask the person offering the apartment to meet you in person and to show you the property. More than just verifying if it’s real, this is a good way to make sure it’s a place you want to live. Use your intuition and your common sense; if something seems fishy, it almost always is. There are plenty of apartments out there. Don’t fall in love with one when it’s sight unseen.
3.) Trust … but verify
If something seems fishy, research it. Google the name of the person or company in charge of listing the property. Any legitimate rental company wants to funnel as much traffic to its sales portals as it can, so you should have no problem finding them online and verifying that they are, in fact, listing the property.
There are a number of forums dedicated to outing rental scams. A good place to start is Reddit’s personal finance section. If you notice something off-putting about your potential landlord, add to the community with a quick post and move on. Always visit the apartment in person to make sure that it’s both real and that it’s not currently inhabited by someone who doesn’t wish to rent it online.
Wherever money is changing hands, there’s going to be someone out there who’ll take advantage of it. Scammers can quickly produce photographic proof that the place exists. Then they can offer to make your life simpler by asking you to pay them immediately. Technology has made things easier in the short run, but a lot more dangerous in the long run. As a renter, you’re taking a lot of risks, but following these three rules can help to manage these risks.
Now, go get the apartment of your dreams!
Your Turn: How did you find your current apartment or house? What tips would you share for apartment hunters?
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