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Finding a place to live is becoming increasingly stressful. Not only are rents rising—the average rent in the United States is now almost $2,000 per month—but renting a place can be an overwhelmingly complex process. There’s the application (and the application fee), proving your income, providing references, and enduring all manner of checks and intrusive questions, with zero guarantee that you’ll actually have a place to live at the end of it.

The stress of securing a roof over your head leads most people to forget one simple fact: You need to be checking out your potential landlord, as well. Knowing that your landlord is routinely on a list of the worst landlords in your city, for example, is key information that can help you make this important financial decision. But even if your possible landlord isn’t quite that bad, you should run a background check on them so you know what you’re dealing with. And while you’re at it, you should run a check on yourself to make sure they’re seeing accurate information when deciding whether you’re a good risk for the rent.

Check yourself

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Forewarned is forearmed, so your first order of business when looking for a home to rent is to find out what potential landlords will see about you. The last thing you want is to find the perfect place to rent only to be rejected for mysterious reasons. And just like credit reports, your rental history report can contain inaccuracies that can affect your ability to get past a rental application, so checking them should be your first order of business.

Landlords use a variety of companies for this service, including the big credit report companies TransUnion (SmartMove), Equifax (TotalVerify), and Experian. Other companies that provide rental history reports include RentPrep, First Advantage, Verifirst, and E-Renter. All of these companies charge a fee to provide the reports, but the good news is that under the same law that gives you access to your own credit report every year for free, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you can request a free copy of your rental history report. Since you have to contact each company individually to request one, your best strategy is to ask any potential landlord what company they use to screen tenants and then request your report from there (it’s also a good idea to get free copies of your credit reports, while you’re at it).

If you find any errors on your rental history report, you can file a dispute and have the report corrected, just like you do with a credit report. This can take some time, so it’s a good idea to do this the moment you know you’ll be looking for a place to rent.

Check your landlord

Once you know that you have a clean renting record and should have no problems getting through an application (or at least know what a landlord might be concerned about so you can be prepared to make a case), it’s time to make sure you’re not about to sign up with a slumlord.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple service you can pay for that will conduct a landlord check (that would be too easy), so you’ll have to cobble together information from several sources:

  • Internet search. The first and simplest thing to do is to Google the property address and the landlord’s name (or the name of the management company). This will turn up any public information about how the landlord runs things. Next, check out review sites where people can leave reviews of landlords and buildings, like Rate My Landlord or WYL. These sites can give you a quick snapshot of what tenants deal with at the property you’re considering.

  • Public records. Wherever you live, there are property records that can tell you a lot about how a landlord operates. Depending on where you live, some of this information may be online and easily searched up (in New York City, for example, you can look up properties on the Automated City Register Information System [ACRIS]), or you might have to go to your local courthouse to dig through records. But it’s worth the effort, because these records will tell you about code violations, the rate of evictions, lawsuits filed against the landlord or management company, and foreclosure proceedings. If you find a lot of these data points, you should be concerned about trusting this landlord with your living arrangements.

    Many municipalities also maintain “worst landlords” lists (again, New York certainly does) which can be a quick and easy way to find out if you’re about to rent from some sort of property demon.

  • Ask neighbors. The people who already live in a prospective building are your best resource for the current state of affairs there. You can probably learn more from one or two conversations with folks already living there than through days of research.

Your tolerance for red flags in a landlord will be in direct proportion to your desperation to find a place to live, of course, but knowledge is power. If you turn up a lot of complaints, lawsuits, and financial chicanery surrounding a prospective apartment, it might be best to keep looking.

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