Yikes! These are the rental red flags you need to avoid at all costs


three red flags on a blue sky on a red background
(Image credit: Future)

Moving into your first apartment? Upgrading to a condo? Regardless of where you decide to set up shop, there are plenty of rental red flags that should not go unnoticed. 

Be sure to tick off all the details you need to sort out ahead of time and make the job easier with our moving-in checklist.

We can't be there to sound the alarms while you sign your lease, should there be any major issues, but we can give you a few pointers from the pros that will make your search for a home a lot easier. 

Rental red flags you need to know how to spot

Before you find the feng shui for your space, you'll need to scope out the property to make sure it's comfortable and safe. It's easy to spot some potential problems — rodents, broken appliances, creepy, kooky, and spooky neighbors — but other parts of the rental process could be just as problematic, but not as obvious. These scenarios have us waving red flags.

Day-to-day amenities don't work

Keyanna Bowen, the founder of East+Lane and the host of Rental Redo on Magnolia Network, insists that you should eyeball a rental the way you would a property you're considering purchasing — in the end, they're both home. 

Start with the "day-to-day non-cosmetic things." Do the toilets flush properly? Have you flipped all of the light switches? Is the water pressure OK? These necessities can often go unnoticed in the excitement of perusing a rental apartment, condo, or house for the first time, so make a checklist if you need to!

Unattended areas are neglected

If hallways, laundry areas, outdoor spaces, and mailrooms look like a disaster, take it as a sign that the apartment itself might also need some TLC...or a lot of TLC.

"Check the maintenance," suggests Chelsey Brown, the founder of CityChicDecor.com and author of Rental Style: The Ultimate Guide to Decorating Your Apartment or Small Home (available on Amazon). "Seeing how the management or landlord upkeeps a home or complex can tell you how they will upkeep your actual unit."

And should something seem less than stellar upon move-in day, bring it to the landlord's attention.

"A unit we moved into in Brooklyn in 2019 did NOT have fresh coats of paint when we moved in, and had scuff marks from the previous tenant, along with cracks that weren’t covered up," Becca Siegel of Halfhalftravel.com recalls.

Take pictures throughout the journey so you have proof if something is out of whack. It's always good to photograph your space upon arrival and before you hit the road, so you have documentation that shows you were a good tenant and maintained the space well.

Lease details are murky

Pump the breaks if you have a landlord who's loosey-goosey with lease agreements or is forcing you into terms that you're not comfortable with. You're going to have to read that fine print thoroughly, friends. "Make sure you’re understanding what you’re signing," Bowen implores. Clarify how much rent is and what utilities are included in your agreement.

Payments are being rushed

We get it — you're excited about creating a space of your own. You're ready to implement apartment hacks to utilize every last possible inch of space. It's an exciting time for sure, but don't rush into handing anything over — especially finances. 

"A legitimate property manager or landlord won’t ask you to hand over a large sum of money before seeing the rental property and reading through the lease," says RedFin's chief economist, Daryl Fairweather. "However, during the application process, you can expect to pay certain fees upfront, such as application fees and a background check, whether or not you ultimately sign a lease for the property."

The landlord is unapproachable

Though you likely won't have much contact with your landlord, a property owner should still be approachable — especially considering a stranger is moving into their space! 

"If you hear that the landlord or manager is 'out of town,' sick, or otherwise detained, but you’re still expected to pay a security deposit or first and last month's rent upfront on the spot, you may be facing a scam," Fairweather notes. "Scammers are good at making everything seem legitimate — some even reference a fake lawyer or other third parties who look after things in the owner’s absence."

Brokers aren't upfront about utilities

Even if you're in the smallest of spaces, the shoebox to end all shoeboxes, calculate what your monthly utility bill will look like so there aren't any surprises when you move in.

"Ask the management or landlord what the average cost of electricity is per month in a similar unit to what you’re looking for," Brown recommends. "In poorly-insulated buildings, you could be paying hundreds of dollars per month on electricity. One time, my electric bill was $290 for a previous studio I was living in mid-summer!"

It's all in the details, folks. But now that you know what to do when scoping out rentals, it's time to sign the lease and make your way in. The next step? Designing your small apartment on a budget

Danielle Valente
Content Editor

Pleasure to meet you! I'm Danielle, a content editor at Real Homes who loves scoping out interior trends. I've specialized in lifestyle writing and editing for 10 years with a focus on events, food, and books, among other areas. When I'm not working, I'm usually cooking, reading, or searching for a new project for my apartment.