8 red flags for renters — and how to detect them


In my early twenties, I moved to Brooklyn and found myself a room in an apartment. To say there were some red flags would be an understatement. There was no lease, the landlord didn’t ask me for references and the pizza place downstairs had bulletproof windows. Months later, one of the roommates told me they believed the “landlord” didn’t own the building and was renting it out illegally.

Most renters are hopefully not as ill-informed as I was. Still, not all problems are obvious, and there’s often pressure to make a choice quickly, before someone else scoops up a spot. While it’s more common now for renters to find places online, sight unseen, it’s always best if you can tour a property in-person. Or, at the very least, try to have a trusted friend or relative take a look for you.

There are other ways to do your due diligence, too. Here are some of them, along with a few of the reddest red flags to look out for while hunting for a rental.

1. The landlord or building has a bad track record

Few people take the time to investigate a landlord’s history, but there are a number of places to find warning signs.

“Tenants are asked to give references, and management companies do background checks and consumer credit checks, but nobody ever thinks to try to do the same with the landlord,” says Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director at Economic Action Maryland.

How you find this information will depend on where you live. You can learn more about tenant rights in your region on the website for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There are also local nonprofits in many cities that help tenants find resources.

For example, in the District of Columbia, the Department of Buildings has a public dashboard that you can use to look up whether an address or owner has been cited for housing violations.


Regardless of where you live, Ott advises digging into your landlord’s legal history by searching the person’s name or the company’s name in local court records. This could turn up past foreclosures, rent escrow cases, lead paint lawsuits and other bad behavior.

Many - though not all - city governments require that a property be registered and licensed as a legal rental, and a landlord who hasn’t complied should raise concerns. The particular agency that houses such information will vary from one place to another, but logical places to check include your local permitting office or department of planning and zoning. If a property has been recently remodeled, a local department that handles construction and inspections or permitting should be able to confirm whether the work was properly permitted.

To check for signs of financial distress with a prospective landlord, you can consult your county’s website to confirm whether the property taxes and water accounts for the building are all current. Locate the section for paying these bills (as if you are the person paying them) and enter the address to view payment status.

Ott learned to be more discerning after many bad experiences, such as living in a house that she realized was being foreclosed on. “You assume that the landlord is paying the mortgage, but that’s not always the case,” she says. To help others avoid her mistakes, Ott created a guide for tenants with a move-in checklist that can be downloaded at

2. The lease is unusual or unclear

If you get to the point of reviewing a lease, make sure pertinent information is clearly outlined. Some red flags include:

• Missing landlord information. It’s basic but vital: their full name and contact information should be stated.

• Blank spaces. “Sometimes, we’ll be asked by tenants to review their leases, and we’ll find just blank spaces in a lease,” says Cristobal Puig, director of education and community outreach for the District of Columbia Office of the Tenant Advocate. For example, a section meant to detail some of the landlord’s responsibilities will be left open. “That’s something that should immediately be a red flag because once the contract is executed, a unilateral change [by the landlord] to that is going to be unlawful, but a blank space kind of welcomes that opportunity.”

• Complicated requirements for utility payments. Most utilities are straightforward, so “if it’s like an algebraic formula to decide how much your unit needs to pay for electricity, then that’s a red flag,” Puig says.

• Overly subjective wording. Sometimes, leases try to place limitations on personal conduct by classifying it as “annoying” or “immoral.” This is problematic because such conduct can be interpreted very differently. For instance, “no loud noises after 9 p.m.” is understandable and specific, but “no annoying noises” is subjective and could lead to disputes, Puig says.

Puig adds that it’s important to keep a copy of your lease. “We often tell tenants to photograph their lease so they have it on their phones,” he says.

3. Other tenants are unhappy

It’s not common for landlords to provide references, but you can still try asking for them. If the landlord is wary of providing contact information for other tenants without their permission, you can ask that your email or phone number be supplied to references who are willing to contact you. Ott says that in a few cases, she has had success with this strategy.

Another, more straightforward option: Simply wait outside the property on the public sidewalk for a current resident to show up. If it feels safe and comfortable to do so, politely ask if they’ll share their opinion of the building and its management.

You can also look online for reviews from other residents on Google, or sites such as or, though Ott notes that such sites might have a disproportionate amount of negative comments. If you’re moving within the same area where you already live, you can try posting on Nextdoor or a local Facebook Group to ask if anyone has experience with the building.

4. There are signs of mold

There are many potential causes of mold, including indoor plumbing leaks and improper ventilation. Bathrooms are especially susceptible, but mold can grow anywhere with sufficient moisture. So be sure to look around - and up - before signing a lease. If you see dark spots on the walls, ceiling or baseboards, or smell a musty odor, those are causes for concern. Signs of water damage, such as discoloration or stains, can also indicate a mold problem.

Jay Gregg, director of franchise development at Pillar to Post Home Inspectors, advises checking under sinks for evidence of a leaky pipe or drain. Even if you don’t find an active leak, check that the area below the pipes isn’t wet or stained. (While you’re poking around the plumbing, Gregg suggests also turning on faucets and shower heads to make sure water pressure is decent and that both hot and cold settings work.)

5. There aren’t enough smoke and carbon monoxide detectors

One of the clearest signs that a landlord neglects safety? There aren’t enough (or any) smoke or carbon monoxide detectors. There should be an appropriate number of them - working properly and installed in the correct areas - in accordance with your local laws.

You can look up the specific requirements in your region on the website for the National Conference of State Legislators. For example, the District of Columbia requires that most homes have a smoke alarm installed in every bedroom and sleeping area, in the area just outside of bedrooms, and on each story, including basements and habitable attics.


6. The unit is very old - or brand new

An old or new home is not necessarily a bad thing. However, buildings constructed decades ago might have unique issues. It’s wise to ask when the unit was built or last renovated, when the appliances and any carpet were installed and when the walls were last painted. Peeling or cracked paint could be a concern if the paint contains lead, as it often does in older homes. This is especially worrisome if you have young children.

At the same time, a fresh paint job is also worth inquiring about, Gregg says, because it could be concealing a problem. “As a home inspector, that always puts what I call our ‘spidey senses’ tingling,” he says. “You just want to ask a few questions of the landlords as to why it was done.”

The other challenge of renting a brand new or newly renovated space is that you’ll be the first tenant to discover any defects. This was the case in one of my past apartments. Because no one had lived in it before, we were the lucky ones who got to discover that the heat was insufficient come winter.

7. Security is lacking

Not every building has the luxury of a staffed front desk, but you should still feel safe on the property. If your unit lacks a deadbolt in addition to its regular lock, ask your landlord to install one. (A locksmith once showed me that he could break in through the front door of my apartment using only a credit card). And if the place has previously been rented, you might also ask if the landlord can change the locks.

Make sure easily accessible windows can’t be opened from the outside, either. In addition, there should be adequate lighting outside or, if you’re in an apartment building, in hallways and stairwells, says Andrea Saturno-Sanjana, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in D.C. and New York.

8. There are signs of pest infestation

Finally, there’s the all-too-common issue of unwanted roommates - insects and rodents. Though they’re not always possible to detect while touring a prospective rental home, you can be on alert for common signs such as droppings, traps left by the landlord and gnaw marks on wood or furniture. Pests love dark nooks and crannies, which is another reason it’s wise to open cabinets, look under sinks and even glance behind appliances if you can, Gregg says. And of course, if you notice the scent of urine or another odd smell, beware.

Annie Midori Atherton is a writer in Seattle who covers culture, lifestyle, business and parenting.