My Five Dumbest Rental Mistakes: I Made Them So You Don’t Have To

As a renter, I've been something of an idiot. I've lived without heat, without dishwashers (this one actually continues to be the case), without overhead lighting and with landlords whose idea of maintenance in winter was sticking a piece of cardboard in the snow next to the un-shoveled walk with the helpful message “Watch for ice” scrawled in sharpie.

Rental Mistakes

I didn't know at it at the time, but all this idiocy was for your benefit, Rental Land. I took one for the team so that you could have nice things.

Here are five of the biggest rental mistakes I made and the lessons I learned the hard way so you wouldn't have to:

1. Don’t assume. Just because it’s advertised as a place where someone could theoretically live, doesn't mean you should assume your apartment has normal taken-for-granted stuff.

Example: I once moved into a place in Pittsburgh that had no heat and no non-window light sources in any of the rooms. I did this because a) I assumed that as an apartment, of course it had light fixtures, and b) it had a cute stained glass window in the bathroom that I felt gave it “character,” which I liked. As previously mentioned, I have been an occasional idiot.

What resulted, was my roommates and I buying floor lamps for every room in the place – kitchen included – and then huddling around the bulbs of said lamps like trashcan fires from November to March. This could have been avoided had even one of us had the presence of mind to dismiss assumptions and actually look around at the place (maybe even with a checklist!) when we first toured it.

This brings me to my next point: 2. Scout first, tour second.

Fear and frenzy pervade the search for a new apartment once you've signed the papers to leave your current place. Tempting as it may be, don’t think you know if a rental is perfect based on one supervised walk-thru with the rental agent. This is a two-step process: Scout the neighborhood alone first, see it with the agent second.

Why? Simple. Because the agent will show you what the agent wants you to see. I currently live next to a schizophrenic housing facility with patients who tend to get noisy in the courtyard adjacent to my bedroom around 6 or 7 a.m. every morning. I didn't know this when I signed on to see the place because the agent showed it to me at 5 p.m. (dinnertime for the facility) and I didn't do my homework and scout the block beforehand.

3. When subletting, it ain't over till it’s over. When my boyfriend and I decided to leave our lease a month early to move to a cheaper place, we thought we did everything right to find a subletter. We posted the ad way ahead of time, we set up lots of showings, and we made copies of the paperwork and gave them out to any and all interested parties. What we did wrong however, was to stop showing the apartment when we thought the sublet was a done-deal.

What resulted was a voicemail from our former landlord discovered at 11 p.m. the day of our horrifically hot and terrible move, asking us if we knew why the girl we were certain was going to take over our old place hadn't brought by her paperwork or check. She simply flaked, leaving us with two apartments to pay for until we found a replacement subletter, instead of one cheaper one.

4. Know what you need. It’s taken a few lapses, but I’m getting better at knowing what I need, what I want, and what I can sacrifice in a new place. If you’re planning to move, take five minutes and write down what you like about where you live now. Do you care more about safety or square footage? Do you require a dishwasher, but don’t mind trips to the laundromat? When you go into a viewing with a clear list of known needs, you’ll be better prepared to make the right call.

5. Moving in with a stranger? See where/how they live now. Sometimes you have to roll the Craigslist dice to find a place and a person to share it with. If you can, have a couple face-to-face conversations with any potential roommates where you talk about living styles, cleanliness preferences and, if you can swing it, check out their current place. Homes are revealing and can be a better indicator of how neat or messy a person really is, rather than just taking their word for it.

Any rental mistakes to add to my list? Share them in the comments below!

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