- Scams are a huge problem for apartment hunters, and online listings have only made the problem worse.
- It’s critical to avoid completing any leasing applications, credit checks, or sending money without first meeting the listing agent or landlord in person at the apartment you want to rent.
- We’ve rounded up the most common scams and ways to avoid them.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Not long ago while apartment hunting, writer Bridgette Nardo found what seemed almost too good to be true: a quaint, gorgeous home in the heart of a chic West LA neighbourhood – and it was listed for a surprisingly low price.
The online ad was detailed and packed with gorgeous photos. She responded immediately, and the listing agent asked for her to complete some forms and send a deposit to lock in her place at the head of the line.
But before she did, Nardo drove across town to see the location for herself, and discovered the bad news: It was not for rent at all. The house was for sale, and had, in fact, just closed – the happy new owners were, through sheer coincidence, on the premises scouting out how to arrange their furniture.
The “listing agent” Nardo had been chatting with online was a fraud who had likely scraped the information off the legitimate listing. If she had wired any cash, it would have been gone without a trace.
And that wasn’t even the worst possible outcome. We spoke to experts and found out some of the worst apartment-hunting scams that are taking place right now.
Here are seven of the worst apartment scams, and some tips to make sure you’re not on the wrong end of one during your apartment hunt.
Don’t fall for fake listings
Nardo’s story is not uncommon. Fake listings pop up disturbingly frequently both on Craigslist and on traditional rental sites, and according to Apartment List, an estimated 5.2 million renters have lost money to rental scams.
Ryan Coon, CEO of online property management platform Avail, has seen it happen numerous times.
“Scammers place fraudulent listings, and when someone reaches out to them, they’re instructed to wire money in order for them to hold it or take it off the market,” he told Business Insider.
Seeing a listing online isn’t enough in an age when anyone can copy and paste photos and a description. Insist on seeing the property in person. It’s especially dangerous to try to rent an apartment remotely, from out of state, but if you’re willing to take that risk, insist on a tour of the location via FaceTime.
But even that may not be enough. You should vet the listing agent before handing over any money to be sure that he or she is, at the very least, an actual agent or the landlord with the legal authority to rent the apartment. That can mean looking up the person online and calling the office to make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate agent.
“Never wire money to someone if you aren’t confident they’re who they say they are, because once you do, the money is gone. You probably won’t ever get it back,” Coon said.
Applications can lead to identity theft
The risk of identity theft is significant, and can happen in much the same way as the wired money scam. It just depends upon whether your scammer wants cash, your personal information, or both.
It’s especially critical to never submit a lease application or credit check for a property you’ve only seen online and to a listing agent whom you’ve only talked to remotely.
While meeting the listing agent in person and walking through the apartment in real life are critical, you can do more to keep your personal information safe. A third-party property management site like Avail can serve as an intermediary, performing your credit check on your and the listing agent’s behalf.
The landlord (or potential scammer) can’t run off with your personal information, because they never see it. They only get the information they need to approve your rental.
Beware of bait-and-switch scams
Bait-and-switch tactics – offering one thing but actually selling another – are a common trick in lots of retail businesses. It’s no surprise that it happens in real estate as well.
“This happens a lot in the short-term space,” Coon said, referring to Airbnb-style rentals. “But apartment hunters can see this as well.”
Bait-and-switching can take various forms. In one version, an agent lists an attractive-looking apartment to lure clients, and then scams the apartment hunter when they arrive to see it.
“When they meet to view said apartment, it is no longer available, and other apartments are shown as an alternative that don’t usually fit the original criteria,” New York real estate agent James Wan told Business Insider.
Alternately, there might never have been a great property to begin with – just a terrible apartment with good PR.
“They will only show you one of the rooms, or not disclose it’s right next to train tracks that will keep you up all night,” Coon said.
Simple awareness is the key here.
“If a landlord is willing to bait and switch, they might not be someone you want to rent from,” Edward Mermelstein, a real estate attorney at One & Only Realty in New York, told Business Insider.
Background checks don’t need to be expensive
In the rush and anxiety of finding a new apartment, you might be willing to pay whatever it takes to take the apartment you want off the market.
Less scrupulous landlords know this and capitalise on it to extract extra cash from you up front on fees like background checks. The reality is that background checks are fairly standardised and shouldn’t cost more than about $US50 or $US75. If a listing agent wants you to write a check for $US100 or more, you may be getting taken advantage of.
Be alert when you sign the lease and take the keys
“If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right,” Mermelstein said.
That’s good advice at every step of the process, from when you evaluate the online listing to when you sign for the keys. And while a lease isn’t essential – some landlords and renters are comfortable with a month-to-month agreement – without one, you have no protection from being thrown out two months after carrying the last box through the door.
Worse, fraudsters who don’t have legal authority to rent the apartment might try to get your first month’s rent and run, and they are less inclined to draw up paperwork to make the con convincing. This might sound paranoid, but remember that just being in the apartment isn’t always a guarantee that the agent is legitimate.
Case in point: Scammers might hand you keys that don’t even work. Baron Christopher Hanson, a consultant who helps relocate corporate clients, has seen this con before.
“The scam artist has two sets of keys – one they use to open the apartment, and another set that they give you,” he told Business Insider. “By the time you discover the keys don’t work, they’re long gone.”
That’s why it’s important to accept keys on-site and test them to make sure they open the locks they’re supposed to.
Beware of last-minute changes and mysteriously changing fees
Don’t assume that just because you’ve agreed in advance on the rent, fees, and other details, that it’s captured accurately in the final lease agreement.
“I brought my client to a lease signing for her apartment and the lease stated the rent was $US50 more than initially agreed, as well as $US500 extra in up-front building fees,” Elliott Sudwarts, a New York real estate agent, told Business Insider.
“Their excuse was that I must have not understood. However, they didn’t know I always get everything agreed in writing. I opened up the emails showing the price and fees we had prepared for and told the agent to either have it changed, or I will be renting my client her second-choice apartment. Ten minutes later, we signed the new updates lease.”
Prepare for move-out scams early
Just because you safely made it into an apartment unscathed doesn’t mean there won’t be unpleasantness waiting for you at the other end.
“When you move out, your landlord will try to recoup all of the money that they can for repairs, even if the property was damaged prior to you moving in,” Shawn Breyer, a real estate agent in Georgia, told Business Insider. “These charges could deplete your entire security deposit. Your landlord could even place a lien against you for compensation of the damages.”
You should prepare before moving the first piece of furniture through the door by photographing every room in detail to show existing damage and condition and email the photos to ensure there’s a date proving when they were taken.
Remember these tips next time you’re apartment hunting
Apartment hunting can feel like a virtual minefield of scams. Thankfully, the same precautions can help navigate you through most common apartment scams safely.
- If it doesn’t feel right, walk away.
- Always insist on seeing the property in person before proceeding with any additional apartment renting steps.
- Never complete the rental application or background check information without making sure the property and landlord are legitimate.
- Avoid wiring money to complete the transaction – and likewise, avoid paying in cash. Use a cashier’s check (which is easier to trace) or a credit card when possible.
- Vet the listing agent, either by using an intermediary service or by sleuthing the web site and making some phone calls.
- Get the lease or the terms of the rental in writing, and be sure it includes contact information for the landlord that includes a physical address and phone number (not just a PO Box).
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