In any human interaction there is always the chance that your words or actions will be taken the wrong way. In the case of landlord-tenant interactions that chance is higher than it is in other settings. I have seen a lot of well-meaning renters make unwitting faux-pas that wound up hurting their relationship with their landlord or prospective landlord. Some people approach apartment hunting like job hunting, and while this is a good place to start they forget how vulnerable a long-time landlord can feel. When you're on the landlord side of things apartment hunters can seem like real hunters looking for prey.
To that end I've got several normal-seeming things that tenants do during their apartment search that could actually threaten the landlord and cause them to lose out on good apartments.
Looking under the sink.
What you think it means: You will see obvious evidence of leaks and water damage.
What it means to a landlord: You read an article titled "This one quick hack will tell if a landlord is hiding something from you." You don't know the first thing about apartment maintenance. You're looking for a "gotcha" that you can use as a launchpad for a tirade against the landlord's maintenance practices.
Better alternatives: If you must look under the sink, check not only for leaks but also look at the cleaning supplies and other chemicals that the tenant has stored there, particularly pesticides. Test the water pressure. Check the furnace filter. Look behind the fridge for dust on the coils. Check building code violations before you go to the showing, or have us do it for you.
Saying "Have a blessed day."
What you think it means: A kindly sign off, possibly implying that you are a clean-living, honest Christian who will not cause any disruption or harm.
What it means to a landlord: You rely on handouts, charity and miracles rather than working to get the money for rent. You could possibly harass other tenants whose lifestyles do not conform to your religious beliefs. If you get denied for the apartment you intend to file a lawsuit based on religious discrimination.
Better alternatives: "Have a nice day." "Thank you."
Using Legal language.
What you think it means: You are showing that you understand how to speak the landlord's language and that you know your rights as a tenant.
What it means to a landlord: You are damaged goods, sufficiently harmed by prior rental experiences that you had to go read up on your rights. You will file a lawsuit at the drop of a hat. Legal terms are fighting words in landlord-tenant conversations.
Better alternatives: In Chicago you really only need to ask one question to establish what your rights are as a tenant: "Do you live in the building?" During a showing, talk to your landlord like you'd talk to a salesperson in a shop - and not like you'd talk to a used car salesman. Even if you are a lawyer or law student, even if you yourself are a landlord, tone down the language. Keep it basic and non-confrontational.
Taking 30 minutes to read a lease at the lease signing without asking any questions about it.
What you think it means: You are looking for any unusual clauses and showing that you are responsible.
What it means to a landlord: You are making a show of being overly fastidious as an intimidation tactic. You are wasting the landlord's time to make a show of your distrust.
Better alternatives: Ask for a copy of the lease in advance so you can look it over on your own time. If you must read through the lease at the signing, ask a few questions as you run down it, even if you already know the answers. Even if you just ask about the meaning of a word or two that's enough.
Adding your landlord as a friend on social media.
What you think it means: You'd like to be able to contact them quickly if something goes wrong. You like them and generally want to be their friend. You are a social media maven and want to add them to your huge list of readers.
What it means to a landlord: You do not understand the boundaries of a business relationship. You're trying to dig up dirt that you can use as fodder in a lawsuit. You are potentially a stalker. You are trying to find out where they live so that you can nag them in their free time when something breaks.
Better alternatives: Follow them on public-facing social media only. Twitter is okay, Instagram is probably okay, following them on Facebook and LinkedIn without actually adding them as friends is okay. Do not try to pierce their public persona by asking for too much access. If you want to be Facebook friends with them after you move out you can connect with them at that time.
Ask about what sort of people live in the building.
What you think it means: You want to know if you'll be able to make any friends in the building, or if it's likely to be noisy.
What it means to a landlord: You're a secret shopper from the fair housing administration trying to force them to make discriminatory statements that violate fair housing laws.
Better alternatives: Check with the local police to find out if there's any known issues at the building. Look for outward signs at neighboring apartments - names on mailboxes, toys in the hall, condition of the mini-blinds, odors, etc., to get an idea who lives there.
Offering to pay an entire year's rent up front.
What you think it means: You're making your application stand out from the pile by dangling a huge shiny carrot on a stick in front of the landlord.
What it means to a landlord: You have a blemished rental history and are looking to offset it. You have no self control when it comes to money. You may not have a job and will be sitting around the house all day.
Better alternatives: If you must pay rent up front, offer no more than six months. This is the most a Chicago landlord can hold without having to pay you interest. A better option would be to offer 12 post dated checks, or ask if you can set up an autopay online plan that you can set and forget.
Complaining about your current landlord.
What you think it means: You're providing a basic explanation as to why you're moving. You are making the new landlord feel better about themselves in comparison to your current landlord.
What it means to a landlord: You will say the same things about them when you move out of their place. You have unreasonable expectations of landlords. You are a complainer.
Better alternatives: Don't mention why you're moving unless a) it does not involve your current landlord at all or b) your current building has been sold, condemned or foreclosed.
Asking for security bars on windows above the first floor.
What you think it means: You're being cautious about your safety. You may be worried that your pet or toddler will fall out of a high window.
What it means to a landlord: You are overly high strung and hysterical. You may be trying to avoid known criminals or stalkers. You may keep items of high value in your apartment that could become a big liability for the landlord should they vanish. You are planning to keep pets in a pet-free apartment. You have not done your research on the caliber of the neighborhood.
Better alternatives: If you ask for bars on the windows, make sure that you only do so for windows that can be easily reached from the ground or from a porch. If your concerns are pet or child related, make sure you state as much outright. If you are concerned for your safety on an upper level apartment, ask the landlord about the security features of the building as a whole.
Above all when you talk to a landlord you've never met before, enter into the conversation with a clean slate and treat it like a business transaction. Remember that even if you are the best tenant in the world, those who have come before you probably weren't. Many landlords feel like they walk around with a big target painted on their back. To stay on the safe side, think about the worst tenant you can possibly imagine, and treat your prospective landlords as if that horrible tenant is the last person they spoke to before meeting you.
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