The 6 Ws of Apartment Inspections

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The concept of regular apartment inspections by the landlord or property manager is a very old one that is seeing new popularity among property managers across the U.S. Some tenants are surprised the first time they encounter a landlord who wants to inspect their apartment on a regular basis. Some have been regularly inspected without knowing it. Others, especially those on government rent subsidies, are accustomed to it. Today we're going to go over the 6 W's (what, why, who, when, where and how to prepare/avoid) of the apartment inspection process so that renters can be ready to deal with these encounters and come out of them on top.

What is an apartment inspection?

The concept of inspecting an apartment is a very old one. It fell out of favor in the 80s and 90s as the landlord industry shifted away from small private owners to larger investment firms. These days it's coming back again in the form of a "best practice" recommended by industry professionals for keeping maintenance costs down. Regular inspection programs are praised on landlord advice websites so the practice is wending its way slowly through all levels of the rental business.

Any time a landlord enters your apartment to check on the condition of the property it can be considered an inspection. Some may be spot inspections focusing on one particular problem or appliance. Some may be pre-announced and scheduled on a recurring basis to get a once over of the entire apartment. Some may be required by law, such as the annual reinspections of apartments occupied by Housing Choice Voucher holders. Others may be stealth inspections framed as "changing the furnace filter" or "cleaning the fridge ducts."

No matter the pretense, if the landlord or someone from their office is in your apartment it is, at least in part, an inspection. Your apartment is in the hot seat and your landlord will be spending at least part of their time inside assessing how you are treating their property. If your apartment doesn't meet the landlord's standards you're probably going to be in trouble in the near future. If the landlord uncovers any structural or mechanical problems you can expect some visits from their maintenance crew in the near future.

Who is likely to conduct inspections?

Not every landlord does regular inspections. Certain business models are more likely than others to do them. In student apartments you will very rarely see them occurring. The same goes for mid-size owner-managers who specialize in scattered site portfolios of smaller buildings. Inspections take a lot of time and effort on the part of the landlord so they have to either have a lot of time on their hands or a very large management staff.

You're most likely to encounter inspections in buildings under the control of a professional property management company. If the management company belongs to a local apartment association such as a local chapter of the National Apartment Association or the Association of Building Owners and Managers they're more likely to be reintroduced to the concept of inspections as a proactive way to control maintenance costs.

Landlords with fewer than six properties are highly likely to do inspections since the time demand is much lower. Super stingy landlords might do them to get a discount on their insurance. Managers of larger complexes such as high rises or suburban apartment clusters are likely to do them since they don't have to travel far to get them done. Larger condominium associations might do them under the premise of pest control visits.

Old-fashioned landlords who have been in the business for a long time are the most likely to do them.

Finally, of course, landlords who specialize in Section 8 rentals will most certainly require annual inspections in conjunction with the annual site visits from the local housing authority.

Why do landlords want to inspect your apartment?

In general inspections are not traps designed to get you in trouble. They certainly aren't the home invasions that some tenants perceive them to be. Most landlords don't care how you live your daily life and expect that you will actually be living in your apartment as opposed to using it as some sort of museum. Landlords and property managers do inspections to uncover small problems that tenants might not recognize before they become big problems. They do them to perform basic maintenance tasks that tenants often forget, such as changing the furnace filter, replacing smoke detector batteries or snaking the drains.

Of course, they do want to be sure that you're following the rules of the building. They'll want to make sure you're not showing hoarder tendencies. They'll want to check that you haven't snuck in an extra roommate or a pet. They'll want to sniff around for signs of smoking in smoke-free buildings.

Your average inspector landlord isn't looking for reasons to evict you. Evictions are expensive, nasty, time-consuming things that inevitably lose money for the landlord. Mostly they're looking for problems that you might not recognize or have forgotten to report. Inspections are the sign of a landlord who cares, if not about your personal life then at least about preserving the quality of their investment. It may seem invasive (and there are certainly some nosy landlords out there who do them to snoop around in your business) but for the most part inspector landlords have the best intentions and should be appreciated for the time they're spending on preventive maintenance.

When do inspections usually occur?

Each landlord structures their inspection schedule differently. Best practices recommend quarterly inspections but some do it twice or even once a year just before it's time to renew the lease. Landlords will often shift their leasing staff to inspections during slower months, so if your area of the country has a strong/weak annual rental cycle like Chicago does then you can expect inspections to occur during the off-peak portion of that cycle.

Most areas of the country require landlords to notify tenants in writing a certain amount of time before they enter an occupied apartment. In Chicago, CRLTO compliant landlords have to give two days' notice. In the rest of Illinois they have to give "reasonable" notice. Many landlords will discuss their inspection cycle with tenants at the time they sign the lease. Some even build it into their lease. If they don't, it's certainly something that the tenant should ask about.

Inspections usually occur during standard business hours, which means you may not be home when the inspector arrives. If this is the case, make sure that you haven't chained the front door, as most offices only keep keys on hand for the front doors.

Where do landlords look during an inspection?

Inspectors will focus on areas that don't often cross the mind of a tenant. They'll be looking at baseboards for places that pests could get in. They will want to look at the ceilings and along your windows for signs of water damage. They will want to look at your furnace, water heater and any appliances they've provided such as the fridge and stove. They'll probably want to test your water faucets to make sure everything is draining well.

In some cases if they're considering major projects such as window replacements they may want to open and close all of your windows. In Chicago they'll probably want to take a look at your back porch to make sure that fire escape routes are clear and that the porch itself is still in safe condition.

While they may move some furniture to look at these areas more closely, they should not be opening your drawers or cabinets to look at your belongings. They may have to look in your closets for signs of structural damage but they shouldn't be rummaging through your stuff in there either.

How to prepare for or avoid apartment inspections?

If you really don't want to live in a building where regular inspections are a thing, make sure you ask about them at every showing and lease signing. Landlords who do regular inspections aren't just going to skip you because you ask. Requesting that they skip you will probably put you on their radar as a potential problem tenant.

You need to know that this is becoming a common landlord behavior. It's entirely possible that in the near future "a landlord who doesn't inspect their apartments" and "a slum landlord who doesn't care" will come to mean the same thing. Remember that if they're inspecting you, they're also inspecting your neighbors. If your neighbor's water heater is about to explode, wouldn't you want to know about it sooner rather than later? Better to accept that this is the sign of a good landlord and know how to prepare for the inevitable.

You'll want to tidy up the place before any inspection. It doesn't have to be immaculate. You can shove some stuff under the bed if you have to. Get it in the condition that you'd want it in if you were bringing a first date home for the first time. Hide anything embarrassing or illegal. Take out the trash. Avoid cooking fish for dinner the night before.

Make sure the landlord can access the areas they want to look at. Remember, they're not there to look at your home decor. They want to look at the bones of the building.

If you've taken steps to fix or hide small problems on your own, make sure those fixes are visible at a glance. Take down that painting you're using to hide the water spots on the wall. If you've had to tape together a busted toilet seat, leave the seat up so the landlord notices. Shift the curtains over to reveal that crack next to the window frame. Leave the ceiling fan on so they can see that obvious wobble.

However, if you've done some preventive maintenance "just in case" you might want to stash that away. Some tenants will put out ant traps or mouse traps as a preventive thing rather than as a reactive thing. That can make the landlord think that you actually have a pest problem when you really don't.

Remember that landlords will be going into closets and utility areas. If you keep a litter box in one of those rooms make sure to mark it clearly so the landlord doesn't accidentally shut your pet out when they leave.

All of the tips I listed in our article about Preparing your Apartment for Maintenance Workers also apply here.

Apartment inspections can be annoying. They're a constant reminder that you don't own your own place. They may occur when you're not at home, leading to worries that things will be disturbed, stolen or left in a state that will cause you trouble later on. It can really cramp your style to have the landlord popping in every 3 to 6 months to make sure you're following the rules. But with a younger generation that's obsessed with following rules coming into the rental market you can be sure that more and more apartment buildings will be adding inspections to their to-do lists.

If you think of apartment inspections like regular doctor checkups for your apartment they become a little easier to deal with. Remember that the inspectors are for the most part employees of the property management company and just doing their jobs. Regular inspections mean fewer big repair projects for the landlord. That in turn translates to lower rent and better living conditions for you.

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Published by

Kay Cleaves