KaraGrubis—Getty Images
By Trulia
January 12, 2016

Let’s be honest: We all freak out a little bit about our landlords. They have access to our most sensitive financial and personal information — never mind our living space — and yet we usually don’t know much about them. And while most landlords are reputable and trustworthy, there are some whose behaviors veer into the fraudulent. Landlord fraud — which in the most general terms refers to a landlord who violates state rental and/or consumer fraud laws — comes in many shapes and forms.

Here are seven ways to spot rental scams or fraudulent behavior before you sign the lease on that apartment for rent in Raleigh, NC, as well as some ways you can respond.

They won’t let you tour the place in person

So you find a great online listing and head out to see that two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in person. Except the landlord insists on meeting you outside and makes bizarre excuses as to why you can’t see the apartment — even as they insist the place will be snatched up tomorrow if you don’t act. We say: Walk away. Even if the listing photos made the pad seem like a palace, clearly its owner is hiding something. Sure, it could just be a supermessy (or difficult) tenant, but it might also be faulty electrical work or a bedbug infestation. There is always another apartment. Move on.

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There’s no rental application. Yay! Yay?

Wow, no application! That means no credit check and no haggling over references! Ah, but wait. If a landlord doesn’t have you fill out a standard rental application or form, that implies they don’t like to put things in writing. And a landlord who doesn’t like to leave a paper trail is a landlord who might not be trustworthy either. Take this as a sign they’re not aboveboard and continue with the apartment hunt.

They ask for insane upfront fees

There are very firm laws surrounding how much money a landlord is allowed to require upfront. At most, it’s typically first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a security deposit equivalent to one month’s rent. Oh, and the cost of new locks to be safe. Just about anything beyond that, however, is probably not legal. If you’re asked to fork over half your life savings to secure a great place, check local laws and push back if you’re in the right. And whatever amount you end up forking over, be sure to get a signed and dated receipt. We’ll keep beating this drum: Paperwork is the key to securing your rights as a renter.

They insist on cash

You see a place, you love a place, you go to sign a lease on a place … and the landlord casually mentions that they prefer cash-only transactions. Red flag. Cash means no record of the monthly rental payment and possibly no bank account on the landlord’s part. Insist on getting a cashier’s check, explaining that it’s for your own records, and see how they respond. If a check is a deal breaker, then so are their cash proclivities.

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There’s no paper trail — and not because everything happens electronically

Why are we always told to put things in writing? Because that creates a paper trail that can be traced (and submitted as evidence in small claims court if it ever comes to that). So if your landlord speaks to you only in person or on the phone and never responds to your emails or texts, you should suspect their intentions. Fraudulent types don’t want any record of their professional interactions; if and when lawyers get involved, a lack of evidence makes it a lot more difficult to prove your case, be it neglected repairs or missing deposits. Keep sending the emails and/or letters to document your side of things; if you’re starting to feel nervous, then send a certified letter detailing all of your concerns and see where that takes you.

The apartment isn’t up to code

By law, you can expect some standard apartment features. Working plumbing. Adequate heating. Weatherproofed windows and doors. Fire and emergency exits. Smoke detectors. If one or more of these features aren’t up to snuff, it is incumbent upon your landlord to address them in a timely fashion. And if they don’t? There’s that fraudulent activity again. In fact, some landlords out there will deliberately forgo repairs as a way to force you out in frustration so they can then jack up the rent for the next tenant. Don’t go quietly. Take photos, email them, send them via certified mail, and if you’re still getting the silent treatment, get a lawyer involved.

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Security deposit drama

Far and away, the most common examples of landlord fraud involve the security deposit. They withhold the whole thing or give you some of it back — but don’t explain (in writing) why they kept the rest. A lot of times, you’re being charged excessive fees for cleaning and repairs, stuff that they have probably tackled on their own. Pet damage is an especially easy scapegoat, as most pet-owning renters are often already on the defensive. Demand copies of receipts and third-party bills; if the landlord admits to having done the work DIY-style, then ask for a detailed explanation of the repairs and get comparable written estimates from local vendors. Time is money, yes, but money is also money — and money helps you secure your next fraud-free apartment.

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