How to rent a house without getting your identity stolen

I know a family that’s trying to rent a house. All they really want is something that’s a reasonable commute from work, in a safe area, with a fenced yard for their young son to play in, a basement to take cover in during severe storms, and a little bit of room for storage–in a decent school district.

That’s not as easy to find as it used to be. He’s actually finding more scams than houses that fit his criteria. As a full-time security professional and a part-time landlord, here’s what I want you to know about renting a house.

Never, ever pay an application fee up front. See the house first. Some scammers are posting houses for rent with stolen pictures and collecting application fees. They always have a story, like being out of the country or something. Yes, absentee landlords happen. But the explanation will be perfectly reasonable, and they’ll have someone local to handle things like showing the house for them. Go see the house, make sure the house exists, look around, ask questions, and then, if you’re interested, ask for an application and what the application fee is. There’s no reason to have to pay the fee until you’ve returned the application. Yes, desirable rentals are in short supply now, but not that short.

The purpose of the application fee is to pay for a credit and background check. It costs me anywhere from $35-$100 to run a check, depending on the applicant’s situation. The fee is usually non-refundable. I credit the fee toward the first month’s rent, but landlord policies vary.

Never submit an application ahead of time. My application asks a lot of questions that you don’t want just anyone to know–there’s enough information there to run a background and credit check, after all, which is also enough to steal an identity. Filling it out ahead of time is OK if the landlord e-mails it to you in advance, but don’t hand it over until after you’ve seen the house, and hand it over in person. You don’t want to be sending paperwork with social security numbers and other personally identifiable information via e-mail.

Besides, you don’t want someone running a credit check if you’re not necessarily interested in the place. Each time someone runs your credit, your score drops a little. As a landlord, I don’t care too much about your credit score–I just look at what you make, what you spend, and calculate to see if you’ll have enough left to pay me–but that hit on your credit score could affect the interest rate you pay if you need to buy a car, or if you decide to get a mortgage and buy a house.

Ask questions. Ask about the deposit policy, ask about the pet policy, ask what appliances are included and what you’ll have to provide, ask what repairs the landlord is responsible for, ask about the neighborhood, and ask anything else that comes to mind. I’ve also read suggestions that you come back and visit the neighborhood both during the day and night, to make sure it doesn’t change too badly. A legitimate landlord is used to answering these questions, and the landlord’s story is going to be consistent. A scammer is less likely to be able to keep the story straight. The story is always straight when you’re telling the truth.

If anything makes you feel uncomfortable, bail. If you sign a lease, you’re going to have to deal with this person on a monthly basis. If they seem shady or unreasonable before you’re a customer, they’re not likely to get any better once they have your money. It’s just like any other kind of relationship in that regard.

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