Moving is an exciting and often stressful time. You’re eager to get your move underway, and one of your priorities is to line up where you plan to live. As you’re looking for the right rental, there’s a possibility that you’ll run across a rental scam. Rental scams can be hard to spot, but with some background information, you’ll know the red flags to watch out for and protect yourself from the most common rental scams out there.
How to avoid rental scams: 10 red flags to look out for
No one wants to learn that the rental they were touring was a scam. But using trusted sites and knowing the red flags before signing a lease can help you avoid being a victim of a rental scam.
1) You’re having trouble contacting the landlord or leasing agent
It’s not uncommon for landlords or property owners to live in a different city, state, or country than their investment home. However, a common rental scam involves avoiding meeting with the renter in person and inconsistent or poor communication.
A professional landlord will have established processes to work with prospective renters for a property in a different location. As a renter, you should expect to meet with a verified representative of the landlord or property management company to tour the property with you and provide the necessary paperwork.
Scammers are good at making everything seem legitimate - some even reference a fake lawyer or other third parties who look after things in the owner’s absence. If you hear that the landlord or manager is “out of town,” sick, or otherwise detained, but you’re still expected to pay a security deposit or first and last month's rent upfront on the spot, you may be facing a scam.
2) Scammers offer fake real estate services
There may be times when you find a service that provides you with a list of rent-to-own homes or pre-foreclosure properties. Typically these services require you to pay a non-refundable monthly fee, even if you’re not satisfied. These “services” are most likely rental fraud.
Your “list” will likely include vacant homes, foreclosures, or duplicated property listings. The idea is appealing because you’ll have a list of lower-priced rentals to choose from. However, searching for rental homes and apartments should be free and accessible to anyone, not a paid service.
3) Copy-and-paste duplicate listings
When a landlord writes up a vacant property description and posts the rental listing online, they’ll be sure it’s accurate and complete. Scammers often copy and paste listings pulled from free and paid listing services, but lower the rent price significantly. These listings intend to redirect prospective renters to contact the person offering the bargain rate. The scammer sees an increase in demand for the property and pressures a potential renter to pay a security deposit immediately or risk losing their opportunity to rent the home.
Known as “clone scam,” this tactic is primarily aimed at out-of-town renters in a hurry to find a new home. These renters may be more willing to put down money sight unseen to secure a place to live. Scammers know this and bank on the renters’ need for a rental. They often ask for an unusually-high deposit, which they take and are never heard from again. The best way to avoid this rental scam is not to pay any money until you’ve visited the property and are ready to sign a lease.
Another indication of a clone scam involves a rental listing full of errors. Professional landlords or property managers will take the time to write and proofread a rental listing. If you notice that the listing details are full of typos, have excessive punctuation and capitalization, or have poor grammar, it’s possible you’ve run across a clone scam. In this case, you may want to avoid these properties.
If you can’t view a property in person before renting, make sure to do thorough research online or ask to see the place over a video call. You may notice duplicate rental listings with the same ad and identical listing photos, but different contact information appears when you search the address. If that happens, check the county assessor’s site to verify the property’s owner or agent and only communicate with them. While it’s tempting to sign a lease that sounds great on paper, careful research and patience can help you avoid rental scams in the long run.
4) Rent or security deposit is needed before you see the apartment or house
A legitimate property manager or landlord won’t ask you to hand over a large sum of money before seeing the rental property and reading through the lease. However, during the application process you can expect to pay certain fees upfront, such as application fees and a background check, whether or not you ultimately sign a lease for the property.
Unless you've signed a lease, you shouldn’t wire money or mail a check to anyone claiming to be the landlord or manager. Some scammers tell potential tenants they live overseas, so the tenant must wire their deposit to release the keys. A reputable landlord will not require you to send a deposit or first month's rent before signing a lease. Additionally, don’t wire money to someone you've only met online and not in person. Any respectable landlord who doesn’t live in the area will have a property manager or realtor meet with a potential tenant.
5) A signed lease is required to see the property
If you need to sign a lease or rental agreement and/or pay a deposit before seeing the apartment, don’t sign the contract or send money and proceed with caution. It may be a legitimate rental, and the landlord or property manager could be attempting to pressure you into a contract. However, if the landlord claims this is a time-sensitive decision, and you must sign a lease and pay before seeing the property, it’s likely a scam.
A professional landlord may have a popular property, and eager tenants may want to see it as soon as possible before someone else applies. However, a reputable landlord won’t make you pay before visiting the property.
6) The price is too good
When it comes to rental prices, it probably is a scam if the listing price is too good to be true. If any property listing price is well below the going market rate, you should consider this a red flag.
Scammers use these properties in a “bait and switch” scenario. For example, the scammers tell the applicant that another tenant has already leased the property, but you can see a similar and more costly place instead. This switch can cause the renter to act quickly and sign a lease before the rental price changes again.
The best way to avoid a "bait-and-switch" scam is to research the fair market rent, or the average rent prices, in the area. You can use rental sites to research and compare rents for a verified rental listing. Make sure to look at units in comparable locations, typically within a mile or two from the property, that are close in size or have similar amenities to get a reliable picture of the rental market rates in the area.
7) There’s no screening process for tenants
As a tenant, you want to rent from a professional landlord who maintains high standards for both the property and the tenants who lease from them. You want assurance that the landlord will be responsive and follow all local and state guidelines for rentals. Most landlords will have a set tenant screening process to ensure they choose reliable tenants who can pay rent, care for the property, and behave responsibly.
You should consider it a red flag if a landlord does not require you to fill out a rental application and ask your permission for a credit check. This could be a scam or just an indication that the landlord is unconcerned about picking a good tenant. Either way, it can be in your best interest to avoid landlords who don’t care who they rent to or who appear to be inexperienced. This lack of concern may indicate potential difficulties when establishing a good tenant-landlord relationship.
8) The background check is too expensive
Landlords need to protect their property and ensure that the people they rent to are honest and straightforward. It’s common for a landlord to perform a background check on prospective renters before signing a lease. Rental application fees typically include a flat cost for a background check. However, some scammers will ask for an excessive amount of money, saying that’s how much they need from you to cover these costs.
9) The lease doesn’t exist or is incomplete
As a tenant, it’s critical to read through a lease to ensure you understand it and that it’s complete. An incomplete lease may have amounts or the date of tenancy not printed. You may also notice other lines or blanks with no information - these items indicate an incomplete lease.
Additionally, if a property manager or landlord asks you to sign an incomplete lease or agree to lease stipulations verbally, this may be a rental scam. In most states, a lease change requires a separate addendum signed by both the renter and landlord, with copies retained by both parties. Keep a sharp eye out for vague writing, incomplete sentences, or blank spaces. This can ensure that your lease isn’t manipulated by information added after you sign.
If the landlord makes an excuse for why you can't see the complete rental agreement before you sign it, consider that a red flag. Verbal agreements may exist between landlords and tenants with a longstanding relationship, but you should protect your interests by insisting that everything you agree to is in writing.
10) Security deposit withheld at move out
Every state has some form of law to govern how landlords handle security deposits. Still, at the end of the lease term, some property managers and landlords have difficulty returning the tenant’s security deposit even when the tenant has met all requirements. Some may claim they mailed the check, but it never reached the tenant in their new location.
Other landlords may claim that you’ve left damages that you never documented. This isn’t necessarily a scam, but it’s not exactly legal behavior. Landlords and tenants should know how their state's landlord-tenant law addresses security deposits and act accordingly. To cover your interests, take date-stamped photos of the property when you move in and when you move out to prove you left it in good condition. Unfortunately, this happens quite often, and you may need to defend your treatment of the unit.
If your deposit doesn't arrive shortly after the date required by law, make a written request for the deposit to be returned and send it as a certified letter so both parties have proof of receipt and return. In the worst-case scenario where a landlord refuses to return your deposit, you can file a small claims suit against your former landlord.
Tips for renting safely and securely
The more you know about the types of rental scams you may encounter, the more prepared you are to look for the right rental property. To make sure that you’re renting safely, keep the following tips in mind.
Always see the property in person
While it’s time-consuming to see every rental and apartment in person, this can safeguard you against engaging with a fake listing and fraudulent property owners. It also gives you a better idea of what it’s like to live in the building. If you’re moving from another state or city, see if you can schedule a video call with the landlord or building manager to get an idea of the home or apartment.
Meet the landlord or leasing agent
You should meet the property manager or landlord from whom you’re renting, no matter what. This meeting typically occurs when you tour the property and will help you determine if the landlord or property manager is professional and someone with whom you can work and build a good rapport. Professional management companies and landlords will insist on meeting you, while many scammers won't.
Get everything in writing
Some landlords still use verbal agreements, which is risky for both parties. Scammers often attempt to enter into a verbal agreement and allow you to rent an apartment without signing a lease or rental agreement. Without a signed contract, there is potential for fraud. Get everything in writing and ensure all parties have signed both copies.
Review the lease agreement
Don’t sign a lease or any other agreement until you have viewed the property and carefully reviewed the lease. The lease documents include the rights and responsibilities for both landlord and tenant. Take enough time to review the lease. In some cases, you may want to have a lawyer or other trusted person check it with you to ensure your renter’s rights are covered. Don’t hesitate to question any unclear lease item.
Falling victim to a rental scam can be costly and frustrating. When you know the red flags that may signal scams, you’ll be well-prepared to avoid them and search for a rental property or apartment confidently.
Redfin does not provide legal, tax, or financial advice. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice from a licensed attorney, tax professional, or financial advisor.