Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

Two Minute Tips

How to investigate your next apartment like a reporter

September 12, 2022

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Photo by Pexels user Alena Darmel

Are you looking for your next apartment, but worried about overlooking red flags?

Fear not — you can take matters into your own hands just by looking through publicly available information.

Every city, county, and state will have different documents available, but this is a general guide to help renters background check their next apartments like a reporter would. (ProPublica created one specifically for NYC, which inspired this article.)

Here’s what you need to know.

Publicly available information

You probably won’t be able to find out the full history of the particular apartment unit you’re looking at, unfortunately. But you can easily learn more about the building’s history, and about who owns it.

County appraisal districts

Every county has an appraisal or assessor district. These offices assess properties — commercial, residential and vacant — to determine their value in the market. But the value here for prospective renters is the building history.

Let’s take the Arterra Apartments in Dallas, Texas, as an example; the city of Dallas launched an investigation into the complex over tenants’ complaints of health and safety violations.

Those considering renting in Dallas County can search for a property here, on the Dallas Central Appraisal District website. You can type in the address of the apartment complex into the district’s property map search bar. By clicking on the account number, we can pull up the history of the property.

If the apartment you want to rent was built several decades ago, appraisal districts may not have the full building and ownership history posted online. Since appraisal districts are government agencies, you can obtain more information through an open records request, if necessary. However, I wouldn’t recommend postponing signing a lease while you wait for public records. Any recent or current information should be available online, in most cases.

Ownership information

Once you’ve located the name of the owner, now what? Google it. When I’m scouring the internet for information, I like to use Boolean queries. I find that the search results are more useful.

The Arterra Apartments in Dallas are currently owned by ​​2755 E Ledbetter Hive Partners LLC. Here’s what that looks like for my Google search:

I recommend checking for more information on companies via OpenCorporates, a database that tracks and publishes information on corporations. Many US apartments are owned by private equity firms, which often manage their property assets under LLCs, making it difficult to identify who truly owns an apartment building. OpenCorporates can show you when the LLC was created, if its license to conduct business is active, and if the entity has changed its name.

Other research tools

In some cities, activists and local government agencies work to create searchable databases for prospective tenants. In NYC several of these exist, including:

Activists with the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America launched their own map, showing how many properties local landlords own, and where. Many major cities don’t have databases or maps like these, but it’s worth checking if yours does.

Final tips

If you can, always go inspect the apartment in person. Ask to see the specific unit you want to rent out.

With rent costs skyrocketing, it’s tempting to search for housing deals on Craigslist or local Facebook groups. If a stranger messages you claiming to be a landlord or real estate agent, there’s one way to verify this: check the county appraisal district website.

I did this while searching for housing in Maricopa County, using their assessor office’s map. If the name of the Facebook user purporting to be a landlord didn’t match what I saw on the county’s map, I sent them a screenshot.

“You said you’re the landlord, but your name doesn’t match what I see on this government website,” I wrote to a few scammers.

Most of them ghosted me after that.

In one case, I nearly rented from a mom-and-pop landlord I met via Facebook. The property purchase timeline, Google Maps photos, and name I found online all matched the story the landlord told me. He also Facetimed me, and showed me the apartment. Again, it matched the photos and the government description of the property.

What if I miss red flags, get a bad landlord or have an unsafe apartment complex?

There are multiple courses of action for renters in this situation. First, document everything. Always. You can never have too many photos. Other options include:

  • Contact code enforcement or 311 in your city or town. Ask them for a formal inspection of your rented property.
  • Contact a pro-bono attorney who specializes in landlord and tenant disputes.

Know your rights and learn the law before making any big decisions. In some states, a landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs permits tenants to withhold rental payments, instead putting them into an escrow account.

That is not the case everywhere. In some US states, that’s not a tenant’s right, but a cause for eviction.

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