After reading this tragic story about a Colorado mom who rented a home on Craigslist, I thought I'd share some tips to avoid finding yourself in a similar situation. The mother of two teenagers had been "off-and-on homeless for over three years". She found a four bedroom house on Craigslist that seemed too good to be true...and it was. The family met with the Landlord, signed the lease, handed over a $1800 cash security deposit, and then received their keys.
However, when they began moving into their new place, the police arrived soon afterwards to investigate a break-in. The so-called Landlord was not the Owner (or a representative of the Owner), but instead was a con artist who had tried to sell the abandoned house once before. The Colorado mom lost her $1800 security deposit, her previous apartment, and was left without a place to call home.
HOW TO AVOID
Know Who is Who
When meeting with a potential Landlord, or a representative of the Landlord, you need to know who is who. If you're meeting with the Owner, don't be afraid to ask for ID to verify they are who they say they are. If you're meeting with an agent to see a place, the agent must disclose which side he/she represents. Some agents represent the Landlord, some may be representing you, and sometimes they could be representing you and the Landlord (this is called dual agency)!
Do Not Sign a Lease w/o Doing Your Homework
In this case, the tenant failed to do her homework and jumped on the deal too quickly. When something in real estate seems too good to be true, it always is. Before signing a lease, you should take some time to review it, and even have an attorney take a look to ensure there are no unfair terms. Whenever I assist a tenant-client find a new place, we always pull the property's tax records, as well as it's history on the Multiple Listing Service.
Do Not Pay Security Deposit w/ Cash
Paying cash for a security deposit is not a good idea, as you'll have no record of the transaction. If you must pay cash, be sure to get a signed receipt from the Landlord. Remember, never pay a security deposit until you've done your homework on the Landlord.
Make Sure Your Landlord is Licensed
In the DC Metro area, many jurisdictions require landlords to obtain licenses from their county/city prior to renting to a landlord. In DC, Landlords must have a business license, and all units must be inspected by the city. If the rental was built prior to 1978, most locals require the unit pass a lead paint inspection prior to renting. You should ask your Landlord for a copy of the required certifications prior to your move-in date. This will also help you determine the good from the bad when it comes to Landlords.