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Do Not Follow This Leader: The Top 4 Mistakes I Made As a Renter

by Jesse Jurgenson

Living the unsettled life of a student for the past dozen or so years has come with some its share of positives and negatives. One of the more unavoidable drawbacks has proven to be scrolling through the ever present pictures and status updates about childhood friends and acquaintances new marriages, kids, cars, home purchases, and in some cases even newer marriages. As I am sure they are just as entertained by bearing witness to my top-notch math related humor (including such internet gold as “math puns are the first sine of madness” and “I’m not an outlier- I just haven’t found my distribution yet”) we are just going to call this battle a draw.

With all of the traditional life event milestones that I have put into a holding pattern, my experience of moving from place to place every few years has paid off in a few distinct areas. First, I am able to quickly and efficiently determine whether a food special is truly special enough to balance out the effort necessary to become both publically presentable (no sweat pants) AND find parking within a hobbits journey of the place.  Second, I can memorize a bus schedule faster than a freshman regrets registering for an 8am class. Third, I have become an expert renter. You may view me as a savant of the security deposit or a devotee of disclosures. This did not happen quickly and is the result of making an embarrassing amount of mistakes over the years. So let me be the Benny to your Smalls and walk you through a few of my renting related regrets in the hope that you will not make these same potentially expensive blunders.

1. Not researching the potential landlords reputation

It is difficult to explain how nice it is to have a professional and courteous landlord unless you have had the misfortune of experiencing the opposite. Unclear expectations, rigid demands, slow response to repairs, and ignoring your complaints can make for a stress filled situation that is likely to end badly. Spending the time up front to research and get a feel for the type of landlord they are is an excellent investment. Ask a question in different ways to see if you get the same answer, drive by the landlords other properties at different times of the day to note the condition of the buildings and surrounding activities, talk to current renters about their opinion of the landlord, check out online message boards, ask friends or new acquaintances for suggestions, research local public records for past landlord/tenant disputes, or looking them up with the local Better Business Bureau are all ways to do your homework and hopefully avoid an expensive mistake.

2. Not including expected utility costs when estimating how much I can afford

The monthly rent amount is not the only number you should be concerned about. The utility costs may include paying for things such as water, electricity, garbage pickup, sewer, and natural gas. These can easily add over $100 per month to the total monthly costs to rent an average apartment. Keeping in mind we are not talking cable or internet here, only the necessities. Love having a lot of windows in your place? It is highly probable that those windows may not be very energy efficient and could cause a big increase in your heating bill during the winter months. Moving into a larger rental may be a great in terms of having more space to entertain your friends and family, but that extra space may make it more expensive to cool during the long hot summers.

It is also important that when comparing potential rentals, you know which utility bills you are responsible for at each location so you are doing an “apples to apples” comparison. An apartment with a lower monthly rent amount but does not include utilities may easily become the more expensive choice compared to an apartment with a higher monthly rent amount but includes some or all utilities. Make sure to ask your potential landlord or the current tenant about what their utility bills look like on an average basis or contact the local utility companies for a good estimate.

3. Not having renters insurance

It has not been uncommon to notice an article about an apartment complex fire or flood in which dozens of renters lost all of their belongings in addition to their place to live. It is important to remember that the landlord’s insurance policy only covers the physical structure. You are responsible to insuring anything inside your rental which may need to be replaced. If you were like me, you didn’t think you had anything “worth” insuring. However you should think carefully about how much it would actually cost to replace your everyday items such as clothing, electronics, bed, cook wear, etc. This could easily be thousands of dollars even if you are shopping for lower end brands. If that alone isn’t enough to sway you, renters insurance often helps out in other ways such as paying the medical bills for someone who is injured inside your apartment or financial protection in the case that you are the one that caused damage to the building.

The part of the article which finally convinced me to purchase renters insurance is when the displaced renters talked about not knowing where they would go while the building was being repaired and more importantly how they would pay for it. Absent of some very accommodating friends, you are looking at a prolonged hotel stay which can get very expensive. A good renter’s insurance policy will cover the cost of a reasonable place for you to stay while you are displaced from your home. The small comfort of knowing you can stay in a nice place while you piece together your life can mean the world to you at that moment. When you factor it that a quality renter’s insurance policy rarely costs more than $200 per year it will often prove to be a necessary expense.

4. Not doing a thorough check-in / check-out for damage

How did that large hole get in the wall and who will pay for it to be fixed? If you cannot provide proof that the hole was there when you moved in you will most likely be on the hook for the repair costs. A quality check-in consists of taking many pictures or a video along with a written list of damages sent to your landlord within the first few days of your move in date. There is no such thing as “over-documenting”. I once had a past landlord send me a bill several weeks after moving out for $800 claiming that I damaged a number of doors, windows, and a fireplace which required extensive repair. I knew that I did no such thing but how could I prove it? It would end up being their word versus mine if I wanted to challenge it in court. Luckily, my roommate at the time was much more mature than I was and took plenty of pictures around the empty apartment before we moved in. Looking through those pictures we could clearly see the damage present on the doors, windows, and fireplace prior to us moving in. Sending a copy of the dated picture along with a strongly worded response letter to the landlord prompted them to write back that the matter was resolved and wishing me the best in the future. I like to think that it was a simple mistake by the landlord, however you should know that there are plenty of shady landlords who may be looking to take advantage of young and unprepared renters. Protect yourself with documentation and you will never be sorry.

Being a renter has many advantages for individuals in all different stages of life. Learning to become a responsible renter will not only reward your landlord and neighbors with an ideal tenant, but will also serve to protect yourself against many of potential drawbacks of not owning your own home. Looking out for yourself first while planning ahead is the best way to foster a stress-free experience. Now that is something we all need more of.

Additional Resources:

  1. City of Columbia Renter and Tenant Resource Page:
  2. University of Missouri Off-Campus Student Services
  3. State of Missouri Attorney General Publication on Landlord-Tenant Law
  4. Link to State of Missouri Court Case Record Search
  5. Better Business Bureau of St. Louis (includes Columbia)
  6. Your Rights Under the Fair Housing Act
  7. Article On the Importance of Renters Insurance

Guest contributor Jesse Jurgenson is an AFCPE Accredited Financial Counselor and past Financial Counseling Supervisor with an NFCC certified non-profit family service organization. He is also a current Ph.D. student and Graduate Instructor in the Personal Financial Planning Department.