I received an email earlier this week from an out-of-state reader who’s scouting rentals in San Diego but has hit a wall: Craigslist ads that appear to be scams.
The reader asked for advice on long-distance searching, so I asked San Diego-based attorney Steven R. Kellman for some wisdom. He’s the founder of the Tenants Legal Center (tenantslegalcenter.com) and an insider on the paper’s Rental Roundtable, which pens a column every week. (The rental column is still on hiatus.)
What he said:
1) Remember, there’s no screening process for Craigslist posts. Just because you see something published online doesn’t automatically mean it’s valid.
2) Be wary of “exploratory” listings. Sometimes legitimate landlords will test the market, so they’ll put up an ad solely to measure interest in the property. If it’s high, they may raise the rent, or if it’s too low, they may take it off the market. What’s a red flag? The listing says the rental “may be available,” Kellman said.
3) Check the address online on a service such as Google Maps, and see the property from different views: map, aerial and street. See if the photo in the listing matches what you see online. Also, check to see what’s surrounding the rental. Sometimes landlords fail to mention that a unit is near a noisy commercial area.
4) If you’re not able to see the unit in person, have a family member or friend check it out for you. If that’s not possible, hire a local real estate agent. This may be paid for by the landlord, or you may have to pay the agent a nominal fee to inspect the home and coach you through the leasing process. Kellman says the process typically takes a couple of hours, and a reasonable charge is $300. “That’s money well-spent,” he said.
5) Try to pay a holding deposit that would be immediately refundable if the property doesn’t live up to expectations. Giving a holding deposit will limit any loss. For example, potentially losing a $500 deposit to hold the unit is better than losing $3,000 in rent and a deposit. Also, avoid sending money orders because you cannot get that back once it’s cashed. [REPORTER’S NOTE: This part was clarified.]
6) Consider moving your stuff to a storage facility in your desired city and rent an extended-stay room while you’re searching for rentals. You typically can stay week-to-week or month-to-month.
Here’s an extra one from reader Brian Crawford: Google the phone number provided in the ad. He writes to me: “I found out that quite a few (advertisements) on Craigslist were scams because someone wrote a bad review on Yelp. For instance, the company in this article charged you money for finding properties that were already inhabited or….were different from what was advertised.”
And one more: This one is from reader Jay Berman, who wrote this in the comments seection: “If a ‘landlord’ wants you to go to a site and get your free credit check, don’t. They are harvesting your identity and Social Security number. Only disclose that on a written application after you have seen the property.”
The advice keeps rolling in: Another reader, Jeff Stone, offered this advice: “I am relocating to the San Diego area and was looking for apartments or homes to rent when I replied to a couple of posts. When something did not sound right with one of the responses, I went onto a website called Zillow.com. It lists the current sale price, last listing and sale date, etc. The house that I was looking at was actually a (bank-owned foreclosure)! So just another tool that can be used to prevent rental scams on Craigslist.”
Related: 5 signs a Craigslist rental listing is fake
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