Prospective landlords typically screen tenants quite thoroughly, by asking for references and credit reports, and savvy tenants do checking of their own. Finding a great apartment is not always enough. You'll want to find out what it's like to deal with the landlord or manager when it comes to repairs, rent, deposits, and more.
If at all possible, talk with the person whose living in the apartment or house you plan to rent. Inquire about security and noise in the building or neighborhood and if there are any problems regarding repairs and basic services such as heat and hot water. If you can't talk with the current tenant, visit the building after work, and see if you can meet any other tenants.
Ask about pluses and minuses of living in the building, and see if you can get a sense of the landlord's (or manager's) personality and business style. Does the landlord handle repairs promptly? Are the common areas and grounds well maintained? Is the manager readily available if you lock yourself out of your apartment? Does the landlord respect tenants' privacy, or stop by uninspected just to check things out? Does the manager seem too overly friendly or gossip about other tenants?
Ask about anything that's especially important to you. For example, if living in a quiet building is a top priority, you'll want a landlord who keeps the lid on noise. On the other hand, if you'd rather live in a place where your occasional late-night party doesn't bring out the landlord, ask about that, too.
Finally, see if you can find out how often there are vacancies in the building and, in particular, how often your prospective landlord has had to evict tenants. A high rate of turnovers and evictions suggests problems.
Other people and businesses in the neighborhood may know something about the reputation of the building and its tenants, landlord, or manager. Be sure to ask about crime in the neighborhood—both on the street and apartment break-ins, as well as other incidents requiring a police response. Ask if tenants seem to stay more than a year—if so, that's the mark of a well-run building.
The comprehensive website apartmentratings.com has over one and a half million reviews of individual apartments and property managers nationwide. It includes other useful information, such as the proximity of registered sex offenders.
Another site, CheckYourLandlord. com, provides information (for free) about the property, such as whether a notice of default has been filed against it. More comprehensive reports (not free) provide information about liens; defaults on other properties owned by the landlord; and judgments, bankruptcies, and court judgments lodged against the property owner.
If a property management firm is handling rentals in the building, check out Yelp ratings of the firm.
It may seem obvious, but it's a good idea to Google the owner and/or property manager, and even the address. If the property has been in the news lately, you'll read all about it, and chances are, the story won't always be positive. Likewise with the owner or manager— you don't want to rent a place whose management has been the subject of a feature article on the woes of renting.
If you're concerned about the landlord's financial stability, find out whether the property you're considering is the subject of a notice of default (the first public step toward foreclosure). Banks and other lenders must file these notices, in the courthouse of the county in which the property is located, when the owner has failed to make payments on a loan or mortgage for a specified number of months (two is common). Obviously, renting a property that's liable to be foreclosed upon during your tenancy is not a good idea—even if you get to stay, you may end up with an owner (especially if it's the bank itself) who will not be a conscientious landlord.
For a more detailed finding a place to rent, see Nolo's book Every Tenant's Legal Guide (or, California Tenants' Rights, if you rent property in California).