Landlord Inspections: The Do’s and Don’ts of Apartment Inspections

Maybe you’re suspicious one of your tenants is breaking the lease’s pet policy. Maybe you just haven’t checked in with them for a while.

If so, you may ask yourself: can a landlord do random inspections? Well, the answer isn’t an easy yes or no.

As a landlord, you can drive by, walk by, or bicycle by your property anytime. But you cannot walk into the property unannounced. We’re here to walk you through the do’s and don’ts of landlord inspections.

Legal Reasons to Inspect an Apartment

Apartment inspections need to be performed for a variety of reasons. Let’s take a look at those situations in which you can legally enter and inspect an apartment.

Maintenance and Repairs

Your tenant might ask you to service or repair something. Typically, landlords are only permitted to enter the premises during “reasonable hours.” That varies from state-to-state.

Any time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. is usually considered reasonable. Those hours are within normal business operating hours.

However, when a repair is specifically requested by the tenant, you can enter and perform the necessary service at any hour that is mutually agreed upon.

In a scenario where the tenant has not requested maintenance or repair, but you still need to perform it, give them 24-48 (dependent on state and local law) hours’ notice of your arrival. Additionally, make sure to come at a time that falls within the scope of “reasonable hours.”

Decorations, Alterations, or Improvements

Can landlords do random inspections to address the aesthetic? As a landlord, you have the right to make aesthetic changes as you see fit. This is different from maintenance or repairs. That’s because it’s not something that you need to do to maintain the unit’s habitability.

For example, you might want to repaint the front porch or install new light fixtures. In these cases, stick to the “reasonable hours” rule. Make sure to give your tenant proper notice.

Showings

You have the right to show the unit to prospective tenants. Again, be sure to notify your tenants in advance. This gives them the opportunity to ensure that they’re out of the apartment during showings or give the unit a good once-over, if necessary.

Keep in mind, with millions of Americans working from home due to COVID-19, it may be difficult to schedule a showing during the workday. If that’s the case, you’ll need to work with your tenants to schedule a time that works for them without disturbing their work. You could also “show” prospective tenants your available units via 3D apartment tours.

Lease Violations

Though you may have done your due diligence, there’s always the chance that you may have a tenant that is egregiously committing lease violations. Whether you suspect there’s an illegal subletter on the premises or that your tenant has willfully ignored your no-pet policy, you have a right to check it out.

As it goes for all instances in which you may want to enter the unit, give notice. If you find that your tenant is committing lease violations, you may need to serve a notice to quit.

Move-in/Move-Out

It’s essential for landlords to conduct move-out inspections to assess the damage, if any, that the last tenant is responsible for. Your findings will dictate how much of a tenant’s security deposit you’ll refund back to them.

Upon move-in, inspections enable landlords to confirm the condition of their unit. Then, they can make any necessary repairs before their new tenant officially moves in.

Extenuating Circumstances

While the previous reasons to perform an apartment inspection were very clear, there are also extenuating circumstances in which an inspection can be legally performed. These include:

Court Orders: If you’ve obtained a legal order granting you permission to inspect one of your units, then you can legally perform the inspection. Typically, the order may stipulate a specific date and time that you can perform the inspection.

Tenant Abandonment: Keep in mind that the requirements to be considered “abandonment of a property” are different state by state. If a unit has been abandoned, you’ll need to remove any remaining possessions. Be sure to document the abandonment.

Tenant Violation of Health/Safety Codes: Not only does this put the tenant and others at risk, but it can also lead to significant damage to your property in the form of a pest infestation.

In Case of an Emergency: For example, a fire, gas leak, water leak, burst pipes, or an extreme weather event that may threaten the safety of your tenant gives you license to make necessary repairs as quickly as possible.

Do’s of Landlord Inspections:

Give Proper Notice of Any and All Inspections (24-48 hours)

Also keep in mind that, even after giving notice, you can only enter a tenant’s unit during “reasonable hours.” Typically, though this varies by state, a time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. is considered to be within the scope of “reasonable hours.”

It’s even better to give even earlier notice than the recommended time frame. That’s the case especially in cases of routine inspections that you’ve scheduled in advance.

There are real legal consequences for failing to give notice. Those include arrest, fines, and legal action being taken against you.

Avoid this by giving written notice, leaving a note on the door or in the mailbox, or sending notice via email. Those methods are sufficient and serve as proof that you adhered to the law.

Schedule Property Inspections a Few Times Throughout the Lease Term

There’s no magic number for this. It’ll depend on the length of the lease (we recommend no more than quarterly for a year lease).

What’s the rationale behind scheduled, incremental inspections throughout the duration of a lease? Well, it ensures that maintenance and safety standards are up to date without being excessive.

Remember: Purpose, Professionalism, and Tenant Privacy

If you must enter a tenant’s home to perform an inspection, consider purpose, professionalism, and tenant privacy. State your purpose upon your arrival, give proper notice as a professional courtesy, and respect your tenant’s privacy by ensuring that you don’t overstep.

Document All Routine Inspections in the Lease Agreement

If you have a policy that allows for inspections over a set interval of time, then you need to document that in the lease agreement.

It’s imperative to discuss these provisions when you’re face-to-face with the tenant at signing. This way, everyone knows what to expect ahead of time. It’s much better than having tenants, who haven’t read through the lease, be caught off guard by your routine inspections.

Be Smart and Reasonable

Just because the law is on your side, doesn’t mean you should completely disregard the importance of a good tenant-landlord relationship. If you’re continuously notifying your tenant that you’ll be stopping by, it’s likely to frustrate your tenant over time. If you’d like to increase your rate of renewed leases, limit your inspections.

Don’ts of Landlord Inspections

Breach a Tenant’s Right to Quiet Enjoyment

The right to quiet enjoyment is legally protected. For tenants, this means that they can peacefully enjoy their homes, bar entry from landlords, and that the landlord is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the property. Entering the apartment without permission or not giving notice would breach this right.

Show Up Unexpectedly

Outside of an emergency or extenuating circumstance, you need to give tenants proper notice. If your state has a statute that describes a specific notice period that you must give to tenants before entering their homes, then you must always adhere to it.

Remember that a tenant may refuse entry to a landlord that has not given appropriate notification. Additionally, avoid requesting inspections outside of reasonable hours: typically, 9-5.

Ignore State and Local Law

Laws regarding apartment inspections vary in different states, so it’s imperative to be up-to-date with your knowledge of current inspection law. For example, Alabama requires a two-day notice. Connecticut requires reasonable notice. New York has no statue on a state level.

Give a Vague Notice

When you are letting your tenant know you’ll be coming by, stipulate a date and time. Don’t leave the “when” up in the air. Be sure to state your purpose for entering.

Are you coming by for a showing? Are you repairing something? Or is it a regular inspection? Fill your tenant in on the details for your upcoming visit.

Final Thoughts

As a landlord, you’re ultimately responsible for the upkeep and condition of your property, even when you’re renting it out. Though you’ve gone through the process of thoroughly screening all tenants, there’s always a chance that your tenants may not keep their apartment in top-notch condition. That’s where landlord inspections come in.

Whether your tenants don’t report a leak which ends up causing extensive damage or you simply want to perform a routine check-in, you have a legal right to inspect your property.

However, you must comply with the law when you do. Typically, this means giving proper notice and not entering a unit without permission from your current tenants, except in emergency circumstances.

Can landlords do random inspections? The answer is yes if you follow the above advice and adhere to local laws, your lease, and best practices.

10 Rental Property Red Flags You Should Never Ignore, Winston Rowe and Associates

These are problems are structural in nature. And by that, I’m not talking about the actual foundation of the building, but something that is relatively unalterable about the property. Some of these problems may be at least partially fixable at a reasonable price, such as the point on storage. Others are not, such as the location or floorplan. But these are not items you can simply and easily add to a repair list and make them go away.

With that in mind, let us begin our list:

1. The Proverbial War Zone

I wrote an article about how to analyze the crime risk for a potential deal that I would recommend reading to evaluate which areas are proverbial war zones. Furthermore, I wrote another article on why most investors (and all newbies) should avoid properties in D areas. The gist of it is that properties in such areas will usually cost more to maintain than the rent they bring in. And the risk is much higher, to boot.

Remember, square foot for square foot, a new roof or furnace will cost the same in D neighborhood as it does in an A neighborhood. If the rent is too low, it simply won’t cover the cost of such repairs. And add to this that crime is more common in these areas. It will take a long time at $500/month in rent to cover the cost of an A/C condenser that decides to grow legs and walk off. Tenants in these areas are also more likely to fall behind on their rent or do significant damage to a unit. While there are plenty of good tenants in rough areas, unless you specialize in these types of rentals, really rough areas should be a deal breaker.

2. Terrible Schools

Often, terrible schools go hand in hand with war zones, but not always. Some areas, particularly densely urban areas, have bad schools but some quality areas where most of the people who live there send their kids to private schools. While I personally find this dynamic to be tragic, there’s not much you can do about it as a real estate investor.

Bad schools is definitely more of a red flag than anything that would resemble a deal breaker. But after safety, the most important thing people look for when looking to rent a property (at least a family-sized property) is the quality of the school district. So keep this in mind. http://www.GreatSchools.org is a good place to go to evaluate any given school district.

3. Houses With Only One or Two Bedrooms

I hesitated to even include this because it is absolutely not a deal breaker. But it is worth noting that one and two-bedroom homes are not what any family is looking for, so with these types of houses, you will generally have a more transient clientele. Now, with some such houses, you can add a bedroom, which can be a great value-add. But with others, there simply isn’t the space. Small houses can be risky, and the tiny houses movement is too likely to be a fad to be worth investing in as rental property.

That being said, I have heard of one investor who specifically looks for one-bedroom homes and rents (mostly) to elderly people, and he does very well with it. For our part, we have plenty of two-bedroom houses, and they do just fine. But you definitely need to know what you are getting into with such homes.

4. Huge Units

A 3,000 square foot house does not often make for a great rental. Again, this is not an always proposition, though. But for the most part, the maintenance and turnover will be much higher on such large properties simply because of the sheer size of it. Furthermore, most people looking for such a house will be buyers, not renters.

We find our sweet spot to be around 800 to 1,500 square feet for houses.

5. Huge Lots and Rural Properties

I put these two together since they tend to go together. Now, a big lot is a good thing. But if you are looking at anything too large, especially over an acre, I would start to get nervous. For one thing, that’s a lot of yard maintenance to deal with upon turnover. Furthermore, most people don’t want to take care of such a large yard themselves, so you will turn off a good number of potential tenants. Or you may get a tenant who simply won’t take care of the yard, and then you will start getting letters from the city.

Rural properties are also difficult to manage since they will generally be far away from you. I’m not a fan of rural properties in general (although, for some, I’m sure it’s a very profitable niche). But my advice would be that if you want to invest in rural properties, they make for better flips than holds most of the time.

6. Any Sort of Environmental Problem

OK, another major disclaimer—this could be a goldmine for a savvy investor who will buy what others won’t. But if you have toxic waste dump or an underground leaking oil drum or the unit is going through meth abatement, unless this is your specialty, move on to the next one.

7. Tiny Bedrooms or Kitchen

There are some instances where you can fix a tiny bedroom or kitchen by removing a wall here and adding a wall there. But often, there’s no economically good way to do it. Some old houses are just designed in a way that makes me think the architects were on LSD—even though that drug hadn’t even been invented when those properties were built. I’ve seen massive and useless hallways connecting one tiny bedroom to another in a 1,200 square foot house with no conceivable way to add a third bedroom. It’s endlessly frustrating.

But it’s important to note that potential tenants do not decide on which property they are going to rent by plugging the amenities and specs into a spreadsheet and running a logarithmic, covariate algorithm that takes the least-squares regression of the hypotenuse to determine the best value. They make their decisions based on emotion and livability. Tiny bedrooms are a huge turnoff for anything other than the third bedroom, which is often used as an office, library, or nursery. A master bedroom is a huge plus, but the first and second bedroom need to be of decent size (at least 10 feet by 10 feet or something equivalent).

And they say that kitchens and bathrooms are what really sell houses. I think the kitchen is particularly important, and a tiny kitchen that cannot be expanded or opened up is a huge turnoff. Not necessarily a deal killer (remember, every property has some value), but it’s a big red flag.

8. Awkward Layouts

Can you only get to the bedroom from the kitchen? Is the only bathroom right next to the kitchen? Can you only access the garage from a bedroom? Is the only door to the backyard through a bedroom? Is the second bedroom only accessible from the first (which, I should note, means it’s not a bedroom)? Is the only access to the unit’s only bathroom through one of the bedrooms in a unit that has more than one bedroom?

Maybe you can fix these problems by moving a wall or whatnot. Maybe you can’t. If you can’t, that is a major problem that seriously affects the properties sale and rental value. And tenants, like homeowners, generally don’t like awkward properties.

Obviously, it doesn’t mean the property is worthless, but it is another major red flag.

9. No Storage

Say you have a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with no garage, basement, or bonus rooms. You need to note that the lack of storage is a big negative to potential tenants. Not a deal killer, of course, but a red flag nonetheless. The best remedy, we have found, is to add a shed in the backyard. Both Home Depot and Lowes sell such sheds at reasonable prices. But this is an imperfect solution at best. So be careful with a house that has no storage.

It’s safer to buy apartments with minimal or no storage, particularly with smaller units, as 1) the tenant doesn’t need a lawnmower or anything like that since they are not responsible for the lawn and 2) it’s less likely to be a family living there, so the person likely has a lot less stuff.

10. Local Governments That Hate You Simply Because You Exist

OK, that may be a bit of hyperbole. But it’s extremely important to know how landlord-friendly any municipality you intend to buy in is. Some cities require landlords to have annual property inspections, which are both expensive and arduous. Are you willing to put up with that? Other cities, particularly on the East Coast, have eviction laws that are so strict, it can take three months or even longer to evict a non-paying tenant. I’ve even heard of it taking as long as a year, especially if the tenant knows how to game the system.

For a rather extreme example, here’s how Global Property Guide describes the eviction process in the Netherlands:

“Landlords can only give notice in strictly defined cases, and it is extremely difficult for owners to evict tenants once they are established. Only the judiciary, and not the landlord, can terminate the contract, and only after the landlord has given notice of from three to six months. Where the contract is for a fixed period of time, he is restrained from giving notice except towards the end of that period.

“Limited arrears in payment of rent are in general insufficient grounds for a rescission of the contract; only an order for payment can be achieved. In the case of arrears of up to three months, rescission will be denied. Nuisances committed by tenants tend not to be a good basis for eviction; they tend to be denied by tenants, and the court procedure is costly.”

If there’s anyone from the Netherlands who would like to correct me on this point, I’m all ears. But for now, I’ll probably pass on investing there.

On the same note, HOAs can be similarly difficult and anti-landlord in some communities. We’ve all heard of the petty tyrants that have rises to power in some HOAs. Such properties are generally to be avoided.

Conclusion

To wrap it up, it’s once again critical to remember that there really is no such thing as a deal killer. After all, I for one would be willing to buy any property in the country if they paid me a billion dollars to do it. But there are major red flags that will kill most deals. When looking for rental properties, the above list are some of the big ones to watch out for.