A reader recently wrote, “Our landlord is difficult to reach and won’t do most repairs. Since we’re moving soon, any ideas on how to ‘check out’ our next landlord?”

Customer service complaints are all too common–even in housing. According to the latest American Housing Survey (conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2001), about one-third of apartment renters surveyed indicated they were either partially satisfied to dissatisfied with the quality of their building’s maintenance. Dealing with repairs is the last thing most tenants are hoping for in a rental.

So how can you gauge future customer service, including taking care of repairs and maintenance, when looking for a place? According to Los Angeles-area apartment manager Jim Stilton, “Landscaping is a good start, so are outside fire extinguishers and lights. If the outside is in bad shape, the inside may not be much better.”

Other tips from the pros include:

Reachablity: When first calling about a vacancy, was the person handling the vacancy easy to reach? Is a cell phone or pager given out to tenants? If leaving a message was the only alternative, was your call returned promptly? Getting the run-around before you’ve even looked at the place may point to trouble. Landlords who play “hard to get” may do the same later in the rental relationship, such as when repairs are needed promptly.

Hours of operation: What is the policy for tenants calling for service–Monday through Friday or anyday, anytime? Who handles the property when they’re out of town or unavailable? Some tenants prefer management available for their convenience; others are flexible. Knowing when you can reach a manager or owner is helpful when deciding if the place is right for your needs.

Emergency policy? Speaking of which, ask how they handle emergency repairs. For example, if you come home to a flooded place, who calls the plumber at 2 a.m.? If the owner or management cannot be reached, may you call anyone in an emergency and deduct it from the rent?

Who’s the boss? Is the place managed by the owner, an on-site manager or an off-site management company? If it’s the actual owner, you may have direct access to the source of funds and decisions when there’s a request or problem. For example, if you want to negotiate an upgraded carpet, the owner can give the green light directly. If you have to request via a management company, they may have to yield to another source. No matter who is in charge, get everything in writing–from allowing a pet to painting the place.

Hired help: Ask up front who they use for repairs. Does the management favor licensed repair persons? Do they have a regular relationship with a company or just use the phone book? Some tenants prefer a place that uses professional repair people, especially for appliances and plumbing. Repairs are often a source of conflict–not just who does the repair–but who broke the item in question and who pays for it to be repaired.

Pest policy: From ants to bees to rats, uninvited creatures are a fact of life. Some owners balk at providing pest control, while other properties have a pest-control maintenance service. If cockroaches make you scream, be sure to screen out landlords who don’t have a pest control policy.

Lease: Are they using a standard pre-printed lease or is it hard to understand? Some owners and Realtors belong to a local association, which provide basic lease forms. Other places write their own leases, using different sources. Be sure the lease used is not too complicated or difficult to understand. The person presenting the information should allow you the time to read the entire document and be able to answer any questions.

House rules: In addition to a lease, some rentals have added rules. Sometimes called “obligations of a resident,” these rules and regulations might address everything from the allowable times music can be played to disallowing rugs draped over the balcony. Is car washing prohibited? Is there a fee for overnight guests? Ask for a copy of any lease supplements up front and avoid a surprise later.

Case by case: Everyone’s priorities are different. Some people don’t mind if the landlord is slow to repair problems, if the rent is low. Others tenants want first-class service and are willing to pay first class rents for the trouble. Decide on your service priorities and make an informed decision before you sign on the dotted line.

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