Rent by Owner: The Ultimate Guide to Renting from a Landlord

A dream home can take many forms. Yours might be a cozy studio in a high-rise apartment with great amenities, a trendy beachside condo, or a single-family home with three bedrooms and a basement. As you’re trying to decide, a variety of options become available. The trick is to find the ideal rental for you. Perhaps you discovered an adorable cottage with a sign in the yard: “For Rent by Owner,” and its wide porch and flower garden spoke to you. Maybe you’re the proud pet-parent of a Saint Bernard and you want lots of land for him to explore.

After considering all of the possibilities, you’ve decided to rent a home from a private owner. How do you go about it? What should you be aware of? How is this different than renting an apartment managed by a property management company? Let’s explore the pros, the cons, and the questions you should ask when considering renting by owner.

What is a Landlord?

Simply put, the landlord is the owner of the property being rented out. As the property owner, this is the person who will screen tenants, set the rental price, handle maintenance, accept payments, and deal with issues or complaints. You may also hear the terms “lessor” and “owner” used when referring to a landlord.

Most single-family homes and small apartment communities (typically less than six units) are managed by the owners themselves. Large apartment complexes are often managed by property management companies. If the property owner has several rental homes or an apartment building larger than six units, they may consider a property management company, as well.

The Benefits of Renting by Owner

Flexibility

The main benefit to renting from a property owner is flexibility. The owner makes the decisions, not a company. If you are in a situation where your credit isn’t the best or you have an eviction in your history, you have a better chance of explaining your situation to a landlord than you would a property management company. It’s even possible to find no-credit-check rentals by looking for rentals by owner. If you have multiple pets or a very large dog and are having difficulties finding an apartment community, you could have better luck finding a private home to rent.

Cost

Renting from a property owner could save you money. A private landlord may be more willing to negotiate on rent and fees, especially if they only have one rental property. These landlords are sometimes referred to as “accidental landlords” – perhaps they purchased a second home as an investment property and are renting it out, or perhaps it came to them through an inheritance. They’re more invested in the home and will likely be very responsive to repairs and maintenance as this is their only rental property.

Attention

Renting from a private landlord is much more one-to-one – in some cases, you may be the landlord’s only renter. This means a much more intimate relationship since you aren’t just one of many. You might even become friends of sorts, with an open line of communication. Your landlord may also be more willing to work with you when it comes to maintenance requests and other concerns.

The Drawbacks of Renting by Owner

Amenities

Of course, where there are benefits, there are also drawbacks. Apartment communities provide a variety of amenities you probably won’t find in a rental property, such as an on-site fitness center or a car-washing station.

Convenience

Another major perk of renting in a larger community is being able to pay rent and submit maintenance requests online. Many apartment communities have around-the-clock emergency maintenance, as well. It could take several days for a property owner to address issues, especially if they have multiple properties or live out of state.

Attention

Having a landlord is more one-on-one. Yes, this is usually a benefit (see above), but it could also be a drawback if your landlord oversteps (drops in for unscheduled visits, for example). If your landlord is very particular or difficult to deal with, this could lead to a problematic renting experience since there isn’t anyone else you could talk to (when dealing with a property management company, there are often several people you could reach out to).

Questions to Ask When Renting by Owner

Renting by owner is different from renting from a property management company. While some of the questions are the same, some are specific to the landlord/tenant dynamic. Here are a few of these questions:

  1. Are any utilities included with the rent? (Clarify how much the rent is, as well, even if it was stated in the listing.)
  2. What day is rent due? Is there a grace period? What’s the late fee?
  3. What other fees and deposits are required, and which are refundable?
  4. How long is the lease? (Make sure you are both in agreement as to the length of the lease.)
  5. How do I pay rent? (Avoid a landlord that wants cash.)
  6. Can I pay rent online?
  7. When does the home become available? (There may be current renters – find out before committing, especially if you need to move in sooner.)
  8. What’s your application process?
  9. Are there other interested renters? (How many people are looking at the home?)
  10. Can I have a roommate?
  11. Do you allow subletting?
  12. Do you allow pets? What are the fees? What’s the pet policy?
  13. What is your policy about breaking a lease early?
  14. Will I be able to renew the lease? (You may come across a landlord who is planning to sell in a year or may be moving to the property in the future – be sure to find out if you want to live there long-term.)
  15. How is the parking? What are my options?
  16. Do you have rules regarding guests?
  17. How much notice will you give before entering the home?
  18. How do I submit a maintenance request, and are there maintenance/repairs I’ll be responsible for?
  19. Who mows the lawn? Can I plant flowers?
  20. Am I allowed to paint or make design changes to the home? What’s forbidden?
  21. Do you require me to have renters insurance?

How to Avoid Rental Scams

You may be concerned about scams when renting from a private owner. A rental scam happens when a person who doesn’t have the legal right to rent out the property tries to anyway, or there’s no actual rental and the listing is fake. There are steps you can take to avoid rental scams.

  • Always view the home in person, and have the landlord meet you there. This is critical because a scammer will do everything they can to not meet you face-to-face, including concocting wild stories about suddenly having to move overseas.
  • Don’t pay any money until you’ve met the landlord and visited the home. If a landlord requests money up-front before you’ve seen the place, that’s cause for concern.
  • Never wire money. Scammers may ask you to wire money to an escrow account – don’t do this.
  • If the deal is too good to be true, then it is! If the rental is way below market value and the “landlord” is pressuring you to rent the place before someone else does, it’s possible this is a scam.
  • A real landlord will want to interview you and perhaps do a background and/or credit check. If the landlord doesn’t require anything and instead seems overly eager to rent to you, be suspicious.
  • The landlord wants to charge you a variety of up-front fees and an unusually high security deposit. If the fees seem excessive, check your state laws about what’s required.
  • If a landlord says you don’t need a lease, that’s a red flag.
  • Meet the landlord right away. If they don’t want to meet or give you excuses as to why they can’t meet you, it could be a scam.

The road to your dream home will likely take a few twists and turns, but knowing what to look for and what works best for you will make the journey much easier. Renting from a private owner is much different than renting from a property management company, and each offers unique benefits and some challenges. Best of luck finding that ideal place, whether it’s a sleek high-rise in the city or a beachfront bungalow.