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Rental

3 Vital Lessons I Learned During a Decade of Apartment Hunting

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In real estate, things often don't turn out the way you'd expect. In this series, we take a look at how people's real-life experiences differed from their expectations.

Getting a new apartment? Awesome. Finding said apartment? Terrible. Running all over town, scrambling to make appointments on time, being stood up by the landlord or sales rep (or having them show up, making you wish they hadn't) … it's never easy. And I should know -- I've lived in 11 rentals in 10 years.

Yep, that's right. I'm a serial renter.

You'd think by now I'd have it all down pat, but I don't. I've had strange encounters, made some terrible assumptions, and nearly fallen for a big scam. I haven't always learned from my mistakes, but with a little help from the pros (and me), you can!

Here are three real-life, nightmare scenarios I faced -- and the lessons I learned from them.

Lesson No. 1: Don't fall in love at first sight

The scenario: The first apartment I viewed shortly after moving to New Orleans in 2005 seemed great online. But the reality was different. Very different.

First, the landlord showed up late -- alarmingly enough, dressed in nothing but a dirty tank top, sweatpants, and slippers. This was not a good sign. When he let me in, it was obvious he hadn't told the current tenant he'd be showing the property. Her personal stuff was everywhere, and she even had intimates hanging from the shower curtain rod. The landlord trash-talked the tenant the entire time. When I was leaving, he told me not to bother calling back unless I had cash.

You must be thinking, "Run away -- fast!" The problem was, I loved this apartment. And I was desperate for somewhere to live. I was just about to go for it when fate intervened. The current tenant pulled up while I was checking out the place again from the street. She confirmed my suspicions: A landlord who doesn't even bother to put on shoes doesn't bother to do much else, either. She'd been entirely miserable through the entire lease.

What experts say: "When you find an apartment you like, don't let your excitement cloud your thinking and prevent you from protecting your interests," says Ron Leshnower, attorney and author of " Every Landlord's Property Protection Guide: 10 Ways to Cut Your Risk Now." Do a web search on the landlord and/or the property -- it might turn up a sordid history of citations. And even if it doesn't, it's always a good idea to try to chat with some of the other tenants.

Lesson No. 2: Assumptions will cost you

The scenario: A few years later, I was on the hunt again and found a property I loved. Again! The space (and the landlord) seemed perfect this time. Except for one thing: I was very hot and starting to sweat.

I realized there was no central air (in New Orleans!). I asked about it, and the landlord said the property used window units that weren't currently installed. Thinking that must mean I'd get new window units, I signed the lease that day.

It wasn't until after I moved in that the landlord revealed she expected me to buy the window units. By that time, of course, I'd already signed up and paid my security deposit, and was moving into a property in the Deep South in the middle of July. I had no choice but to buy my own at $250 a pop -- and I needed three of them.

What experts say: Spoken communications can backfire. I heard one thing; my landlord was thinking another. I should have gotten everything in writing before I ever agreed to sign the lease. Or I should have cut bait.

"Too many apartment hunters make assumptions about rentals," Leshnower says. "This can be risky, because if you don't do your research before you legally commit to an apartment, you may discover frustrating restrictions after it's too late."

Lesson No. 3: Even smart people fall for scams

The scenario: Once I moved out of the hot box, I thought relocating to a different part of town would solve all my woes.

I found a seemingly great spot online at an almost too-good-to-be-true price. The problem was, I didn't know the area well enough to know for sure if the price was fishy. So I emailed about the listing.

I immediately got a reply with a request to call the landlord. On the phone he seemed nice; he said he wouldn't be available that day, but told me to call him the next day to set up a showing. When I did, I got another runaround. Something had come up at work, and he wanted to know if I could wait until the weekend.

When we finally did schedule a showing, the guy canceled again. Then things got weird. Suddenly, he seemed urgent to rent the apartment. He told me several people had already applied, but he liked me the most (the woman he'd never met and blown off three times). If I wanted it, I'd have to wire him a security deposit that night. He couldn't show it before then, but he could send me more photos.

Obviously, this was a big ol' scam, so I Googled the address. It turns out the property was for sale (not rent) the whole time. And the photos I'd seen of the inside? They were listing photos from the multiple listing service.

What experts say: Scams like this are common -- and it's easy to fall for them.

"In the typical rental scam, a person poses as a landlord and tries to get money for an apartment he has no authority to rent, then vanishes," Leshnower says. "If the person behind an apartment listing doesn't seem to want to show you the property but pressures you into paying a high security deposit and fees based on just photos, take these signs as red flags and look elsewhere."

Apartment hunting isn't always a nightmare. I've rented some great places over the years, but I've had enough of these close encounters to know that it always pays to do your homework.