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Risks for Renting Sight Unseen

James has served over 28 years in the Army and I have served 9 years in the Air Force.  Therefore, we completely understand moving on short notice and having to make compromises in order to make the time frame and circumstances at hand work together.  Sometimes that means having to rely on others for assistance in finding a new home to live in without knowing the area or personally seeing the property.  So let’s talk about the risk that you face when renting a property without viewing it personally.  Just as important though let’s talk about how to mitigate the risk if you cannot avoid it.

First, what are the risks?  Of course the initial risk is getting a property that you absolutely hate.  That is what most people are afraid of.  Let’s face it, photos are not the best way to judge things.  They do not offer smells, views of the neighborhood, finer conditions such as cleanliness, etc.  Therefore, the risk is unending.  It could be too dirty, too smelly, too bright, too dark, too small, too little water pressure, too open, not open enough, and the list of risks goes on.  So how do you keep from hating your unseen property?

Everybody has different opinions on what is important to them and what is acceptable to them.  We recommend deciding ahead of time what is important to you in order for you to enjoy a property fully.  Then negotiate that item BEFORE signing a lease.  For example, if paint color is important to you and you want the color to be changed then you should ask about the color (photos, video) and the policy on changing the color before signing.  Keep in mind that some things are like beauty and it is all subject to the eyes of the beholder.  For example, if cleanliness is important then ask to see a professional cleaning service receipt before signing the lease.  If they cannot provide you a receipt or they did the cleaning themselves then you must decide if the risk is worth it because everybody has a different opinion of what is clean and what is not clean.  My wife hates the way I clean and I love the way she cleans.  Some things are obvious but most of it is left to interpretation.  Don’t ask the landlord “is it clean” because that is a very broad interpretation.  So figure out ahead of time what is important to you and ask for as much info on those items as you can get (i.e. additional photos, different angel photos, video, receipts, etc.).

Second, what does the lease say?  A lease agreement is the most essential part of any rental property.  It lays out what you are responsible for and what the landlord is responsible for.  It also covers fees and due dates.  For the purpose of this blog though it is important to note that leases have “As is” clauses.  Many people think that “as is” means that what you see is what you get.  That is true to an extent.  It does mean that if the property is dirty and you sign for it in that condition then you are accepting it as dirty.  If the lawn is uncut and you sign for it in that condition then you are accepting it as uncut.  However, there are limits to what an “as is” clause will cover.  This clause does not negate landlord responsibilities.  For example, if the hot water heater is broken when you move in that is not covered by the “as is” clause.  How do you know what is covered and what is not?

You should look in to state laws and federal laws to learn what is and is not required by the landlord.  If something is required of the landlord by law then it is not negated by the “as is” clause.  As we mentioned above there are some things that are interpreted too broadly for state and federal governments to regulate such as cleanliness.  While an extreme circumstance such as piles of garbage 10 feet high and animal droppings all over the property would not be hard for a court to distinguish, a couple of dust bunnies would be hard to justify as an issue worthy of being released of your obligations.

In the end it is always best to view the property yourself or have a loved one or close friend view it for you.  Only under extreme circumstances should you ever rent a property without viewing it.  If you must though, remember to negotiate up front what is important to you because after you sign the lease it is too late to ask for changes that are not required by law and the landlord is not obligated to oblige you.  If they want to rent the property bad enough they may be willing to cede to your requests.  As you can imagine it would not be fair to the owner or landlord for you to sign a lease, move in, and then demand changes that are preferences and not requirements by law.  Just as you may not have wanted to rent it in the condition that it is in, the owner may not have wanted to make the concessions that you are requesting.  Also, there may have been people other than you that would have loved the property in its current condition that were turned away so that you could rent the property.  So to be fair to all parties ask for concessions upfront BEFORE signing anything.  Lastly, know your rights and what state law and federal requires and do not go simply based on opinion as they may vary.  Ask for videos, additional photos, different angled photos, 5 day out clause be added, or Skype a view of the property.   If you don’t communicate your preferences then the landlord will not know.

We hope this is helpful to all those in these unpreventable and impossible circumstances.  We want everybody to be happy renting from us and from others.  Know what is important to you and express that to the landlord and get it all in writing.

We are pledged to the letter and spirit of U.S. policy for the achievement of equal housing opportunity throughout the Nation. See Equal Housing Opportunity Statement for more information.

  1. Cathy says:

    Hi ARMY RETIRED Sold house in NC and decided to RENT by the beach so we can look for property to build a house on.We rented in a newer community and I asked the realtor to go to the house and take pictures because of their REMAX SITE UNSEEN POLICY.The pics looked nice but I asked her if their was any evidence of a dog or dogs?Her reply was NO this is like a new house so I TRUSTED her to tell the truth and we went ahead and rented it even though we could not physically be there because we were still stationed at a military base that was over 12 hours away.December we moved into rental and discovered a major DOG OR DOGS URINE SMELL AND LARGE URINE SPOTS OR FECES SPOTS OR BOTH ALL OVER THE INSIDE OF THE GARAGE.We called them and documented the problem on our move in sheet that this problem would have to be addressed and we NEVER heard a peep out of them.Months later we are know getting into the warmer months and the inside of the garage smells HORRIBLY like VERY STRONG DOG URINE ETC. and the inside of the house has a very strong musty urine smell.I want to move out but I need to know what my rights are as a tenant?I would think SITE UNSEEN would not apply in my situation because it is an “INHABITABILITY” issue??What are North Carolinas laws on this issue?Thank you and hoping for a resolve.

    1. kmiller says:

      Hello and thank you for your post. I think I mentioned in my original post but in case I did not please let me say that I myself am prior military and I understand the frustration of only having two weeks to find a place in an area that is hours away. Also, thank you for your service.

      Now, lets get to your question. First, I would provide you with this analogy which relates with your question. Imagine you cleaned your house and now your father-in-law comes to visit. He walks in and says, “House looks good. Did you just clean?” A few hours later your mother-in-law walks in and says, “Have you been busy lately? Do you need me to help you clean?” A few more hours go by and your significant other comes home and says, “Thanks for cleaning babe”. You think it is clean, your mother-in-law believes it to be lacking, and the significant other and father-in-law believe it is clean as well. Who is correct? The answer is that cleanliness is subjective to whatever your personal opinion is.

      Why is this relevant? You stated “I would think SITE UNSEEN would not apply in my situation because it is an “INHABITABILITY” issue”. I am not familiar with North Carolina law and of course I am not a lawyer. However, one thing is for sure and that is that what makes a rental property habitable or inhabitable is regulated first by the federal government, then the state government, then county, then town, then the written agreement between two parties in this order. The federal government has its definitions and requirements and no agency beneath it can take away from that. They can, however, add to it. So if the federal government, for example, says it will take no more than 30 days to return a security deposit then the agencies beneath it can add laws to make it more restrictive (i.e. no more than 20 days or 10 days) but they cannot make it less restrictive (i.e. no more than 35 days or 45 days). With that being said, it is also important to know that a “site unseen” or “as is” agreement does not excuse the landlord from his or her obligations under any of these laws or agreements. Meaning, if the landlord has obligations under all of these different authorities they cannot excuse themselves from those obligations. For example, a landlord cannot have you sign a contract where you waive your rights under the constitution or that you are responsible for something that the state has deemed a nontransferable landlord responsibility.

      In South Carolina, for example, the land lord must provide reasonable amounts of water and hot water as well as a heat source. Therefore, the landlord cannot have you sign a lease saying you agree to accept the property with no hot water access nor can the landlord have you sign an “as is” agreement and not provide a hot water heater. So to educate yourself on what your rights are and what your state constitutes as habitable you will need to google your state’s landlord tenant laws. Every state has these laws and they vary greatly from state to state.

      I am doubtful that you will find “strong odors” as a prohibited item but more of a health concern possibly (i.e. gas leak, mold, asbestos). The problem with odors is the same as cleanliness. I love the smell of curry but my daughter hates it. My grandfather loves the smell of cigars but I hate it. So communicating your concerns in court, should court arise, would require supporting evidence outside of your own preference or opinion. This can be done through air test samples performed by a licensed and reputable professional perhaps. Unfortunately, I think that you will find it hard to force your landlord to do anything about it at this point without spending a lot of money yourself and even then I don’t know that it would be a health concern.

      I know that is probably not what you wanted to hear but it is the reality of the situation in my opinion based off of the information provided. We have professional cleaners clean properties and some people love their work and some people hate their work. So try to communicate with your landlord to fix the issue. If the issues is not resolved your only other option is court. In the end though it is up for opinion and the only opinion that matters is that of a judge. Can you convince the judge that the smell is a habitability issue and not just a preference? Can you convince him that it was intentionally withheld information that you would have based your decision on?

      I hope that helps you in your issue and I hope that it at least lets you know how your rights are governed and where to find them. Please let me know if you have more questions or need more clarification in this area. Here is a link to the NC landlord tenant pamphlet http://www.ncdoj.com/files/consumer/landlord-tenant-booklet.aspx. Please do keep us posted!