Questions to ask before you rent

You might have seen the recent article by The Sunday Age that exposed the underground business of illegal rooming, in which international students are squeezed into small apartments with rooms typically separated by only screens.

As house prices continue to soar in Australia, renting and its associated issues are on the rise. With the new semester about to commence, most students take this time to hunt for accommodation. Whether you’re seeking your first apartment, or your fifth, the search process has a way of making you feel unprepared.

Hopefully you’ve secured a good network of friends/acquaintances before choosing whom to move in with. You don’t want to end up having to initiate awkward conversations about unwashed dishes or chasing them for rent.

Most students will sign up for the first house they inspect but don’t follow the trend; take your time, and make an informed decision. Legal stuff aside, here are the things you should consider before the big move!

Where is it located?

First-years will likely rent in the CBD, an option that provides the kind of flexibility and convenience that’s ideal at the beginning of a big move. Sure, the CBD has everything a student needs – Woolworth’s, Queen Vic Market, Asian grocers, all the cuisines you can think of (so you’ll pine less for home), and of course a decent coffee at every turn. 

Pricing may be a bit of shock; rental rates are high and only getting higher in Melbourne. Also, do take note that prices are listed per week, not month.

It’s worth considering the surrounding suburbs. If you want to live right next to the city, there are Docklands and Southbank.

If you love the beach, there are Elwood, St Kilda, and South Melbourne; for the eclectic funky vibe, there are edgy Fitzroy, Brunswick, and Collingwood – home to hipsters, live music, quirky cafes, and really cool bars, whereas Carlton (also in the north) is the heart of Italian cuisine. 

On the other hand, Richmond is renowned for discount shopping outlets and incredible Vietnamese food. Finally, the Eastern suburbs like Kew, Glenferrie, and Hawthorn are more family friendly.

How clean is it?

Although regulations on rented shared housings are strict in Australia, nonchalant landlords are prevalent, especially if the rent is cheap.

Unfortunately student houses are often under maintained, poorly looked after, and old. As a result, damp is a common nightmare for many students. Not only does it smell bad, it can also cause health problems and ruin clothes. Be vigilant.

Infestations are also another problem in student houses. When viewing a house, don’t be afraid to check kitchen cupboards, under the sink, and work surfaces.

How safe is it?

While residential burglaries have decreased over the years, few suburbs in Melbourne continue to be prime targets for thieves.

According to The Age, “the city’s inner suburbs have become increasingly targeted by burglars. Ivanhoe, Clifton Hill, Abbotsford, Carlton North and Fitzroy appeared in the top 20 most burgled suburbs based on the number of dwellings” while the outer west remains the prime target for thieves.

As much as we can blame statistics, it’s ultimately our choice; no matter when you choose to stay, if you’re stumbling home intoxicated in the wee hours of the night, you’re putting yourself in a vulnerable position. 

Who fixes what if something breaks?

Protocol for getting things fixed may not be fully spelled out in your lease, but it’s worth asking about. Some buildings have on-site building managers to call on if your sliding door is stuck; a leaking faucet would most likely be a landlord cost, whereas fixing burnt bulbs is a tenant responsibility.

However, it's worth knowing that the landlord has a duty to  to make sure that the properties they rent out are kept in good repair. So make sure everything is repaired, spick and span, before you move in.

Garbage collection, recycling, and outdoor spaces?

This doesn’t really pertain to high-rise apartments, although for most living in landed property in the suburbs would have to put their household-generated trash in a common dumpster. Then you’ll need to know which day of the week the garbage is collected. 

Some buildings require you to bring recyclable materials to a separate floor from the rubbish chute; you might even need to separate the glass and plastic from cardboards – and make sure you don’t have any food waste in there!

For those of you living in the suburbs, make sure you know your garden tending responsibilities; for instance, a tenant staying in Clayton is responsible for mowing the grass, weeding, and trimming the outdoors. If you're willing to do to provide this service, great. But, use it as an opportunity to negotiate a lower rent cost in exchange for yard care. 

Can I keep a pet?

Some landlords outright forbid any cats or dogs, though few would tolerate a small fish tank.

Check what your landlord’s policies are, including visiting pets – when your friend comes with her Golden Retriever, is the dog allowed inside? Is babysitting your friend’s cat out of the question?

Honestly, most landlords won’t allow pets at home. This is because dogs scratch up doors and hardwood floors.

Further, few pets can handle long hours left along in an apartment when their "hooman" is out. An agitated, and bored dog will bark incessantly, disturbing other tenants.

If landlord does allow pets, you probably can expect to pay an extra security deposit, and owners are absolutely expected to clean up after their animals. More importantly, is the deposit refundable? 

Am I allowed to smoke?

If you are a smoker, make sure you have the right to smoke inside the unit and it's written in the lease. Or, find out where smoking is allowed on the property. Conversely, if you are not a smoker and there are certain units that allow smoke, make sure you understand you could be affected by their smoke.

After a few viewings you will no doubt decide on the house that best suits you – use this checklist by Save the Student to help make your decision. Of course, it's always prudent to take the lease home, and have an experience lawyer or conveyancer have a look. 

Oh, one last advice: ask for everything in writing. There is no legal requirement for an inventory or survey, or even for a written tenancy agreement, so it is important tenants request these things if they are not provided; by leaving a paper trail, you'll only be protecting yourself!