Have your eye on the perfect rental in a historic downtown district? Or hoping for a good deal on a for-sale-by-owner house in the burbs? Heck, you might be ready to pounce on that affordable rent-to-own deal.
Whether you’re renting or buying, put the brakes on before you sign any dotted lines or plunk down any deposits. First, you’ve got to do a bit of detective work and verify who owns the property.
If the listing is fake, you could not only lose the house you want but also a ton of money in the process. Here’s what to watch out for—and how to confirm that someone owns the home they say they do.
Housing scams can look real
Unscrupulous people may be morally bankrupt, but they’re sometimes smart. They know how hard it is these days to find an affordable rental or a home to call your own. Buyers or renters can be so driven to get a house, they miss the subtle signs of a scam.
This is especially true because scammers often hijack legitimate rental or real estate listings, change a few details like contact information, and then use the modified ad to lure you in. Other scammers take a more creative approach and invent listings for houses that aren’t theirs, let alone on the market to buy or rent.
Signs you may need to confirm ownership
Is the rental or purchase price too good to be true? Are there a lot of grammatical errors or overuse of capital letters? Do you notice uncommon spellings of words like “favour” instead of “favor”? These are all red flags that a listing is probably fake.
Also, keep your eyes out for an accelerated application process with suspicious fees. For example, alarm bells should go off if the supposed homeowner asks for an upfront fee to pay for credit checks before you even see the property.
And be very skeptical if you can’t view a property because the owner says there’s another tenant in it or there’s a renovation in progress.
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Never give away your money
Be wary of owners who claim to be out of the country but will happily take your money through their “agent.”
If the person you’re dealing with—whether online or in-person—asks you for a security deposit, application fee, or first month’s rent without a contract or lease, run! (And report it to the Federal Trade Commission.)
Remember, wiring money is the same as sending cash. So if this isn’t a real deal, you’ll lose any money you hand over. The same holds true if you use popular mobile payment apps such as Venmo to send money.
Do a Google image search
You might be able to find out if the listing is legit by doing an image search. In Chrome, right-click on an image and scroll to “Search Google for Image.” If you’re using Safari as your browser, right-click on the image and scroll to “Copy Image,” then paste it into “Google Image Search.”
You’ll probably see a bunch of results. It’s normal for a legitimate agent to list a property on several websites to get more eyes on the listing. However, if the ad varies in price, contact information, location, or other details, it’s probably a fake listing.
Find out who owns the property
Dig into a property’s ownership details before signing any lease or contract, or forking over any cash. Luckily, you don’t have to hire a pro to do it.
“You can verify a property’s owner by checking the public tax records,” says Cathy Baumbusch, an agent with Re/Max Allegiance in Alexandria, VA.
You can also try searching using the phrase “recorders tax assessor” or “property search.” Stick to the search results whose websites end in “gov” or “org” to avoid paying for results from for-profit websites.
Once you’ve landed on the property or tax assessor website, enter the property address and include the county.
“A local agent or title office should be able to assist if you have difficulty with finding the information online,” says Christy Walker, an agent with Re/Max Signature in Phoenix. Their services may come in handy if you find out the property is owned by an LLC, in which case, the property’s owner name may be harder to track down.
If all else fails, enlist the help of a title company. It may cost a small fee, but it might just be worth it.
“The title company will get the most current and valid information,” says Carrie Abfall, an agent with Re/Max Real Estate Professionals in Columbus, IN.