3 min read

How I interpret online apartment reviews

The first thing I look at is the ratings. The second are the one-star reviews. I weight the one-star reviews by recency. These filters catch a lot of apparently shitty rentals—frankly a worrying number. Still, I don't think this information is sufficient though to choose a good rental.

High ratings can rule a place out, but I don't treat high ratings as positive evidence. There are two reasons for this: (a) Selective ratings, where owners/managers encourage happy customers to leave reviews but not unhappy ones, and (b) the possibility of outright fraud and paid/falsified reviews.

After selecting for rentals passing the decent-ratings test, I think low reviews give more useful information than high reviews. A twelve-month lease is a fairly large commitment—it's not like buying a house but you're going to be staying a while so I better minimize my risk in choosing. It matters a lot if people have had basic problems with their flat.

Some of those basic problems are maintenance problems. For example, plumbing that floods the apartment, or pests (ants, mice, rats, cockroaches, pregnant raccoons living in the walls), or (black) mold, or critical appliances that don't work, or dangerously incorrect electrical wiring. These matter a lot. It matters even more how the management and the maintenance staff respond to those basic problems in the worst case. This is what I learn from one-star reviews: How bad will management/maintenance let things get? How quickly and how competently will they fix them?

Then there are other miscellaneous important questions. Do shady-looking people hang out in the parking lot? Does management steal things? Are staff professional with tenants or are they hostile? Do staff enter apartments unannounced at arbitrary hours? Does the whole complex smell of smoke, including inside the apartments, so bad that it seeps into your clothes when you live there whether or not you smoke? These things show up in the one-star reviews.

There also a bunch of other still-pretty-bad but relatively more livable management problems that show up in these reviews. Among the many schemes and problems:

  • Using preexisting or normal wear-and-tear defects to cheat renters out of their deposit at the end of a lease.
  • Pre-lease deposit scams.
  • Rent hikes.
  • Utility bills.
  • Forced enrollment or enrollment-by-default in random third-party/vendor services.
  • Hidden fees.
  • False advertising. Tour/demo units significantly different from the real apartment (which is in worse shape).

Then there are somewhat important building issues. Thin walls, poor insulation. Best to price in the insulation. As for thin walls—it's hard to tell how much to weight that, but I'd take thin walls over rats and cockroaches.

Then there are the less critical issues. Like: Broken blinds, worn-out flooring, fading paint. These don't matter as much in themselves. Because potential renters can see them and care about them, it's somewhat a bad sign if a management team lets these things go. It suggests they may not care much about the less visible things, which matter far more but which people are unlikely or unable to inspect on tour or before renting.

I weight the one-star reviews by recency. If it's in the last year, it matters a lot. I don't want to tour a place that refused to deal with a recent cockroach infestation. If it's in the last 2-3 years, it matters. I'm still not interested in touring. If it's older than that, it depends exactly how old, but it matters less.

I have filtered a lot of apartments this way. I mean a lot. I've looked at and filtered out approximately 40 Lexington, Kentucky rentals from Apartments.com on these criteria. I have found maybe one or two yet that I want to tour—that's an acceptance rate of about 2.5%. So, I worry this is too picky, but then I think—really? Too picky to avoid places that won't deal with their cockroach/mold/flooding problems? Too picky to avoid places where the staff may steal from tenants? It bothers me just how many seem to have these issues.

Even so, I don't think this information is sufficient to find a good apartment. Probably there are ways of gathering deeper information. Supposedly one should talk to current tenants about the conditions, though I haven't tried it myself. At a minimum though, one has to tour and ask the important questions and insist on getting answers. One has to watch out. Bullshit abounds.