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How to read between the lines on apartment review sites

(Reed Saxon/AP)

Nancy Simmons Starrs is founder and president of Apartment Detectives, a D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia apartment search service. 

If you are searching for a rental home or have done so recently, you have probably come across a few apartment review Web sites.

Our clients frequently have questions about these sites. The problem is that it is very difficult to have a perfect 100 percent positive score. Any negative comment will lower the score.

There are properties with average scores where many of our clients have lived quite happily. It’s likely that many of the people posting on these Web sites are not satisfied tenants. Satisfied tenants are much less likely to post reviews so there are not many positive reviews to balance the negative ones. Can you remember the last time you posted a positive comment on a Web site? The good news is that many management companies have been paying attention and doing their best to improve their scores.

[To make it home sweet home, there’s an app for that]

You should read critically and consider each source. With each review you have to note trends and read between the lines. Look to see what the writer’s motivation may be.

Is the reviewer venting because he tried to sneak a pet into his home that was not allowed by management?

Here are a few things to consider about apartment review Web sites:

• Pay attention to the content. For example, is the commentary about rodents or are the comments about a concierge that did not smile at a resident? If you will be using concierge services regularly and getting packages frequently, a friendly concierge could be a priority. If you never receive packages this may not matter to you at all. You need to decide if the reviews are stating things that you will be concerned about. If not, this property could be worth considering or at least visiting.

• Pay attention to how many times a negative comment is said. If there are similar negative reviews about the same topic, this might be a concern. For example, if there are multiple comments about how the maintenance staff never fixes anything in a timely manner, that is important. If it is one negative comment about how the continental breakfast provided from the management was not satisfactory and this is not a priority to you, this property could be worth visiting.

• How recently were the negative reviews posted? If they were posted two years ago and there have been positive reviews since then, you might check to see what changed. Was there a change in management? It could be that new management was just what that property needed to take better care of some issues it had in the past.

• Read critically to consider the source. These postings are anonymous and mostly you will find people who live or have lived at the property. If you see a glowing review that looks similar to another one posted a few days before, it could be a review from management to help the ratings increase.

• Ask residents. Stand outside in front of the property at about 6 p.m. when people will be getting home from work. Ask the people you see on the way into the building if they live there and if they are happy and if not why. This is the best way to get useful current information about a property. I find most potential neighbors are more than happy to share their feelings about their home and are a wonderfully honest primary source.

Apartment review Web sites can often become forums for frustrated people who may not have a pure motivation to review a property honestly. But there are many reviews that are honest and helpful to potential new tenants.

With all these factors considered, apartment review sites can be a great source of information to help apartment shoppers make an educated decision on their new home.

Catch up with some of  Nancy’s previous columns:

Is a co-op right for you?

Rent or buy — running the numbers on a D.C. condo

Renting from an apartment management group vs. an individual owner 

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