Let’s say you’re looking for a rental home. How are you supposed to know which landlords you can trust?
Or, what if a new company buys your apartment building? How can you learn anything about them?
This important research isn’t easy to do. But after six years of writing about real estate, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
So, I’ve written a guide to show you how I do it, step by step.
Note: Although you can complete some of these steps on a desktop or laptop computer, many of the websites included aren’t built for use on cell phones. If you don’t own a laptop and want help researching your landlord, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Step 1: Initial research
Start your research by Googling the property management company’s name. This will point you toward some reviews and information about them.
If you don’t know which company manages the property, it will usually be listed on the apartment complex’s website or at Apartments.com. For rental homes, it is often listed on the “For Rent” sign in front of the house.
While Googling, check out the “News” tab to see if any news reports describe mismanagement.
When researching an apartment complex, you should also Google its name. You may find reviews and news reports that didn’t appear when you searched for the property manager.
Also, try to visit the property. Talk to people already living there; they’ll tell you what it’s like.
Step 2: Code Violations
The City of Memphis makes it easy to search for alleged code violations at any rental property. These include mold infestations, broken air conditioning or other safety issues.
The Open 311 website shows many types of service requests to the City of Memphis. To find code violation complaints, start with the “Pins.” For each type — “In Progress,” “Open,” “Pending Litigation” and “Closed” — select only the “Code Enforcement” and “CE Commercial” categories. You might have to click on and uncheck other categories to do this. The checkmarks next to each pin type will turn into a horizontal line once you have selected only the “Code Enforcement” and “CE Commercial categories.”
Next, go to “Date Range,” and adjust it to include the most recent two or three years. Then, type the address of where you are thinking of renting into the search bar at the top of the page (where it says “Enter an address here to get started”). The website will look like the image below; it will show all recent code violations within a .25-mile radius of that address.
From here, you can zoom in on particular buildings and click on any of the circles. The circles with numbers represent multiple alleged code violations at the same address. When you click on a circle, some details about the violations may appear on the right-hand side of the website. But those descriptions don’t usually contain much information.
What matters is the number of complaints. Generally, it’s safe to assume that an apartment complex with few complaints is better maintained than one with many. The My Love Apartments, where MLK50 observed heartbreaking conditions, had 38 code complaints over a three-year period, despite only having 50 apartments. For small apartment complexes like My Love, I would look for less than seven code complaints per year. For a large complex, I would look for less than 25 per year. Any complaints at a rental home are a worrying sign unless it’s been renovated recently.
Step 3: Who owns the property?
Often, it’s hard to know who owns a property, but there are a few ways to find out.
Your first step should be visiting the Shelby County Assessor of Property’s search website.
If you know where within the city the apartment or rental home is located, click the plus symbol in the top left corner to zoom in. You can drag the map around with your mouse. Once you zoom in far enough, you’ll be able to click on the property.
You can also use the “Search by Address” function on the left side of the webpage but it usually won’t work for apartment complexes. For the street name, don’t enter things like “E,” “East,” “St.” or “Street.” For example, enter “Holmes” instead of “East Holmes Road.”
If you click on a property, the website will display a few “Property Details” including the owner’s name.
In the example above, “VB ONE LLC” is the corporate name listed as owning this Yale Road rental home. With this information, there are a few ways to find out the owners behind that corporation.
One way is to click on the blue “Click Here” next to “Property/Assessment Details” and below the owner’s name. Scroll down to the “Owner Mailing Address” and copy it. In this case, the address is “3500 PARK CENTER DR STE 100.”
If you paste the copied address into Google along with the corporation name: “VB One 3500 PARK CENTER DR STE 100,” the results will point you to Vinebrook Homes — an out-of-state owner of many homes.
Hooray! We now know who owns the house. We can search “Vinebrook” on Google News, see what people are saying about it on social media or see if other homes it owns have code violations by using the steps above.
Figuring out who owns a property doesn’t always go this smoothly. So, here’s one other way to research corporate names.
This time, visit the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Business Information Search website.
Let’s use the same company “VB ONE LLC”; type the owner’s corporate name where it says “Search name” but leave out the “LLC” part, as can be seen below.
Next, click the blue number that appears under “Control #.” You should now see a Dallas address you can use to search.
If you Google that address “300 CRESCENT CT STE 700,” it will point you to NexPoint Asset Management. With a little extra Googling, you can find out that NexPoint manages Vinebrook.
Note: For many affordable apartments in Memphis, the Assessor of Property website will show the owner’s name as HEALTH EDUCATIONAL AND HOUSING FACILITY BOARD OF THE CITY OF MEMPHIS. That means the property’s owner has received a tax break from the Health and Ed board.
To figure out the true owner, start by clicking the blue “Click Here” next to “Property/Assessment Details” on the Assessor website. Here, the “Owner Mailing Address” is usually still associated with the actual owner. Try Googling it.
Also, you can email Health and Ed Board administrator Stephanie Bryant at Stephanie.Bryant@MemphisHEHF.com to ask for help.
Step 4: How quick are they to evict?
The last type of research I’ll explain is related to evictions.
While some landlords give tenants grace and try to avoid evictions, others file for eviction just two weeks after the first missed payment. Here are a couple of ways to figure out which landlords are aggressive evictors.
The first is by looking for the name of the apartment complex, property manager or landlord in this spreadsheet. It shows the 50 names associated with the most eviction cases in 2022, according to the Shelby County General Sessions Court website, a combination of apartment complexes, property managers and landlords.
The second way is through the national nonprofit Eviction Lab. On its Memphis webpage, you can scroll down to view “Eviction Hotspots.”
There, you’ll see the top 10 apartment complexes for eviction filings since March 15, 2020. The names of the apartments appear in gray and the addresses in black.
Whether you’re comparing possible apartments or wanting to know more about your landlord, I hope this guide is helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to email me at email@example.com, and I’ll do my best to help.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.