The real estate market is exploding in most markets in the U.S., and that makes it hard when you are PCSing and need to find a place to live. Supply is slim, and houses are being snapped up quickly. With such competition to find a place to live, it is easy to convince yourself that you don't need to take the usual precautions to ensure that you're in a safe and legal situation. Don't be tempted to skip steps because you are under pressure.
Don't Give Up Your SCRA Rights
While the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is federal law and covers all leases automatically, you can waive your rights under SCRA. It has to be done on a separate form, not in the lease itself or even stapled or attached in any way, in at least 12-point font, and specifically indicate what contract is being referenced. If you're reading, there's no way to miss this.
I strongly encourage you to reconsider if you are thinking about waiving your rights under SCRA in order to obtain a lease. The most frequently exercised right under SCRA is the right to break a lease before the end of the term with appropriate military orders. Waiving this right potentially could put you in a situation where you need to move and still owe months on your existing lease. What happens if you get orders shortly after arriving? (No, it doesn't happen often, but it does happen.) Do you have the financial reserves to cover months and months of rent on a house that you aren't occupying? Or will your family split up in order to make this happen?
Do Some Digging on Your Landlord
When you're renting from afar or in a hurry, it can be easy to miss the signs that there is some sort of scam going on. At the very least, check the county property search records to be sure that the person claiming to be the landlord actually owns the property. If it is a property manager, check out their website and do an internet search on their business name. If they claim to be military, ask around to see if you have any mutual acquaintances. If possible, talk to the current tenants.
Consider Using a Professional
There are pros and cons to using a realtor to find a rental property, but it is a good way to avoid many of the challenges of finding a home in a busy market and possibly from afar. They'll be able to vet the landlord, tell you about the location and schools (though they may be prohibited legally from sharing some information), and handle the financial side of things.
The main downside is that some private landlords don't want to incur the cost of working with a rental agent, so your pool of properties to consider may be smaller.
Be Suspicious if They Don't Want to Know About You
Any prospective landlord should be very interested in you -- who will be living in the property, how you're going to pay for it, and the likelihood that you'll engage in undesirable activity. This usually requires an application, a credit check and maybe a background check. If a prospective landlord isn't asking these questions and verifying this information, you need to find out why. It's not a good sign.
Be Careful with Your Money
Don't wire money to an unknown person. (This is a good rule for life in general. Ask me how I know.) Have a lease in hand before handing over anything more than an application fee/credit check fee. Figure out the safest way to transfer money. A deposit into a specific bank account at least will give you a name to attach to the transaction if something goes wrong.
Read and Understand Your Lease
When you're scrambling to find a new home, it's normal to just want to sign and get moving. Take the time to understand thoroughly and approve of each clause of the lease. Is there a maintenance fee? What sort of terms apply to showings at the end of your lease? Are any of the appliances as-is? Are there restrictions that you will hate in a year, like no pets or no trampolines or no more than two vehicles? The time to negotiate all this is before you sign the lease. Better to move on to the next property than to agree to terms that are wrong for your situation.
Moving while the real estate market is busy adds extra stress to the PCS process. Remember these basic tips to ensure that a busy season doesn't put you in a bad situation.