Renting? Know Your Rights

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Published June 15, 2012

| Zillow

The housing market’s slow rebound makes renting a good option for many. Former homeowners looking to recover their financial stability are joining new renters on the hunt for their first apartment and long-time tenants facing rising rental costs. But in the rush to find a place to call home, here’s what all renters should know.

Do your research and shop around

This past year saw rent increases in 70 percent of markets. The good news about the demand: the market is spurring investors to purchase distressed inventory to convert to rental properties, which may help bring rents back down. Shop around by checking free real estate websites with dedicated rental features, including maps and local information on desirable locations. Some websites have rental mobile apps that make exploring a particular neighborhood on the ground even more convenient. Additionally, research fair rent prices so you don’t find yourself overpaying for a place.

Work with your landlord, but know your rights

Keep the lines of communication open with your landlord, but know the laws that protect you. On a federal level, the Fair Housing Act protects against discriminatory housing practices, so if your renter’s application has been turned down, be sure to find out why.

Read up on your state’s landlord-tenant laws, as tenants often do not realize their specific rights. Attorney Ryan J. Weatherstone of Mercer Island, WA, offers one example: “Seattle tenants are required to be given a packet stating their rights under landlord-tenant law when they begin a tenancy each time a lease is renewed. Failure of the Landlord to provide these documents allows a tenant to break the lease early and/or seek a fine of $100 plus attorney fees.”

Read the fine points of your lease before you sign

Typically, a lease protects you from rent increases while committing you to pay rent for the full term of the lease, even if you have to move out. But read your lease closely to prevent surprises. If you don’t agree with certain provisions, see if you can negotiate with the landlord and make sure any changes are made on all copies of the lease. Pay attention to provisions about the security deposit, which is legally refundable — provided you leave your rental in the condition you found it. To ensure there is no dispute, first walk through with your landlord or property manager and document any damage in a written checklist as one would with a rental car. Send copies of date-stamped photos to your landlord.

Beware of  illegal provisions that absolve the landlord of liability for negligent acts, waive the landlord’s duty to repair the building or its systems, or allow the landlord to seize the tenant’s personal property if the tenant fails to pay the rent. Weatherstone warns of general leases that some landlords use, such as those available “at Staples or other office supply stores or even on the Internet,” which often contain terms that contradict state law and thus are void. One common error in Washington is “requiring the tenant to provide more than 20 days’ notice prior to the end of a regular rental period to terminate a month to month agreement.”

Understand your rights to privacy

While the general rule is that your landlord cannot enter your home without advance warning, notice requirements to enter the rental property vary from state to state. Landlords don’t have to give notice in cases of emergency or when there’s a court order. Check your state’s privacy statutes or contact a lawyer or tenants’ rights group to find out how much privacy protection you can expect.

Consider an eviction notice seriously

An eviction costs more than money; it damages tenants’ credit scores: “The eviction will stay on their credit history basically forever,” said Elizabeth Rankin Powell, an attorney based in Tacoma, WA. “And it gets there the day the landlord files the action, win or lose.” However, some states have safety nets. In Washington, evicted tenants have five days to “pay off the judgment and be restored to their tenancy, if they have a lease that has not expired,” said Powell.

Buy rental insurance

Rental insurance offers an affordable form of protection from a range of hazards, from theft to fire damage. While you’ll need to sift through insurance policies with a fine-toothed comb to see what protection will and will not be included, rental insurance is a good bet, especially when it can cost as little as $10 per month.

Get the assistance you need

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a list of helpful resources and links for renters. Find information about tenant rights, laws and protections in your state. Many states and counties also have programs for low income renters that include legal counsel and sometimes even representation. Whatever your situation, take the time to learn your rights; it can make for a happy home.

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