Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart
March 2015, 8th Edition
Handle problems with landlords and roommates
The landlord ignores your repair requests. Your roommate is always late with his share of the rent. Your upstairs neighbors party all the time. The landlord won’t return your security deposit. How can you deal with these problems—and others—and prevent them from happening again? Turn to Renters’ Rights: The Basics for answers!
Written in plain English, this fully updated bestseller covers:
- leases and rental agreements
- credit reports and references
- sublets and short-term vacation rentals
- discrimination and retaliation
- security deposits
- repairs and maintenance
- getting out of a lease
- and more.
This 8th edition, featuring easy-to-use summaries of each state’s laws, is completely updated and revised to reflect the key landlord-tenant laws of your state.
Are you a California resident? Check out California's Tenants' Rights
“If you expect Renters’ Rights to be dull, boring and irrelevant...think again.”- San Francisco Chronicle
Renter's Rights - Your Legal Companion
1. Play the Landlord's Game and Win
- Legal and Illegal Reasons for Turning You Down
- Your Credit Report Can Make or Break Your Application
- References Are All-Important
- Smart Moves: How to Find a Good Place
- How to Find a Roommate
- How to Impress Prospective Landlords
2. Leases and Rental Agreements
- How Written Leases and Rental Agreements Differ
- Who Should Sign a Lease or Rental Agreement
- Typical Provisions in Leases and Rental Agreements
- Negotiating With the Landlord
- Common Negotiation Issues
- Signing a Lease or Rental Agreement
- Get It in Writing: A Letter of Understanding
- Using Email for Notice or a Letter of Understanding
3. Rent Rules
- Rent Gouging: Isn't There a Law Against It?
- The Nitty-Gritty on Where and How to Pay Rent
- Mabel, Isn't There a Grace Period?
- What To Do -- and Not To Do -- If You Can't Pay Rent on Time
- Late Rent Fees
- Tenancy Terminations for Nonpayment of Rent
- Rent Increases
- The Landlord's Right to Change Other Rent Terms
4. Security Deposits
- Dollar Limits on Security Deposits
- How Landlords May Increase Deposits
- What's the Money For?
- Last Month's Rent
- Nonrefundable Deposits and Fees
- Are You Entitled to Interest on Your Deposit?
- How Your Landlord's Bankruptcy or Property Sale Affects Your Deposit
- Discrimination Prohibited by Federal Laws
- Kinds of Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law
- How to Fight Back
- Renting a Place with Others
- When a Roommate Walks Out
- Adding a New Roommate
- Taking In a Roomer
- Tenant Rights to Use Airbnb and Similar Vacation Rental Services
7. Repairs and Maintenance
- Your Right to A Livable Place
- Your Repair and Maintenance Responsibilities
- Persuading Your Landlord to Do Major Repairs
- Using Heavy Artillery for Major Repairs
- Laying the Minor Repair Job on the Landlord
- Getting the Landlord to Make Minor Repairs
8. Tenants' Rights to Privacy
- Entry by the Landlord
- Entry by Others
- Limits On Your Guests
- How to Get Your Landlord to Back Off
9. How Tenancies Change and End
- Changing Your Tenancy Without Ending It
- How Month-to-Month Tenancies End
- What Happens When Your Lease Runs Out
- Breaking a Lease and Leaving Early
- Domestic Violence Situations
- The Landlord's Bankruptcy
10. Getting Your Deposit Back
- How Your Landlord May Use Your Deposit
- The Mechanics of Getting the Deposit Back
- Avoiding Fights Over Deposits
- Suing to Get the Deposit Back
11. Landlord Retaliation
- Where Does the Law Protect You?
- What Is Retaliation?
- Responding to Retaliation
- Proving That It's Retaliation
12. Rent Control
- Property Subject to Rent Control
- Limits on Rent
- Evictions in Rent Control Areas
- Interest Payments on Security Deposits
- Special Notice Requirements
- Bypassing the Rent Control Ordinance
13. Getting Help With Your Dispute
- How to Negotiate a Settlement
- Using a Mediator
- Small Claims Court
- When and How to Find a Lawyer
A: How to Find Landlord-Tenant Laws Online
- State Laws
- Local Ordinances
- Federal Statutes and Regulations
B: State Landlord-Tenant Laws
- State Landlord-Tenant Statutes
- State Rent Rules
- Notice Required to Change or Terminate a Month-to-Month Tenancy
- State Security Deposit Rules
- State Laws on Rent Withholding and Repair-and-Deduct Remedies
- State Laws on Domestic Violence Situations
- State Laws on Landlord's Access to Rental Property
- Landlord's Duty to ReRent
- State Laws Prohibiting Landlord Retaliation
Play the Landlord’s Game: How to Score a Great Apartment
Legal and Illegal Reasons for Turning You Down............................ 9
Rental Application Questions—How Far Can They Go?.......... 10
Question One, Question All....................................................... 11
How to Check Out Potential Landlords.......................................... 12
Your Credit Report Can Make or Break Your Application............... 13
What’s in Your Credit Report..................................................... 14
Verify Credit-Check Fees .......................................................... 15
Your Right to a Refund of a Credit-Check Fee.......................... 15
Your Right to Know When Your Credit Report Does You In ..... 15
Why and How to Check Your Credit Rating............................... 15
How to Handle Errors (Not Your Fault) in Your Credit Report... 17
How to Deal With Problems (Your Fault) in Your Credit Report 17
References Are All-Important......................................................... 18
Smart Moves: How to Find a Good Place...................................... 20
How to Find a Roommate.............................................................. 22
How to Impress Prospective Landlords......................................... 22
The good news. Thanks to federal and state antidiscrimination laws, landlords are limited in what they can say and do when selecting tenants. Basically, unless a landlord has a legitimate business reason for turning you down, she risks running afoul of these laws, which can spell big legal trouble for her. Because antidiscrimination laws are so important, we devote a whole chapter to them: Chapter 5.
The sobering news. Aside from complying with antidiscrimination laws, landlords have a lot of leeway in choosing tenants. Landlords are legally free to chose whomever they think will be the best, most stable tenant—ideally, someone who pays the rent on time and won’t cause any problems.
Since landlords can choose tenants based on their likelihood of being “maintenance-free,” applicants with a shadow or two in their past (a bad reference, a few late rent payments) or a shaky present (low income relative to the monthly rent) need to know how to anticipate—and head off—the landlord’s hesitations before they solidify into a “No.” And if you live in a tight rental market—like New York City or San Francisco—you’ll need to be fast, persistent, and street-smart to score a reasonably priced rental.
This chapter alerts you to the main factors landlords consider when choosing tenants, such as credit reports and references, and gives advice on how to improve your chances of getting a place you like—and can afford.
Read this chapter to find out why you should:
Never rent from a landlord who asks personal non–business-related questions or subjects you to an inquisitory grilling. These are red flags that indicate that the landlord does not understand—or chooses not to follow—the law.
Never pay more for a credit check than a reasonable approximation of the landlord’s actual costs. A landlord who gouges you on this one will do the same on another occasion.
Never let a prospective landlord see your credit report before you do. If the report is inaccurate, you need to take immediate steps to fix it. If the report is correct but damaging, you should prepare your explanations and defenses in advance.
Never lie on the rental application. It’s the kiss of death.
Never rent a place that you have serious misgivings about—whether it’s the landlord, the neighbors, the neighborhood, or the unit itself. It may be harder than you think to get out.
Legal and Illegal Reasons for Turning You Down
A landlord is legally free to set whatever conditions he wants for a tenancy as long as they are reasonably related to his business needs and don’t violate antidiscrimination laws. The Federal Fair Housing Acts (42 U.S. Code §§ 3601–3619) prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, familial status (having children), and physical or mental disability (including alcoholism and past drug addiction). In addition, many states and cities also prohibit discrimination based on marital status or sexual orientation. Chapter 5 discusses illegal discrimination and how to file a complaint with a fair housing agency.
A landlord may reject you for poor credit history, income that a reasonable businessperson would deem insufficient to pay the rent, negative references from a previous landlord or employer, a criminal conviction, or a prior eviction lawsuit (even one that you won). As long as they don’t discriminate, landlords can basically choose whomever they want. For example, a landlord can refuse to rent to smokers or disallow pets because smokers (and pet owners) as a group are not protected by antidiscrimination laws. (The exception would be pets used by a person with a physical or mental disability.) If your landlord’s policy is no pets, no smoking, or some other legitimate lease or rental agreement term, you’re out of luck unless you can make some convincing arguments for your case. (“Negotiating With the Landlord,” in Chapter 2, suggests ways to get around landlord restrictions.)
What about roommates? A landlord can limit the number of occu-pants for health and safety or legitimate business reasons. A landlord may not adopt a low occupancy standard if the result eliminates families with children—this is a violation of the fair housing laws, as discussed in “Discrimination Prohibited by Federal Laws” in Chapter 5.
You are your own worst enemy if you lie on your rental application. Your landlord can easily find out that you don’t make $50,000 per year by talking with your employer. Misrepresentations on the rental application are always legitimate grounds for rejection. And even if you slip by, ask yourself whether you want to rent from a landlord who is so careless. Would you be concerned to learn that the “former schoolteacher” next door is really a recently released rapist? If the landlord didn’t check up on you, he probably didn’t check up on your neighbor, either.
Rental Application Questions—How Far Can They Go?
Most landlords will want you to fill out a rental application with information on your employment, income, credit and financial information, rental housing history, and any criminal convictions. It’s legal to ask for all this information and use it to make rental decisions. Landlords may also legally ask you for your Social Security and driver’s license numbers and (except in New York City and California) for proof of your legal residency in the United States. Landlords may even ask if you smoke or if you’ve ever been sued.
How far can landlords go? They can ask for any information that will:
tell them whether you’re likely to be a good tenant, and
help them find you if you skip town owing them for rent or property damage.
Questions that don’t relate to these two issues are probably not legal. Keep in mind, however, that not all discrimination is illegal, so some questions that may not “sound right” may in fact be legal. (See “Are You Two, Like, Together?” below.)
Too Expensive? Says Who?
Money talks, especially in rental housing. If the landlord reasonably concludes that you can’t afford to pay the rent in view of your income and existing debt level (which she’ll see on your credit report), she is not obligated to rent to you. Many landlords use a rent-to-income ratio of one-to-three (rent can be no more than one-third of your income) as a rule of thumb.
As a broad generalization, you too probably don’t want to spend more than 25% to 35% of your monthly take-home pay on rent, but this will obviously depend on your other expenses. And you won’t want to live in a penthouse if it means you need to eat popcorn every night.
Question One, Question All
While landlords are entitled to ask business-related questions on a rental application or during an interview, there is an important hitch: They should subject all applicants to the identical set of basic questions. Since federal and state antidiscrimination laws make it illegal to single out members of certain groups (such as people of a certain race or ethnic background) for special treatment, interview or application questions that aren’t directed at everyone constitute special treatment. For example, landlords who ask about immigration history (in states that allow this) should ask all tenants, not just those whom they suspect might be in the country illegally. Questioning only those from the Middle East would amount to illegal discrimination on the basis of national origin. Similarly, requiring credit reports only from African Americans would also be considered illegal discrimination.
How to Check Out Potential Landlords
If your prospective landlord is conscientious, he’ll probably take the time to learn about your rental and employment history. There’s no reason why you, too, can’t ask a few questions to find out whether you want to rent from him. Ask current tenants and neighbors what it’s like to live there; ask the tenant whose unit you’re considering why she’s moving out. If you learn that she’s leaving in disgust over poor management or dreadful neighbors whom the landlord won’t evict, you’ll want to think twice about signing a lease or rental agreement. If possible, talk with other people and businesses in the neighborhood; they may know something about the reputation of the building, landlord, or manager. Keep in mind that a building with a large turnover rate, and especially one where evictions are common, is probably not run very well. Be sure to check out www.apartmentratings.com. This comprehensive website has nearly two million reviews of individual apartments and property managers nationwide. It includes other information useful to new tenants, such as the estimated rent and pet policy, of each rental.
You may also want to go to CheckYourLandlord.com, where you can obtain information (for free) about the property, such as whether a notice of default has been filed against it. More comprehensive reports (not free) provide information about liens, defaults on other properties, judgments, bankruptcies, and court judgments.
Are You Two, Like, Together?
Most landlords don’t care a bit about whom you share your bed with—they’re much more interested in whether you pay your rent on time and are a decent housekeeper and a considerate neighbor. Unfortunately, a few landlords see themselves as enforcers of their chosen code of morality. For instance, some people do not want to rent to heterosexual, unmarried couples, and some refuse to rent to homosexual couples.
In many states, landlords can get away with these kinds of choices. That’s because unmarried straight couples and gay and lesbian couples are not protected by antidiscrimination laws in over half the states. (In Chapter 5, see “Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law.”) This means that in most states it would not be illegal for a landlord to question you and your would-be roommate about the nature of your relationship.
If you and your friend are questioned concerning your relationship, what should you do? This is an issue for all roommates, even the ones who are just friends and heterosexual, whom the landlord would presumably welcome with no problem. Think about what this line of questioning bodes for future dealings with this landlord: Here is a businessperson who is inappropriately interested in his customers’ private lives. Chances are he spends his time and energy checking up on his tenants’ love lives, at the expense of running a pleasant and livable building. If at all possible, look elsewhere.
Your Credit Report Can Make
or Break Your Application
For many landlords, credit reports are a litmus test that shows how responsible you have been at managing money. Like it or not, your financial history is a powerful indicator of whether you will be a reliable tenant who pays rent on time and is not likely to cause problems. A landlord can legitimately turn you down for a bad credit report.
Fortunately, there are some restraints on the method of collecting and reporting on an individual’s credit history. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (15 U.S. Code §§ 1681 and following) covers all aspects of credit reports, including your access to your file, your right to dispute information in it, and steps you can take to correct inaccurate reporting. It also regulates investigative background reports, including your right to be told that such a report has been requested. Some states have their own laws that give consumers more protections.
What’s in Your Credit Report
Credit reports show your credit history for the past seven years, including whether you have ever been:
late paying rent or bills, including student or car loans
the subject of a “charge off” (when a store declares an overdue account uncollectible)
evicted from a rental unit, or
involved in another type of lawsuit, such as a personal injury claim.
A credit report will also state whether you have filed for bankruptcy in the past ten years.
If you’ve never borrowed money or used a credit card, the report will have large blank spaces that would normally be filled with a consumer’s history. Ironically, a landlord may refuse to rent to you because you don’t have a good history of debt management, even if you have been a fastidious on-time, cash-only consumer! The landlord will be worried that the first time you encounter lean times might be when the rent is due—and the landlord has no way of knowing whether, if this happens, you’ll be able to put your rental obligation at the top of your list. (See “How to Deal With Problems (Your Fault) in Your Credit Report,” below, for advice on how to deal with this situation.)
Verify Credit-Check Fees
Landlords can charge a fee for the cost of the credit report itself and their time and trouble to order it and read it—$30 or $40 is common. You can call the credit bureau to verify the actual cost of getting a report. Some states, such as California, regulate how much the landlord can charge (call your state’s consumer protection agency to find out if your state has set a limit). Find yours at www.usa.gov/directory/stateconsumer/index.shtml.
Your Right to a Refund of a Credit-Check Fee
Some unscrupulous landlords collect credit-check fees but never run a credit check, pocketing the money instead. If your landlord has done this, you’re entitled to a refund. If you suspect this illegal behavior, contact a credit reporting agency as soon as you’ve been rejected by a landlord to see whether or not the landlord actually requested your report. If he didn’t, ask for your money back; if you get no results, contact your state’s consumer protection office.
If a credit report was ordered and you decide not to take a rental unit or the landlord chooses someone else, you are not entitled to a refund.
Your Right to Know When Your Credit Report Does You In
A landlord who does not rent to you because of negative information in your credit report is legally required to give you the name and address of the credit agency that reported the negative information. The landlord must also tell you of your right to a free copy of your credit report from this agency.
Why and How to Check Your Credit Rating
Because your credit report is so important, you should always check it before you start your housing search. This will give you the opportunity to correct or clear up any mistakes, such as out-of-date or just plain wrong information. It’s all too common for credit bureaus to confuse names, addresses, Social Security numbers, or employers. Especially if you have a common name (say, John Brown), chances are good you’ll find information in your credit file on other John Browns—or even John Brownes or Jon Browns. Obviously, you don’t want this incorrect information given to prospective landlords, especially if the person you’re being confused with is in worse financial shape than you.
Looking for inaccurate information isn’t the only reason to check your credit report. If your report contains accurate but damaging information, it’s better that you know exactly what it says before your prospective landlord sees it. Seeing it first enables you to anticipate an objection and formulate an explanation, which will better your chances of convincing the landlord that your financial troubles are all in the past.
Copy your own credit report and save on credit check fees. If you’re applying for more than one rental, you’ll find that credit-check fees (at $30 or $40 a pop) mount up quickly if every landlord orders a report. Get your own credit report and make several copies to give landlords when you apply for a rental. While landlords may want to order your credit report directly (some may fear that you’ve doctored your copy), it’s worth a try.
Get a Copy of Your Credit Report
The three largest credit bureaus, with offices throughout the United States, are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Virtually every credit report in the U.S. is generated by one of these three agencies. They compile credit information on individuals and provide reports to affiliate companies and landlords and others upon request. You can obtain a copy of your own credit report from any or all of these agencies.
If you’d like to see a copy of your credit report, it’s easy and cheap. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has approved a rule that will allow consumers to receive a free copy of their credit report every 12 months. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com.
How to Handle Errors (Not Your Fault)
in Your Credit Report
If you see entries in your report that are wrong, take action. Contact the reporting bureau and ask for an investigation form. On the form, list each incorrect item and explain why it’s wrong. Under federal law, the credit bureau must investigate within 30 days (in some states, it’s less). If the investigation confirms that you are right (or if the creditor who provided the information can no longer verify it), the bureau must delete the information from your file.
Unfortunately, a request for an investigation does not always right the situation. If the credit reporting agency fails to remove inaccurate or outdated information, lists a debt you refused to pay because of a legitimate dispute with the creditor, or reports a bogus lawsuit against you that was abandoned, you have the right to place a 100-word statement in your file, giving your version of the situation. Be sure to submit such a statement immediately if your situation fits one of the above descriptions. In addition, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission to complain about the inaccuracies.
Keep in mind that if one credit bureau has inaccurate information on you, it’s likely that others do, too. If you find errors in your report from one credit bureau, be sure to check your files at the other two agencies.
For more information on credit reports, including how to correct inaccuracies, see www.ftc.gov.
How to Deal With Problems (Your Fault)
in Your Credit Report
If your credit file shows negative but accurate information, or you have no credit history because you’re a first-time renter and have never borrowed money or used a credit card, there are steps you can take to look better to prospective landlords:
See if your landlord will accept a cosigner—a creditworthy person who signs the lease or rental agreement and agrees to cover any rent or damage-repair costs you fail to pay. Keep in mind that the landlord will evaluate the cosigner with the same criteria he used for you—so your willing but broke college buddy isn’t likely to be accepted.
Pay a large security deposit, or offer to prepay rent for several months. (Chapter 4 discusses security deposits and state limits.)
Show proof of steps you’ve taken to improve bad credit—for example, enrollment in a debt counseling group, recent history of making and paying for purchases on credit, and maintenance of a checking or savings account.
Get positive references from friends, colleagues, employers, and previous landlords.
For a detailed description of how to obtain a credit report and challenge its contents, and for information on your state laws, see Solve Your Money Troubles: Debt, Credit & Bankruptcy, by Robin Leonard and Margaret Reiter (Nolo). For suggestions on how to reestablish your good credit, see Credit Repair, by Robin Leonard and Margaret Reiter (Nolo). For useful articles on consumer credit and credit reports, see the Debt Management and Personal Finance sections on Nolo’s website.
References Are All-Important
Your past relationships with landlords, managers, and employers can make the difference between getting a rental unit and getting rejected. Prospective landlords will usually want to talk with your current and previous landlords, your employer, and others who know you well. Here’s what they’ll typically ask.
When talking to other landlords and managers:
Did you pay rent on time?
Were you considerate of neighbors (no loud parties, out-of-control kids, or dangerous dogs)?
Did you make unreasonable demands or complaints?
Did you take good care of the rental unit?
If your landlord says you were a pain in the neck, always paid rent late, and left the place a shambles, don’t expect the next landlord to welcome you with open arms.
When speaking with your boss:
How long have you worked at this job, and how much money do you make?
Are you a responsible person? Do you get along with coworkers?
Do you have any serious character flaws or weaknesses?
When talking to your friends (nonrelatives):
Are you a reliable, honest person?
Do you have good housekeeping habits, and are you considerate of others?
A landlord can’t force you to give references. And you may not want to, particularly if your current landlord or boss is a complete jerk and will have nothing good to say about you. But unless you can come up with a good substitute—another supervisor or maybe a resident manager—a prospective landlord will conclude that you’re withholding the name because you’re afraid of what the person might say. If you really can’t come up with some names, at least have a reasonable explanation for your reticence.
Many past landlords and employers won’t talk to your prospective landlord unless they have a signed release from you stating that it’s okay to answer the prospective landlord’s questions. In this litigious society, employers and landlords are afraid that you’ll sue them for defamation or the invasion of your privacy. This written permission assures your previous landlord, current or past employers, credit sources, or personal references that you won’t object if they respond truthfully to a landlord’s relevant questions about your work and employment history. For this reason, many prospective landlords will ask you to sign a release. But even with a release, you cannot force a prior employer or landlord to provide information.
Smart Moves: How to Find a Good Place
Knowing what questions landlords are legally allowed to ask and preparing for them will give you confidence as you head into your rental search. But your success will also depend on some “street smarts,” not just legal know-how. Here are some proven strategies that will make your efforts more efficient and successful:
Set your rental priorities before you start looking—the rent, desired location, and number of bedrooms and whether you want to keep a pet. This will help focus your search. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy running around looking at inappropriate places.
Use your personal contacts. Tell everyone in your social networks, online and off. Don’t be shy—ask friends, coworkers, even local businesspeople with whom you have a friendly relationship. You never know who may come through with the perfect apartment—it might be the receptionist at work, your dental hygienist, or a waitress at your favorite restaurant.
Check Craigslist and other websites. The advertising-free website www.craigslist.org is enormously popular in the hundreds of cities it serves, and is a key place to begin your housing search. Craigslist is free to both landlords and tenants. If you have an iPhone, take advantage of the free Craigslist app, Craigsphone.
Local online services may be available, particularly in large urban areas, such as Apartable.com in New York City. And don’t forget that many local newspapers post their classified ads online (if they don’t, be sure to check the print editions).
There are also many websites that offer national listings, including:
Many of these sites provide more than apartment listings, offering information and links covering renters’ insurance, moving tips, and more. Useful iPhone and Android apps are free for some of these sites, such as apartmentguide.com.
Work with a real estate broker or property management firm. If you’re moving to a new city, these may be your best options. Be sure to check out fees. In New York City, where many property owners list their rentals exclusively with real estate brokers, you can expect to pay a fee that is tied to the rent (for example, 15% of the first year’s rent) or a flat fee of $1,000 or more for a rental.
Check out university and corporate housing offices. Professors leaving on sabbatical and corporate employees who are temporarily transferred are often anxious to rent their homes for a year or more. University housing services and corporations sometimes maintain databases to help them in their leasing efforts.
Hit the streets. Walk, bike, or drive around the neighborhood you want to live in and look for “Apartment for Rent” signs in windows or notices on local bulletin boards. These rentals can be great finds—especially if they’re not advertised elsewhere, reducing the competition. If you want to live in a particular apartment building or complex but there’s no sign posted, stop and talk to the manager or doorman. Get on a waiting list, if possible.
Spread the word on your rental search. Consider posting your own “Apartment Wanted” sign (and maybe even offer a finder’s fee) in a local store, health club, yoga studio, laundromat, or other business; or put a classified ad in a local newspaper or newsletter.
Try not to compromise. If you can at all help it, don’t move into a place that’s a complete disaster, next to a drug house, or run by a landlord who is well known by the housing inspectors and the local legal aid office. Even if you consider it temporary, try not to settle for a questionable place. Keep looking.
Take your time. Unless you’re positive that you’ve found your dream rental (and there are eager would-be tenants lined up behind you), don’t commit yourself on the spot. Take some time, even a few hours, to think about it. Were there any little, nagging misgivings that need to be faced and resolved? For example, what about the manager’s offhand remark about his tenants’ private lives that, viewed in retrospect, may spell trouble ahead? Often a return visit, or candidly sharing your doubts with a wise friend, can bring important issues to the fore. You don’t want to look back later and say, “I should have seen it coming.”
How to Find a Roommate
You may want to find an apartment where current tenants need a roommate, or you may be looking for a roommate to share a rental. In addition to your own personal networks, there are several sources for finding roommates, including Craigslist and university housing offices. You may also want to check out roommate sites, such as www.roomster.com and www.roommates.com. Check online under “Roommate Assistance or Referral Services” for others. Many services will screen and match compatible roommates, based on detailed questionnaires you complete. See Chapter 6 for advice on renting with roommates.
How to Impress Prospective Landlords
To gain a competitive edge over other tenants, bring a completed rental application when you first meet prospective landlords. You can find a downloadable rental application form at www.nolo.com. Or you can simply bring the following information:
Written references from landlords, employers, friends, and colleagues. If that’s not possible, be sure to bring a typed list of current phone numbers and addresses. It’s always a good idea to alert references to expect a call from prospective landlords. And make sure they’ll speak well of you.
A signed release from you giving permission to these references to answer the landlord’s relevant questions.
A current copy of your credit report. You can order one from any of the major credit bureaus.
Be on your best “good tenant” behavior. Show up on time, dress neatly, and present yourself as someone who is both conscientious and agreeable. Realize that landlords hate dealing with overly demanding or fussy tenants who constantly complain about trivial things, so don’t start off asking for a long list of improvements and special favors before you’re even offered the place.
Greasing the Wheels Can Get Messy
If you’re looking for a home in a tight rental market, you might be tempted to improve your chances over the many other applicants by offering to pay more rent, prepay rent, pay more security deposit, or do maintenance chores. Tenants have been known to barter all kinds of deals, including the offer of airline or sports tickets and attractive merchandise. If you engage in creative bribery, be aware of some realities:
Waiving your rights might set the stage for having them trampled in the future. If you offer a higher security deposit than the law allows or agree to under-the-table rent in violation of a rent control ordinance, you’ve sent a signal that you are willing to overlook the law. If you later want to assert other rights (such as your right to basic repairs and maintenance), don’t be surprised if your landlord ignores your wishes—she’ll figure that if you were willing to waive legal protections once, you can be talked out of these, too.
Offering carrots now might make the landlord expect more. You obviously don’t want to continue to bribe the landlord every time you make a reasonable request. But once wooed, he may continue to expect “deal sweeteners.” This could get expensive.
Choosing tenants based on the quality of their gifts is no way to run a business. The best landlords are the ones who choose the best tenants—those who are responsible, considerate, and law-abiding. If you live in a multiunit building, these are the best neighbors for you, too. Chances are you’d rather live next door to someone who got the place because she came with great references and not because she could come up with six months’ prepaid rent. Beware a landlord who hasn’t learned this lesson.
To clinch the deal on a great place, you may need to sweeten the pot—for example, by offering to pay more rent or a higher security deposit. Be aware of the possible downsides of this strategy. (See “Greasing the Wheels Can Get Messy,” above.)
Rules to Rent By
Be prepared. Get a copy of your credit report, and check it for accuracy (and press for corrections if necessary) before your prospective landlord lays his eyes on it. Develop plausible explanations for damaging entries if possible. Get your references lined up before you start apartment hunting. Make sure that your roommates do the same.
Be creative. Besides Craigslist, look for rentals in newsletters, on bulletin boards, and anyplace else you can think of. Tap into all your contacts and social networks to find unadvertised rentals.
Be choosy. Don’t be in a rush, and check out the landlord, the rental unit, the neighbors, and the neighborhood by asking current tenants what it’s like to live there.
Be realistic. Don’t take on a rent that will cripple your social life or make it impossible to make other necessary expenditures.
Be a negotiator. Follow our tips throughout this book on how to negotiate more favorable terms at the start of your tenancy—for example, a lower security deposit.
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