Don't Rent a Place Without It!

Every Tenant's Legal Guide

Renters have many legal rights — learn yours and how to protect them!

Protect your rights as a renter, no matter what state you live in. Every Tenant's Legal Guide gives you the legal and practical information you need to deal with your landlord and other tenants. Find plain-English explanations on how to:

  • negotiate a lease or rental agreement
  • understand key rules on rent increases, privacy, and deposits
  • break a lease with minimum financial liability

See below for a full product description.

 

Available as part of the Nolo's Tenant's Law Bundle

  • Product Details
  • The only book of its kind, Every Tenant's Legal Guide gives you the legal and practical information you need (plus dozens of sample letters and forms) to find and keep a great home and landlord. Learn your rights -- whether it comes to pets, guests, deposits, or privacy -- and find out how to:

    • get repairs and use rent withholding or repair-and-deduct if you have to
    • avoid disputes with roommates over rent, deposits, guests, and noise
    • fight illegal discrimination, retaliation, or sexual harassment
    • navigate state and local rent control laws
    • deal with hazards like lead paint, mold or bedbugs
    • break a lease with minimum liability, and
    • get your security deposit returned on time.

    The 10th edition of Every Tenant’s Legal Guide includes charts with the details on landlord-tenant laws. This edition also includes information on how to research and handle pandemic-related issues such as eviction bans and lease amendments.

    "Virtually every book from Nolo can be highly recommended without reservations. This book is no exception."-Chicago Tribune

    “The most comprehensive resource for renters, especially those with complex legal problems.” - Orlando Sentinel

    "Don't let the title Every Tenant's Legal Guide mislead you. Although this superb book is written primarily for residential tenants, landlords should also read it for its valuable information."-Oakland Tribune

    ISBN
    9781413328561
    Number of Pages
    488
    Included Forms

    Looking for a place to rent

    • Rental Priorities Worksheet
    • Apartment-Finding Service Checklist
    • Rental Application

    Applying for a rental and moving in

    • Consent to Background and Reference Check
    • Receipt and Holding Deposit Agreement
    • Landlord-Tenant Checklist
    • Agreement Regarding Tenant Improvements to Rental Unit
    • Amendment to Lease or Rental Agreement

    Moving out and getting your deposit back

    • Tenant's Notice of Intent to Move Out
    • Termination of Lease
    • Consent to Assignment of Lease
    • Demand for Return of Security Deposit
  • About the Author
    • Janet Portman, Attorney

      Janet Portman joined Nolo in 1994 and is the Executive Editor. She has a Bachelor’s degree (Honors Humanities, Phi Beta Kappa) and Master’s degree (Religious Studies) from Stanford University, and a law degree from Santa Clara University of Law. Her first job was with the California State Public Defender, where she handled criminal appeals for indigent clients and spent six months trying cases for the Alameda County Public Defender. She successfully argued a case before the California Supreme Court. (People v. Woodard, 23 Cal.3d 329 (1979).) Janet is an active member of the California State Bar.

      Work at Nolo. After taking some time away from the law to raise her family, Janet joined Nolo as part of the team writing the company’s first national landlord-tenant book, Every Landlord’s Legal Guide. She has authored or coauthored many books since then: Every Landlord's Guide to Finding Great Tenants, Every Tenant's Legal Guide, Renters' Rights, Negotiate the Best Lease for Your Business, Leases & Rental Agreements, The California Landlord's Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities, and California Tenants' Rights.  Drawing on her days as a “PD,” Janet also contributes to the criminal law sections of Nolo’s websites.

      Janet has contributed commentary to major media outlets such as MSNBC, CNN, Kiplinger’s, and The New York Times. For many years she was a nationally-syndicated columnist, writing “Rent It Right” every week.

      Why Nolo? Joining Nolo was a natural next step after the public defender’s office. Janet went from helping indigent criminal defendants to educating people about everyday civil law—how to understand it, apply it, and stay away from entanglements in the court system. She takes pride in writing books for both landlords and tenants, without bias. The best compliment she ever received came from a landlord who, having read Every Tenant's Legal Guide, said, “I wish all my tenants would read this—I’d have way fewer problems!”

    • Marcia Stewart

      Marcia Stewart writes and edits Nolo books and forms on landlord-tenant law, real estate, and other consumer issues. She is the co-author of Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, Every Landlord's Legal Guide, First-Time Landlord, Every Tenant's Legal Guide, Leases and Rental Agreements, Renters' Rights, and The Legal Answer Book for Families. She has edited dozens of Nolo books, including The Women's Small Business Start-Up Kit.

  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Your Tenant Companion

    1. Finding a Place to Rent

    • Setting Your Rental Priorities
    • How to Find Available Rentals
    • Visiting Prospective Rentals
    • Checking Out the Landlord and Manager
    • Checking Out Other Tenants and the Neighbors
    • Rental Applications and Credit Reports
    • Covid-19 and Your Credit
    • How Landlords Reject Tenants
    • Finder's Fees and Holding Deposits
    • Choosing Roommates

    2. Leases and Rental Agreements

    • How Leases and Rental Agreements Differ
    • Oral Leases and Rental Agreements
    • Typical Provisions in Leases and Rental Agreements
    • Negotiating With the Landlord
    • Changing a Lease or Rental Agreement
    • Signing a Lease or Rental Agreement
    • Cosigners

    3. Basic Rent Rules

    • How Much Can Your Landlord Charge?
    • Rent Control
    • When Is Your Rent Due?
    • Grace Periods for Late Rent
    • Where and How Rent Is Due
    • Late Charges and Discounts for Early Payments
    • Returned Check Charges
    • Negotiating Partial or Delayed Rent Payments
    • Rent Increases
    • Talking the Landlord Out of a Rent Increase

    4. Security Deposits

    • Dollar Limits on Deposits
    • How Landlords May Increase Deposits
    • Last Month's Rent
    • Nonrefundable Deposits and Fees
    • Interest on Deposits and Separate Accounts
    • How Landlords May Use the Deposit
    • If Your Landlord Sells the Property

    5. Discrimination

    • Federal Law vs. State Law
    • Kinds of Discrimination Prohibited by Federal Laws
    • Kinds of Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law
    • How to Fight Back

    6. Inspecting the Rental Unit and Moving In

    • How to Inspect the Rental Unit
    • Photographing the Rental Unit
    • How to Handle Problems
    • Clarifying Important Terms of the Tenancy
    • Organizing Your Rental Records
    • Using Email or Text Messages for Notice or a Letter of Understanding

    7. Roommates, Guests, and Airbnb

    • Renting a Place With Others
    • Adding a New Roommate
    • Guests
    • Tenant Rights to Use Airbnb and Similar Vacation Rental Services
    • Taking In a Roomer

    8. Major Repairs and Maintenance

    • Your Basic Right to Livable Premises
    • State Laws and Local Housing Codes
    • Court-Imposed Rules
    • Your Repair and Maintenance Responsibilities
    • Making Tenants Responsible for Repairs
    • How to Get Action From Your Landlord
    • What to Do If the Landlord Won't Make Repairs

    9. Minor Repairs and Maintenance

    • Minor Repairs: What Are They?
    • Sources of the Landlord's Responsibilities
    • Tenant Responsibilities
    • Getting the Landlord to Make Minor Repairs
    • Making Minor Repairs Yourself

    10. Making Improvements and Alterations

    • Improvements That Become Part of the Property
    • Improving Your Rental Unit Without Enriching Your Landlord
    • Cable TV Access
    • Satellite Dishes and Other Antennas

    11. Your Right to Privacy

    • Entry by the Landlord
    • Entry by Others
    • Other Invasions of Privacy
    • What to Do About Invasions of Privacy

    12. Injuries on the Premises

    • What to Do If You're Injured
    • Is the Landlord Liable?
    • If You're at Fault, Too
    • How Much Money You're Entitled To

    13. Environmental Hazards

    • Asbestos
    • Lead
    • Radon
    • Carbon Monoxide
    • Mold
    • Bed Bugs

    14. Crime on the Premises

    • The Landlord's Basic Duty to Keep You Safe
    • Problems With Other Tenants
    • Illegal Activity on the Property and Nearby
    • Getting Results From the Landlord
    • Protecting Yourself

    15. How Tenancies End or Change

    • Changing Terms During Your Tenancy
    • How Month-to-Month Tenancies End
    • How Fixed-Term Leases End
    • Retaliation and Other Illegal Tenancy Terminations
    • How to Stay When Your Landlord Wants You Out
    • Getting Out of a Lease
    • Condominium Conversions
    • If the Landlord Sells or Goes Out of Business
    • If the Landlord Declares Bankruptcy
    • If the Rental Property Is Foreclosed

    16. Moving Out and Getting Your Security Deposit Back

    • Basic Rules for Returning Deposits
    • Deductions for Cleaning and Damage
    • Deductions for Unpaid Rent
    • Avoiding Fights Over Deposits
    • Security Deposits From Cotenants
    • How to Handle Deposit Disputes
    • Suing Your Landlord in Small Claims Court
    • If Your Deposit Doesn't Cover What You Owe
    • Your Abandoned Property

    17. Termination Notices Based on Nonpayment of Rent and Other Illegal Acts

    • Termination Notices
    • Other Violations of the Lease or Rental Agreement
    • Violations of Your Legal Responsibilities as a Tenant
    • Illegal Activity on the Premises
    • Negotiating With the Landlord
    • Getting Help From a Mediator
    • Refusing to Move Out
    • Cutting Your Losses and Moving

    18. Evictions

    • When to Fight -- And When to Move
    • Illegal "Self-Help" Evictions
    • How Eviction Lawsuits Work
    • Stopping Eviction by Filing for Bankruptcy

    19. Resolving Problems Without a Lawyer

    • How to Negotiate a Settlement
    • Using a Mediator
    • Suing in Small Claims Court
    • Tenants Working Together

    20. Lawyers and Legal Research

    • How a Lawyer Can Help You
    • Finding a Good Lawyer
    • Fee Arrangements With Lawyers
    • Resolving Problems With Your Lawyer
    • Doing Your Own Legal Research

    Appendixes

    A. State Landlord-Tenant Law Charts

    B. How to Use the Downloadable Forms on the Nolo Website

    • Editing RTFs
    • List of Forms Available on the Nolo Website

    Index

  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 1
    Finding a Place to Rent

    Setting Your Rental Priorities

    How to Find an Apartment or House for Rent

    Personal Contacts

    Online Apartment and Rental Listings

    Pound the Pavement

    Classified Ads

    Advertising Yourself to Landlords

    Real Estate Brokers

    Management Companies

    University, Alumni, and Corporate Housing Offices

    Visiting Prospective Rentals

    Checking Out the Landlord and Manager

    Ask Current Tenants

    Ask Neighbors in Nearby Buildings

    Check Out ApartmentRatings.com

    Google the Landlord or Manager

    Check for Any Notices of Default

    Checking Out Other Tenants and the Neighbors

    Rental Applications and Credit Reports

    Rental Applications

    The Importance of Your Credit History

    COVID-19 and Your Credit

    How Landlords Reject Tenants

    Permissible Reasons for Rejecting Tenants

    What Landlords Must Tell You

    Illegal Discrimination

    Finder’s Fees and Holding Deposits

    Finder’s Fees

    Holding Deposits

    Choosing Roommates

    A good apartment or house should provide more than shelter, warmth, and a place to lay your head; it should be a true home. Yet many people make bad choices—they spend too much money in rent; pick the wrong location, landlord, or neighbors; or settling on a place that’s too small, dreary, noisy, unsafe, or in bad shape. Although it’s harder to find a good rental at a reasonable rate in tight rental markets, it’s still possible to find decent housing.

    Finding a solid rental is rarely a lucky accident. You can take specific steps to find an apartment or house that meets your needs and budget. Perhaps the most important is to take your time. One of the worst—and most costly—mistakes you can make is to sign a lease or put down a hefty deposit at the end of a long, frustrating day of apartment-hunting, only to realize later that the place is completely unsuitable. Even if it means staying with friends for a few weeks, finding a short-term rental or house-sitting arrangement, giving yourself more time to examine what's out there might be well worth it.

    Whether you’re looking for your first or tenth rental, living by yourself or with others, this chapter shows you how to find a good place to live within your price range, by:

    • setting clear priorities before you start looking for a place to rent
    • using a variety of resources to tap into available rentals, and
    • beating the competition by pulling together the information landlords want to see—good references and credit information—before you visit prospective rentals.

    This chapter also explains your legal rights and responsibilities regarding the rental application process, credit reports, credit-check fees, and holding deposits. (For details on antidiscrimination laws that limit what landlords can say and do in the tenant selection process, see Chapter 5.)

     


    Related Topic

    Preparing for a move. If you’re moving from one rental to another, be sure you understand all the legal and practical rules for ending a tenancy, getting your deposit returned, and moving out. See Chapters 15 and 16 for details.

    Check Your Credit Rating Before You Start Your Housing Search

    Your credit report contains a wealth of information that landlords use to evaluate tenants—for example, many reports list bankruptcy filings, uncollected child support, and unpaid debts that have been reported to the credit reporting agency. The report will also reflect favorable information, such as your ability to pay your card balances and other debts on time. To make sure your credit report is accurate—or to give yourself time to clean it up if there are problems or errors—get a copy of your report before you start looking. “Rental Applications and Credit Reports,” below, provides complete details.

    Setting Your Rental Priorities

    While most people start their housing search with some general idea of how much they can afford to pay, where they want to live, and how big a place they need, that doesn’t guarantee good results. The best way to find an excellent rental home is to set specific guidelines in advance, being realistic, of course, about your budget and what’s available for rent.

    Here’s our approach to finding a rental house or apartment you can afford and will enjoy living in:

    Step 1: Establish priorities. Know your maximum rent, desired location, and ideal number of bedrooms before you start looking. If you’re renting with one or more other people, make sure you agree on the basics. The list “Rental Priorities,” below, suggests factors to consider.

    Step 2: Rate your priorities with a Rental Priorities Worksheet. Once you’ve set your priorities, rank your priorities. Designate the “must-haves” of your future rental, and be realistic about what would be “nice to have.” To make this simple, we’ve prepared a Rental Priorities Worksheet, shown below. There’s space for you to write down the “must-haves,” “nice-to-haves,” and your absolute deal killers. Don’t limit yourself too much: try to have only one or two mandatory criteria. Avoiding things you hate—for example, a high-crime area or noisy neighborhood—might be just as important as finding a place that meets all your mandatory priorities.

     

     


    Form

    The Nolo website includes a downloadable copy of the Rental Priorities Worksheet. See Appendix B for the link to the forms in this book.

    Step 3: Prepare your Rental Priorities Worksheet. Once you complete the priorities section of the Worksheet, save it to your smartphone or tablet, or make several copies for use when looking at apartments or rental houses.

    Step 4: View potential rentals. Complete a Worksheet for each rental unit you’re seriously considering, as follows:

    • Enter the address, contact person, phone number, email, rent, deposit, term (month-to-month or year lease), and other key information on the top of the form.
    • As you walk around the rental unit and talk with the landlord or manager, indicate the pluses and minuses and the mandatory and secondary priorities (as well as “no ways”) that apply.
    • Make notes next to a particular feature that can be changed to meet your needs—for example, “Rent is high, but space is fine for an extra roommate.”
    • Jot down additional features in the section for Other Comments, such as “Neighbors seem very friendly” or “Tiny yard for kids to play, but great park is just a block away.”

    Step 5: If at all possible (but it may not be, especially in tight rental markets), insist that any apartment or house meets at least your most important priorities.

    Check Out the Lease or Rental Agreement Before Deciding

    Leases and rental agreements cover many issues, such as the amount of rent and deposits, length of the tenancy, number of tenants, and pets. In addition, some rental agreements might include provisions that you find unacceptable—for example, restrictions on guests, design alterations, or the use of an apartment for your home business. Ask for a copy of the lease or rental agreement early on, so you are not reading it for the first time with a pen in your hand. Be sure to read Chapter 2 for details on leases and rental agreements and how to negotiate terms before you sign on the dotted line.

     

    How to Find Available Rentals

    As you begin your search, you’ll need to be realistic about your time and financial constraints and how they will influence your search. For example, the housing search of a well-paid couple with money in the bank who wants to move to a bigger apartment sometime in the next six months should differ tremendously from that of a graduate student on a limited budget with a small child who has only a few weeks to find a place before school starts.

    How you go about finding available rentals will also depend on other factors, most importantly where you want to live and whether you want a lease for a year or more or prefer a month-to-month rental agreement. In some cities, Craigslist is your best resource. In others, you might want to work with a real estate broker. In all areas, it always makes sense to assertively and creatively use your own personal contacts and networks. Of course, the tighter the rental market you face, the more important it will be to pursue as many search options as possible. Here’s a rundown of your choices.

    Rental Priorities

    When you’re making your list of priorities, consider these issues:

    Rent

    Figure out the maximum you can afford to pay. Be sure to include additional costs, such as utilities, Internet, parking. As a broad generalization, you probably don’t want to spend more than 25% to 35% of your monthly take-home pay on housing, but this will obviously depend on your expenses. Be careful about overspending—you don’t want to live in a penthouse if it means you need to eat popcorn for dinner every night.

    Deposits

    Depending on state law and landlord practices, you may need to pay as much as two months’ rent as a security deposit. (Chapter 4 covers security deposits.) If you have limited cash to pay deposits and other up-front fees, include the maximum you can pay in the "Mandatory Priorities" list on your worksheet.

    Location and Neighborhood

    Where you live is often more important than the size and amenities of the unit you rent. If you know the exact area you want, list it. If you don’t, think of what attributes your ideal neighborhood would have. For example, if being able to walk to restaurants is important, don't rent an apartment in a car-dependent suburb.

    Schools

    If you have school-age children, the proximity and quality of local schools are very important considerations. If you’re new to the area, try contacting your state department of education. It should be able to provide data for individual schools and districts, including academic test scores, enrollment figures, racial and ethnic information, and even dropout rates. Your next step is to call (and visit, if possible)  local schools and school districts to learn about class size, class offerings, instructional practices, and services. Finally, check out resources such as newspaper articles about the local school board or PTA  meeting minutes, and online ranking and review.

    Work or School Commute

    If you commute to work or school, note the maximum times or distance you're willing to travel each day.

    Ability to Run a Business From Home

    If you’re planning to run a business from home, make sure local law or landlord policies don’t prohibit your home-based business. See Chapter 2 for more information on this topic.

    Public Transit

    Do you need to be close to a bus line, subway, train, or airport? Write it down.

    Pets

    If you have a dog, cat, or other pet, you’ll need to make sure the landlord allows pets. (See Chapter 2 for suggestions on how to negotiate with landlords who don’t normally allow pets.)

    Number of Tenants

    If you want to live with an unusually large number of people, you must make sure the landlord will allow it. (Chapter 5 discusses occupancy standards many landlords set, limiting the number of tenants in a particular rental unit.)

    Rental Term

    Do you want the flexibility of a short-term rental agreement, or the security of a long-term lease? (Chapter 2 discusses the pros and cons of leases and rental agreements. Also, Chapter 15 discusses sublets, which may be a short-term rental option.)

    Move-In Date

    If you need a place immediately, write “Must be available now” in your priority list. But don’t be too quick to pass up a great place that’s not available for several weeks. It might be worth it to get a short-term rental for the interim. Also, if a fantastic apartment is available now, but you have to give 30 days’ notice on your current place, it might be worth paying double rent for a while rather than give up a terrific apartment.

    Number and Type of Rooms

    How many bedrooms, baths, or other rooms do you need? Do you need suitable space for your home office? Is a finished basement important? Is a modern kitchen with lots of counter space and good light ideal? How about a large living room for entertaining? List what you can’t live without.

    Furnishings

    If you want something completely furnished, make this a priority. Remember, however, you can always rent furniture yourself if you can’t find a furnished apartment—in fact, it might be cheaper. A few calls to local furniture rental places will quickly give you the information you need.

    Other Interior Needs

    Other priorities may include good space separation for roommates, a fireplace, lots of closets, air conditioning, or laundry facilities in the building. Check the services available within the unit—for example, does your cellphone have good reception? What type of internet service is available? If you have a disability or have special needs, and want a rental that is already compatible with your needs, mark these as priorities. (For more on rights of the disabled, see Chapter 5.)

    Type and Style of Building and Rental Unit

    Do you have a clear idea of the type of place you want to live in? One-family house, duplex, six-to-ten-unit apartment building, high-rise, or gated community? If you have your heart set on a flat in a Victorian house, a loft, a small cottage, or a modern apartment with lots of windows and a great view, note that, too.

    Security

    For many people, a top-notch security system for the building and rental unit, and parking area is important—for example, bars on all windows, a doorman or a front gate security system with intercom that allows you to screen visitors before they actually get to the front door of your apartment.

    Quiet

    If you can’t stand the idea of living on a busy street with lots of traffic or in an apartment with paper-thin walls, make this a priority.

    Yard and Outdoor Space

    If you have a large dog or want room for a garden or for kids to play, a fenced-in yard will be important. Or maybe a deck, patio, or balcony ranks high on your wish list.

    Parking

    Parking can be a critical consideration, especially if you live in an urban area. Write down how many vehicles you have and whether you need garage parking or easy street parking with no restrictions.

    Other Tenants

    You may prefer a building with certain types of tenants, such as students or families. While your landlord cannot deliberately choose tenants because they belong to these groups without asking for a fair housing lawsuit, there's no law prohibiting tenants from choosing properties that tend to be populated by distinct groups. For example, affordable housing near a college will be filled with students, and pricey buildings in spruced-up business or financial areas are likely to be peopled with older, professional types.

    Landlord and Manager

    Maybe you don’t want to share a duplex house with the landlord. Or you want a place with an on-site manager who’s always available to make repairs.

    Smoking Policies

    If you're a smoker and want to be able to smoke in your rental, make sure that it's allowed in your unit. Conversely, if you want to live in a place that's free of odors, smoke stains, and secondhand smoke make it a priority.

    Purchase Potential

    If you want to move into a rental you can eventually buy, such as a condo, co-op, or lease-option-to-buy house, investigate this from the start. This book does not cover these options, so you’ll need to do additional research for advice on these subjects.

     

    Personal Contacts

    If you know people who live or work near where you want to live, ask them for leads. Using personal contacts as housing scouts can be quite effective, because when people plan to move, friends, neighbors, and business associates almost always know about it before a for-rent sign goes up.

    Prepare a brief description of exactly what you want (your rental priorities). Send this to friends, coworkers, and your social media networks. Don’t forget local businesspeople with whom you have a friendly relationship—doctors, shopkeepers, lawyers, and insurance brokers may all have good leads for available rentals. If your company has an internal online employee portal, get the word out this way. Let as many people know of your housing search as possible. You never know who may come through with the perfect apartment.

    See the sample Apartment-Hunting Note, below, for a good way to describe your housing needs and priorities. This Sample Apartment-Hunting Note is for a couple with professional jobs and excellent credit and references, who are looking in a moderately-priced rental market in northern New Jersey. If you are in your 20s and just out of college, have a limited budget, and are looking in an expensive and tight rental market, a detailed note like this to a handful of friends probably won’t do the trick. Getting the word out on social media (“Help! I need a one-bedroom apartment that allows cats, in North Oakland by May 1, maximum $1,500 per month.”) might be your best bet.

    If you decide to offer a reward, such as a $50 restaurant gift certificate to the person who finds you the apartment you end up renting, mention this in your apartment-hunting note.

    Sample Apartment-Hunting Note

    Dear Friends:

    We’re in the market for a new apartment and hope you can help. We’re looking for a three-bedroom, two-bath place near the university. We can afford up to $3,000 per month. We’d like to move within the next few months, but definitely by April 1 when Hannah starts her new job in New Brunswick.

    It is important that the apartment be light and airy, in good condition and in a secure building (doorman preferred). We love to cook, so a decent kitchen is a must. Hardwood floors and a fireplace would be great. We don’t have any pets but are thinking of getting a cat in the future, so we’d like a place that allows pets.

    We have always been good tenants and can provide excellent references and credit.

    If you hear about a rental unit that seems likely, please call or text Hannah's cell at (609-555-3789) or shoot us an email.

    Dennis@work.com

    Hannah@work.com

    Thanks so much for your help!

    Regards,

    Dennis Olson and Hannah Silver

     

    Online Apartment and Rental Listings

    For many tenants, Craigslist.org will be the best place to find an apartment or rental housing. It's free for both landlords and tenants.

    Local online services might also be available. Some services, such as Apartable.com, focus on large metro areas. If you’re looking for a rental in a major city, ask around to see what websites are most commonly used.

    There are also many websites that offer national listings for small and large towns alike, including:

    • Zillow.com
    • Hotpads.com (a Zillow company)
    • Zumper.com
    •  Aprtments.com
    • ApartmentGuide.com
    • ForRent.com, and
    • Rent.com

    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.

    Another online option is to see if the area you’re looking in has a presence on social media. Many communities have designated Facebook groups for rentals. You might also check out Nextdoor.com to see if any owners in the area have posted their property for rent (real estate agents are not allowed to post on Nextdoor.com).


    CAUTION   Before you use any online apartment rental service, make sure it’s reputable.

    Check how long the company has been in business, who owns it, and how they handle problems with apartment listings. Check for any consumer complaints, and avoid paying any hefty fees without thoroughly checking out a company and its services.


    If you respond to any online listings (especially those on craigslist), be on the lookout for scams. If there are no images or information on the rental location, or the place sounds too good to be true, be wary. In all cases, be cautious about giving out personal identifying information, such as your Social Security number and even your phone number, before you’re reasonably sure that there’s no shady business going on. While the majority of advertisers are legit, a few use these services for scams and worse. Arrange to talk with the owner or property manager before you view the rental; once you’re comfortable, you can proceed with an application.

    Pound the Pavement

    In addition to enlisting the help of friends, you can do much looking on your own. In some neighborhoods, landlords simply post “Apartment For Rent” signs in front of the building or in one of the windows. Others put notices on neighborhood bulletin boards, such as the local laundromat or coffee shop.

    Many tenants find great apartments or houses to rent by posting their own “Apartment Wanted” signs (sometimes offering a finder’s fee) in local stores or businesses, such as a dance studio, a health club, or even an auto repair shop.

    If you want to live in a particular apartment building or complex, but there’s no sign listed, stop by anyway and talk to the manager. If there’s no onsite manager, check for signage with contact information near the building’s entrance. Also, try to talk with some of the other tenants. You might get a good lead on someone who’s planning to move soon.

    Classified Ads

    Many landlords in smaller cities advertise their rental units in the newspaper real estate classified ads. The largest section usually runs in the Sunday paper. The classifieds are usually organized by city or neighborhood and include basic information such as rent, location, number of bedrooms and baths, and any special features such as a fireplace or view.

    Get early editions of papers (for example, Sunday papers are available late Friday night in some areas) and start calling as soon as possible to get a jump on the competition. Better yet, go online. Many papers post their classifieds before the information hits the streets.

     


    Related Topic

    Illegal ads. Classified ads run by landlords should never mention sex, race, religion, disability, or age (unless the rental is really legally sanctioned senior citizens housing). Chapter 5 discusses the topic of discriminatory advertising.

    Advertising Yourself to Landlords

    While the Internet is full of websites that landlords use to post rentals, only a few offer the opposite service: Letting people who are searching for a rental describe themselves, their needs, and their price range, hoping that a landlord in the area will see their post and contact them.

    Craigslist offers this service, and their pages are chock-full of posts that run the gamut from sophisticated to self-defeating. If you decide to place an ad for yourself in this manner, follow the tips below. They’re geared to these twin goals:

    • giving a potential landlord relevant information about your needs and nature, so that the landlord doesn’t waste time calling someone who isn’t suited for the rental—and you don’t waste time taking these calls, and
    • painting an accurate picture of yourself that fits every landlord’s search for tenants who are stable, clean, and honest.

    With these goals in mind, design your ad as follows:

    • Describe what you’re looking for, but resist listing all of your “must-haves.” You’re likely to appear as a demanding tenant (a landlord’s worst nightmare).
    • Describe your job, your interests, and how you spend your free time carefully. Any activities that spell “property damage” or “party animal” might backfire. You’d be surprised at how many tenant-advertisers describe their love of alcohol and music (without mentioning that they use earbuds).
    • Don’t play the sympathy card. You might be down on your luck, but don’t expect landlords to choose you because they feel sorry for you. Instead, emphasize the positive—your respect for your neighbors, longevity at your current rental, and so on.

    Use a new and dedicated email account for your posting. That way, you will avoid having your main inbox flooded with spam.

     

    What the Words Really Mean

    With online ads, as with print ads, you need to watch for misleading statements or just plain puffery. We took a look at ads for rentals in the Bay Area and came up with this gem for a Marin County apartment:

    Closest train: BART

    Distance to train: More than 5-minute drive.

    Nearest highway: 101 Freeway

    Distance to nearest highway: Less than 5-minute drive.

    The real story: The closest BART station is in the next county, over a bridge that has poor public transit—more like an hour’s trip on the bus. The freeway is, indeed, less than five minutes away—it’s directly across the street!

     

     


    Tip

    Looking for a pet-friendly rental? Go to a local park or veterinarian’s office and talk to people with animals. They may have some good leads. Also, check out www.humanesociety.org (search “renting with pets”). They provide helpful advice on how to put your best paw forward, with links to sites listing animal-friendly apartments.

    Real Estate Brokers

    Some local real estate offices, especially in large cities, also handle rental properties. If you’re moving into a new area, especially someplace like New York City, or have limited time to apartment-hunt, real estate brokers can be very useful. A good broker should do lots of legwork for you. The more prepared you are (by setting priorities as we discuss above), the more helpful a broker can be.

    As with apartment-finding services, choose your broker carefully:

    • Get full information about all fees, which can be quite hefty. In New York City, for example, real estate brokers often charge either 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. Sometimes the property owner covers the real estate broker’s fee, but typically the tenant pays.

     


    CAUTION

    Avoid brokers who try to pressure you into paying their fee before you sign a lease or rental agreement. Don’t pay until the deal is final.

    • Ask about the type and exclusivity of the broker’s listings. Why pay a hefty fee if you can find the same place through Craigslist, or for a lower price through an apartment-finding service? And don’t waste your time with a broker whose properties don’t meet your needs as to neighborhood, type of unit, or budget.
    • Choose a broker with lots of experience and a good reputation. The best way to do this is through recommendations from people who have used the particular broker in the last few years and whose judgment you trust. Interview a few brokers and ask a lot of questions about their services, how long they’ve been in business, and their knowledge of the area. Be sure to check Yelp reviews and see if any complaints are on file with the Better Business Bureau.

    Management Companies

    Property management companies often contract with landlords to rent units and manage all aspects of the rental property. In many areas, a handful of management companies control a significant number of rental properties. You can find the names of the bigger companies just by driving around and looking at signs posted outside apartment buildings. Or, search online for property managers in the area.

    You can usually approach management companies directly. Ask for a list of their currently available or upcoming rentals.

     


    Tip

    Beat the competition by getting on a waiting list. If you want to rent in a particular big complex and you have a little time, you may be able to prequalify and get on a waiting list for the next available rental unit. To convince the landlord to screen you now (and to allay his fears that he would be wasting his time because you’ll probably end up living elsewhere before he has a vacancy), assure him that you are in no hurry and are not considering other properties.

    University, Alumni, and Corporate Housing Offices

    College housing offices can be an excellent source of rentals. If you want a short-term rental, you can often find places that never appear on Craigslist— for example, the home of a professor who’s going on sabbatical for six months. If you’re not affiliated with a university, try to find someone who is. The same holds true for housing offices available to employees of local corporations. And don’t forget to check out your college alumni association. It might also provide information on rentals in the area (or you can contact fellow alumni for leads).

    Renting a Place When
    You’re New in Town

    If you’re completely unfamiliar with the area you’re moving to, you’re at an obvious and serious disadvantage —you simply don’t have the basic information normally considered essential to locating a good place in a congenial location at a fair price. Your HR office at work or college housing office are good places to start. Also, check online community resources and websites such as www.streetadvisor.com and City-Data.com for street, neighborhood, and city reviews.

    But there’s no substitute for your own legwork. Ask your friends and colleagues, walk and drive around neighborhoods, talk to local residents and shop owners, read local newspapers, check the library’s community resources file, visit the local planning department and chamber of commerce, and do whatever else will help you get a better sense of a neighborhood or city. Also, a good real estate broker can be invaluable.

    If you’re in a hurry to move, one sensible alternative is to leave your furniture in storage and stay in a hotel or take a short-term furnished rental. Check out Airbnb, VRBO, and similar services for good leads. While finding a temporary rental means moving twice, it’s far better than settling on an apartment or area that’s not to your taste.

    Visiting Prospective Rentals

    Everyone needs a home-hunting strategy—whether you make an appointment to see an apartment by yourself or attend an open house with dozens of others. Here are some basic tips:

    Visit promising rentals as soon as they come on the market. Especially in college towns and popular neighborhoods, apartments and rental houses move fast. If a place sounds good, schedule a visit as soon as it’s listed.

    Be prepared. Come equipped with your own handy-dandy apartment-hunter’s kit. Include a street map, notebook, pen or pencil, pocket calculator, tape measure (to make sure the living room is big enough for your carpet), graph paper, and camera. (Ask the landlord if it’s okay to take pictures.) Your smartphone probably has everything you need. Most important, bring your Rental Priorities Worksheet as discussed above. And, don’t forget your checkbook. Some landlords might be able to accept electronic deposit payments on the spot, but most will still want an old-fashioned check to hold a rental.

    Show up with everything you need to fill out a rental application, including references and credit information. (See “Rental Applications and Credit Reports,” below, for more on these issues.)

    Be on your best “good tenant” behavior. While you’re looking at a rental unit, the landlord or manager will be looking at and evaluating you. Show up on time, dress neatly, and present yourself as being both conscientious and agreeable. Keep your love of drums to yourself.) Realize that landlords live in fear of demanding and fussy tenants who ceaselessly complain about trivial things. So while we recommend checking out the rental unit’s condition (see below) and making sure significant defects are being remedied, it’s usually a mistake to ask for a long list of upgrades and repairs before you’re even offered the place. Better to save your requests until the landlord makes you an offer. But make sure you do your essential negotiating before you sign a lease or rental agreement.

    Look around carefully for tell-tale signs of problems in the rental unit and building. While you don’t want to come across as a nit-picking housing inspector with white gloves, do keep your eyes open. Don’t broadcast your concerns (subtlety is a strong point here), but try to check as many of the following things as possible:

    • Look for obvious damage, such as loose steps, torn carpet, or shaky handrails.
    • Check for dirt, mildew, and signs of insects or rodents. (But try to overlook the sloppiness of a current tenant. Piles of dishes in the sink and mounds of clothes on the floor are only temporary.)
    • Flush the toilet and run water in the shower and sinks. Check the water temperature and pressure.
    • Make sure the windows and doors are in good shape, open and close easily, and have secure locks.
    • Walk around the building, checking out any elevators and common areas such as stairs, laundry rooms, and lobbies, as well as the parking area, garage, and yard. Again, check for general cleanliness and repair. Good lighting is especially important in common areas.
    • Ask about building and neighborhood security, especially if you have concerns about the area. Get neighborhood crime stats from the local police department. If there have been criminal incidents on the property, find out what kind and when, and what steps have been taken to provide reasonable safety to tenants and guests. If you learn later that the answers were not accurate, you may have grounds for getting out of your lease or rental agreement. Chapter 14 gives more information on your rights to a safe place to live.

    At this point, you’re just trying to get a general sense of the place. Ask yourself: Does this feel safe and comfortable? Clean and in good repair? If you decide you want the rental unit, and before you actually sign a lease or rental agreement, you will want to do a more detailed inventory of the condition of the rental unit, completing the Landlord-Tenant Checklist we recommend in Chapter 6. (You want your landlord to acknowledge any existing defects so he or she can’t blame you later for causing them.)

    If there are some minor problems, or improvements you want—for example, a new coat of paint in the living room—you may be able to negotiate with the landlord on this before you move in. (Chapter 2 shows how.) Major problems, such as lack of heat, may be the landlord’s legal responsibility to fix. (For details on housing standards and landlords’ responsibility to provide habitable housing, see Chapter 8.) Also, see Chapter 2 for information on disclosures landlords must tell prospective tenants, such as the presence of lead-based paint in the rental unit.

    Think of creative ways to use space. You might need to compromise on the number and type of rooms in exchange for a great location or lower rent. Use your imagination or check out home design books, magazines, and websites such as ApartmentTherapy.com for ideas on how to make the most of your living space. For example, you might be able to carve out a study at the end of an extra-large living room, using bookcases or screens to divide the space. Rolling carts with butcher block tops can add instant space to a kitchen with limited counters.

    Walk, drive, and/or bike around the neighborhood. If you’re not familiar with the area, check out restaurants, shops, local businesses and schools, and bus, subway, and train stops. Do this at night (ideally, by car and with a friend) as well as the daytime. You might find that the neighborhood doesn’t seem quite as safe and friendly at night as it does during the day.

    Checking Out the Landlord and Manager

    Your prospective landlord will probably check you out pretty thoroughly. Make sure you return the favor: Do the homework necessary to find out what it’s really like to live in your landlord’s building.

    Ask Current Tenants

    Visit the building after work. If you can, ask residents about pluses and minuses of living in the building. Inquire about security and noise in the building or neighborhood and if there are any problems regarding repairs and basic services such as heat and hot water. See if you can get a sense of the landlord’s personality and style of operating. An excellent indicator of whether you can expect smooth sailing is to find out how often there are vacancies in the building and, in particular, how often your prospective landlord has had to evict tenants. A low rate of turnovers and evictions suggests that tenants like living there and that the landlord has chosen considerate, law-abiding renters who will be good neighbors.

    Ask Neighbors in Nearby Buildings

    Other people and businesses in the neighborhood might know something about the reputation of the building, landlord, or manager. Ask if tenants seem to stay more than a year—if so, that’s the mark of a well-run building. By speaking with neighbors, you can confirm the truthfulness of the landlord’s or property manager’s representations, such as a claim that there have been no recent incidents requiring a police response.

    Check Out www.apartmentratings.com

    This comprehensive website has hundreds of thousands of renter reviews of individual apartments and property managers nationwide. It includes other information useful to new tenants, such as noise and safety ratings of each rental.

    Google the Landlord or Manager

    Don’t let your interest in a particular rental go too far without running a Google search on the owner and/or property manager, and even the address. Do another search of the owner’s or manager’s name— you don’t want to rent from a manager who has received multiple negative online reviews.

    Check for Any Notices of Default

    If you’re concerned about the landlord’s financial stability, find out whether the property you’re considering is the subject of a notice of default (the first public step toward foreclosure). Banks and other lenders must file these notices, in the courthouse of the county in which the property is located, when the owner has failed to make payments on a loan or mortgage for a specified number of months (two is common). Obviously, renting a property that’s liable to be foreclosed upon during your tenancy is not a good idea—even if you get to stay, you might end up with an owner (especially if it’s the bank itself) who will not be a conscientious landlord.

    Checking Out Other Tenants and the Neighbors

    Not surprisingly, many tenants are as concerned about who their potential neighbors will be as they are about the physical aspects of the prospective rental. Anyone who has lived in close proximity to others knows that a law-abiding, considerate neighbor is every bit as important as a view, a second bathroom, or a parking spot.

    If you visited the rental and had a chance to talk with other residents, you might already have a rough impression of your prospective neighbors. But depending on your situation, you might want to learn more. In particular, you might want reassurance that the tenant next door doesn’t have a dangerous criminal background. How much information can you expect to learn from your landlord and from law enforcement? In general, here’s what you can expect.

    First, there is no law requiring your landlord to investigate tenants’ criminal history. Of course, many landlords do inquire or run background checks, and most will avoid renting to those with violent criminal backgrounds. But if you ask and are told, “I have no idea,” you have no legal basis to press your landlord for more. And even if the landlord does know about a tenant’s unsavory past, no law requires disclosure (though the landlord might be held liable if you are later injured by this tenant, as the example below illustrates).

    Example: Nancy and her daughter rented an apartment from Lester. When Nancy applied for the apartment, she told Lester that she was not home in the afternoon and that her daughter would be on her own until Nancy came home from work. Nancy was concerned for her daughter’s safety and asked Lester if any of the other tenants had criminal histories or had done anything to suggest that they would act inappropriately with children.

    Lester told Nancy she had nothing to worry about from the neighbors. In fact, however, Lester knew that a downstairs tenant had a conviction, albeit an old one, for child mo- lestation. Tragically, this neighbor molested Nancy’s daughter. Nancy sued the offender and Lester, on the grounds that he knew about and failed to disclose a dangerous condition— namely, the presence of a known molester. Lester’s insurance company settled the case in Nancy’s favor for a large sum. 

    Although you cannot count on your landlord for a full answer to your questions, you might be able look online for help. Every state has a version of “Megan’s Law,” a federal law passed in 1996 and named after a young girl who was killed by a convicted child molester who lived in her neighborhood. The original law charged the FBI with keeping a nationwide database of persons convicted of sexual offenses against minors and violent sexual offenses against anyone (42 U.S.C. §§ 14701 and following). The state versions typically require certain convicted sexual offenders to register with local law enforcement officials, who keep a database on their whereabouts.

    If you are concerned about whether prospective neighbors are registered sex offenders, you can search for the rental’s address and find out if there are registered offenders within a certain distance of the address.

    To find out how to access your state’s sex offender registry, contact your local law enforcement agency, call the Parents for Megan’s Law Hotline at 888-ASK-PFML, or find the state’s sex offender registry website at www.fbi.gov/scams- and-safety/sex-offender-registry. Keep in mind that a database search might not give you accurate information. In many states, the databases are not current, or have mistaken information, which might result in both false positives and false negatives.

     


    Tip

    Concerned about too many Airbnb guests in the rental property? Many tenants rent out their apartments on a short-term basis through websites such as Airbnb. While that might be fine with you (maybe you even hope to do the same), you might not want to live someplace where lots of different people are coming and going. At any rate, be sure you know your landlord’s policies on Airbnb and common tenant practices. See Chapter 7, “Tenant Rights to Use Airbnb and Similar Vacation Rental Services,” for more on the subject.

     

    Report Deceptive Advertising

    If a rental unit is unavailable, inferior, or higher priced than advertised, contact the consumer fraud division of the local district attorney’s office. Such deceptive advertising is illegal, and many property owners have been prosecuted for such practices.

    Rental Applications and Credit Reports

    Once you find a place you like, you’re part, but not all, of the way home. First, you will probably be asked to fill out a rental application. Landlords use rental applications to screen potential tenants and select those who are likely to pay the rent on time, keep the rental in good condition, and not cause problems. Conscientious landlords will insist on checking your references and credit history before signing a lease or rental agreement. You should be happy they do so. You’ll probably have fewer problems with other tenants in the building if the landlord is strict about screening. Who wants to move into a great building where tenants are causing trouble that the landlord could have averted by proper screening?

    Rental Applications

    On most written rental applications, you must provide information about your employment, income, credit history (including any bankruptcies), and rental housing history (including evictions), as well as any criminal convictions. If you are self-employed, the landlord might require the last few years’ tax returns and other documentation of income. It’s legal to ask for your Social Security number, driver’s license number, or other identifying information (such as an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN). Except in California and New York City, landlords may also ask for proof of an applicant’s right to be in the United States under U.S. immigration laws. Under federal fair housing laws, landlords who ask for such immigration information must ask all tenants, not just those whom they suspect may be in the country illegally. It is, however, illegal to discriminate on the basis of national origin. (See Chapter 5.)

    A sample Rental Application is shown below, so that you can get an idea of the information you will need. It’s a good idea to complete this rental application and take it with you when you see a potential rental unit—that way, you can either present it to the landlord or use the information you’ve entered to fill out the landlord’s own rental application.

    Most careful landlords will make a few calls to confirm that the information you’ve supplied on the Rental Application is correct. Current and past landlords, credit sources, and employers will normally request permission from you before they’ll talk to a prospective landlord. Along with the Application, you’ll want to give your landlord a Consent to Background and Reference Check, which supplies this permission. This consent form carefully limits the information that sources are authorized to give to that pertaining only to your qualifications as a tenant. In other words, you aren’t giving the landlord carte blanche to inquire about extraneous matters, such as “Where is this fellow from?” or “Do you think there is a boyfriend in the picture?” While such irrelevant questions are often illegal (because they’re discriminatory), they’re annoying even if they’re not. Hopefully, the wording on the form will remind (or instruct) both the reference and the inquiring landlord that only tenant-related questions should be asked.

    The landlord can make copies and mail, email, or fax them to the references. A sample Consent to Background and Reference Check is shown below; note how the applicant has filled in her own information but left blank the lines for the prospective landlord’s name, the date, and her signature.

    Keep in mind that even with your consent to a reference check, you cannot force a prior landlord or an employer to provide information.


    Tip

    Fill out applications only when you’re truly interested. Don’t waste your time (or money, if the landlord charges a credit-check fee) filling out a rental application unless you really want a place. If you are interested, but still want to keep your options open, go ahead and fill out an application. Don’t worry that this will lock you into taking a place—only signing a lease or rental agreement does so.

     

    How to Impress Prospective Landlords

    Bringing the following information when you first meet prospective landlords will give you a competitive edge over other applicants:

    • a completed rental application
    • written references from landlords, employers, friends, and colleagues, and
    • current copy of your credit report.

     


    Form

    The Nolo website includes a downloadable copy of the Rental Application and the Consent to Background and Reference Check forms. See Appendix B for a link to the forms in this book.

     


    Landlord References

    Landlords usually want references from your current and previous landlords, and details on your rental history. In talking with your past landlord or manager, prospective landlords will ask the following types of questions:

    • Did you pay rent on time?
    • Were you considerate of neighbors (no loud parties; you cleaned up after your dog)?
    • Did you make any unreasonable demands or complaints?
    • Did you take good care of the rental property?
    • In general, were you a good (ideally, great) tenant?


    We hope you enjoyed this free chapter. The rest of the book is available for sale here at Nolo.com.

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    Nolo’s award-winning website has a page dedicated just to this book, where you can:

    DOWNLOAD FORMS - All forms in this book are accessible online. After purchase, you can find a link to the URL in Appendix B.

    KEEP UP TO DATE - When there are important changes to the information in this book, we will post updates

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Renters Bible

By Donna

I have not had the opportunity to fully read the entire book. As a new renter I was looking for guidelines to my rights and the rights of the landlord. Books I have purchased in the past from Nolo have always provided excellent guidance and I hope this book will provide the same

Posted on 4/20/2021

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By Anonymous

Great Resource

Posted on 4/20/2021

Worthwhile purchase

By Craig M.

Very good and precise. Helped us understand our rights in a dispute with property managers over a verbal contract.

Posted on 4/20/2021

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By KURT E.

Very interesting. I am not able to find out about breaking a lease to move in to a handicap apt. and do not have it now.

Posted on 4/20/2021

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By Emelina H.

Very helpful. I just wish it had more information about DHCR

Posted on 4/20/2021

helpful

By Amber S.

very informative.

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