Renters' Rights

Renters' Rights

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Renters' Rights

and

, 10th Edition

Get the straight-shooting guide to finding an apartment, handling problem roommates or landlords, and more. Renters' Rights is packed with the critical legal and practical information that every tenant needs, including:

  • negotiating a lease or rental agreement
  • getting repairs made
  • breaking the lease and leaving early

See below for a full product description.

Product Details

The landlord ignores your repair requests. Your roommates are once again late with their 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—or prevent them from happening at all? Turn to Renters’ Rights if you need to:

  • break a lease and leave early
  • sublet your apartment
  • deal with unwelcome landlord intrusions
  • resolve a dispute with your roommate
  • get your landlord to make repairs
  • collect your full security deposit when you move out
  • fight discrimination or retaliation, and
  • put your best foot forward when applying for a rental.

This 10th edition is completely updated to reflect changes to state laws. It also includes more details on rent control and COVID-19-related advice for renters.

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

ISBN
9781413328226
Number of Pages
320

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 books on landlord-tenant law, real estate, small business, and other consumer issues.  She is a coauthor of Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First HomeEvery Landlord's Legal Guide,  First-Time Landlord, Leases and Rental Agreements,  Every Tenant's Legal Guide, and Renters' Rights. She has edited dozens of Nolo books, including The Women's Small Business Start-Up Kit.

Table of Contents

Renters’ Rights—Your Legal Companion 

1: Play the Landlord’s Game: How to Score a Great Apartment

  • Legal and Illegal Reasons for Turning You Down
  • How to Check Out Potential Landlords
  • 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 
  • 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
  • When Landlords Can 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

5: Discrimination

  • Discrimination Prohibited by Federal Laws
  • Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law
  • How to Fight Back

6: Roommates

  • 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
  • Environmental Hazards
  • 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
  • Limits on Guests in a Pandemic Era
  • 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
  • Foreclosure

10: Getting Your Deposit Back

  • How Your Landlord Can 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

Appendixes

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 in Domestic Violence Situations
  • State Laws on Landlord’s Access to Rental Property
  • Landlord’s Duty to Rerent
  • State Laws Prohibiting Landlord Retaliation

Index

Sample Chapter

Chapter 1:
Play the Landlord’s Game: How to Score a Great Apartment

Looking for a place? No problem—as long as you have plenty of money, great references, no pets, and not too many roommates. If your reaction to this line is, “Unfortunately, that doesn’t describe me,” read on. You don’t have to be wealthy or squeaky clean to get the rental you want—just savvy.

The good news. Thanks to federal and state antidiscrimination laws, landlords are limited in what they can say and do when selecting tenants. Basically, landlords must have a legitimate business reason for turning you down, or they risk running afoul of these laws, which can create big legal trouble for them. 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 choose whomever they think will be the best, most stable tenant—ideally, someone who pays the rent on time and won’t cause any problems.

Tenant Traps

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 intense 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 when you’re applying to rent will continue to do so once you’re renting.
  • 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 might be harder than you think to get out.

Because landlords can choose tenants based on their assessment of how much maintenance the applicant might require, 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 concerns before they solidify into a rejection. And, if you live in a tight rental market—like New York City or San Francisco—you’ll need to act fast, be persistent, and be 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.

Legal and Illegal Reasons for Turning You Down

Landlords can legally set whatever criteria they want for tenants, as long as they are reasonably related to their business needs and don’t violate antidiscrimination laws. The Federal Fair Housing Acts (42 U.S.C. §§ 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 other factors, such as marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Chapter 5 discusses illegal discrimination and how to file a complaint with a fair housing agency.

A landlord may reject you for a variety of legal reasons, such as poor credit history, a debt-to-income ratio that a reasonable businessperson would deem too high to leave money for 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 illegally, 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 animals used by a person with a legal disability.) If your lifestyle conflicts with a landlord’s no-pets policy, no-smoking policy, 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.

CAUTION
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 has twice been evicted for riotous parties? A landlord who didn’t check up on you 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 (but not mere arrests). It’s legal (in most areas) 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 don’t “sound right” might 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 will be on your credit report), the landlord may legally refuse 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 gross 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 income 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. Because 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.

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, unmarried straight couples and gay and lesbian couples are not protected by antidiscrimination laws, meaning landlords can get away with these kinds of choices. (In Chapter 5, see “Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law.”) In these 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 property. If at all possible, look elsewhere.

How to Check Out Potential Landlords

Conscientious prospective landlords will 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 a prospective landlord. 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 might 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. As part of your research, check out ApartmentRatings.com. This comprehensive website is used by about 30% of apartment seekers nationwide. Along with ratings, it includes other useful information about rentals, such as estimated rents and pet policies.

Your Credit Report Can Make or Break Your Application

Many landlords consider credit reports to be a litmus test of how well you manage your 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 doesn’t cause problems. A landlord can legitimately turn you down for a bad credit report.

Fortunately, the law imposes some restraints on collecting and reporting on an individual’s credit history. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (15 U.S.C. §§ 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.)

Consumer Relief After the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic caused many consumers and businesspeople to lose their incomes, making it hard to pay their debts. In response, Congress passed the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It prohibits creditors from adverse credit reporting during the COVID-19 crisis under certain circumstances. 

Specifically, suppose your ability to pay rent was affected by the coronavirus, and you asked your landlord to defer your rent payment or even lower it. If your landlord agrees by deferring payments or modifying the rent, the landlord cannot report your account as delinquent to the credit reporting agencies, so long as you weren’t already behind on your rent payments.

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 your agency at USA.gov/state-consumer.

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 a prospective 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 the landlord actually requested your report. If not, ask for your money back; if you get no results, contact your state’s consumer protection office.

If the landlord ordered a credit report 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, address, and telephone number 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, if you ask for it within 60 days. If a landlord won’t rent to you based on what’s in your credit report, it’s a good idea to get a copy of the report and fix any incorrect items before applying to rent somewhere else. 

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.

Spotting 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 a prospective landlord sees it. That way, you can anticipate any objections and formulate your explanation, which will better your chances of convincing the landlord that your financial troubles are all in the past.

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, 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. You can get a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com.

TIP
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 when 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 might still want to order your credit report directly (some might fear that you’ve doctored your copy), it’s worth a try.

How to Handle Errors (Not Your Fault) in Your Credit Report

If you see entries in your report that are wrong, take action. All three major credit reporting agencies—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—allow you to dispute inaccurate information by going online. To start the online dispute process, go to: 

  • Equifax: www.equifax.com/personal/disputes 
  • Experian: www.experian.com/disputes, and
  • TransUnion: www.transunion.com/disputes.

You can also submit your dispute by calling the agency or sending a letter in the mail. If you send a letter, list each incorrect item and explain why it’s wrong. Under federal law, the credit bureau must investigate within 30 days (under some states’ laws, 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 doesn’t always right the situation to your complete satisfaction. 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 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 (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) 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, visit the FTC’s website (FTC.gov) and the CFPB’s website (www.consumerfinance.gov).

How to Deal With Problems (Your Fault) in Your Credit Report

If your credit file shows negative but accurate information, or if you have no credit history, take these steps to give your rental application a boost:

  • See if the prospective 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 used for you—so your willing but broke college buddy isn’t likely to be accepted.
  • Offer to pay a large security deposit (but within legal limits), 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, enrolling in a debt counseling group, a recent history of making and paying for purchases on credit, and maintaining a checking or savings account.
  • Get positive references from friends, colleagues, employers, and previous landlords.

RESOURCE
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 MoneyTroubles, by Cara O’Neill and Amy Loftsgordon (Nolo). For suggestions on how to reestablish your good credit, see Credit Repair, by Amy Loftsgordon and Cara O’Neill (Nolo). For useful articles on consumer credit and credit reports, see the Debt Management and Personal Finance sections on Nolo.com.

References Are All-Important

Your past relationships with landlords, managers, and employers can make the difference between getting a rental unit and getting a rejection. Prospective landlords will usually want to talk with your current and previous landlords, your employer, and others who know you well.

When talking to other landlords and managers, a prospective landlord might ask if you:

  • Paid rent on time?
  • Were considerate of neighbors (no loud parties, out-of-control guests, or dangerous dogs)?
  • Made unreasonable demands or complaints?
  • Took 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, a prospective landlord might ask:

  • how long you have worked at this job, and how much money you make
  • if you are a responsible person, and
  • how well you get along with coworkers.

When talking to your friends (nonrelatives), a prospective landlord might ask if you:

  • are a reliable, honest person
  • have good housekeeping habits, and 
  • are considerate of others.

A landlord can’t force you to give references. And you might not want to, particularly if your current landlord or boss is a complete jerk and will have nothing good to say about you. But if you cannot 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 the person will give a negative—but accurate—report. If you really can’t come up with references, at least have a reasonable explanation for your reticence.

Many employers and landlords refuse to act as rental references unless the prospective tenant has signed a release stating that it’s okay to answer a prospective landlord’s questions. Most of the time, this policy is based on a concern that talking about the prospective tenant without permission will result in their being sued for defamation or invasion of privacy. To head off this concern, you’ll want to provide written permission that the references you list may discuss you and their relationship with you. This document should assure 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. 

Many prospective landlords will ask you to sign a form release, even if you provide your own. Even when you sign a release, though, 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 your answers 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. Know how much rent you can pay, which neighborhoods you want to live in (and those you want to avoid), the number of bedrooms you require, and whether you want to keep a pet. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy running around looking at places you could have easily eliminated from your search with a little planning.

Use your personal contacts. Let everyone in your social networks—online and off—know that you’re looking for a rental. Don’t be shy—tell friends, coworkers, even local businesspeople with whom you have a friendly relationship. You never know who might come through with a lead on the perfect apartment.

Check Craigslist and other websites. The advertising-free website craigslist.org is enormously popular in the hundreds of cities it serves, and is a great place to begin your housing search. Craigslist is free to both landlords and tenants. 

Many major urban areas have online listing sites specific to the area. For example, Apartable (Apartable.com) lists rentals in New York City, allowing users to search by specific neighborhoods. And don’t forget that many local newspapers post their classified ads online (if they don’t, check the print editions).

Also look for the local listings posted on nationwide rental sites such as:

  • ApartmentRatings.com
  • Rent.com
  • ApartmentGuide.com
  • Zillow.com
  • Zumper.com, and
  • Lovely (livelovely.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 ApartmentRatings.com.

Work with a real estate broker or property management firm. If you’re moving to a new city, these might 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 “For Rent” signs in windows or notices on local bulletin boards. You might even come across some vacancies that aren’t advertised elsewhere, reducing the competition. If you want to live in a particular apartment building or complex but you don’t see a posted sign, stop and talk to the manager or doorman. Get on a waiting list.

Spread the word on your rental search. Consider posting your own “Apartment Wanted” flyer (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. Unless you’re completely out of options, 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 tenants’ rights organization. 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, might 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

If you want to find an apartment where current tenants need a roommate, or if you’re looking for a roommate to share a rental, you have options. In addition to your own personal networks, Craigslist, and university housing offices, you can use many websites geared toward making roommate matches. Many services will screen and match compatible roommates, based on detailed questionnaires you complete. (See Chapter 6 for advice on renting with roommates.) Try Roomster.com, Roommates.com, SpareRoom.com, Roomi (www.roomiapp.com), and RoomieMatch.com, to name just a few. 

How to Impress Prospective Landlords

To gain a competitive edge over other applicants, bring a completed rental application when you first meet prospective landlords. You can find a downloadable rental application form at 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 references’ 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. Offer to furnish a digital version so the landlord need only email it to the reference.
  • A current copy of your credit report. You can order one from any of the major credit bureaus. 

Greasing the Wheels Now Can Backfire Later

If you’re looking in a tight rental market, you might be tempted to improve your chances over other applicants by offering to pay more rent, prepay rent, pay more security deposit, or waive the protections of state or local laws (especially rent control). Applicants have been known to offer airline or sports tickets and attractive items. If you engage in creative bribery, be aware:

  • 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), you might be out of luck—your landlord will surmise 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 have to bribe the landlord every time you make a reasonable request. But once you’ve established a precedent, the landlord might 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.

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.

To clinch the deal on a great place, you might 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 Now Can Backfire Later,” 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 eyes on it. Prepare explanations for damaging entries whenever 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 rental listings 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. 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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