The essential all-in-one book for anyone paying rent!
Every Tenant's Legal Guide gives you the legal and practical information you need to deal with your landlord and other tenants, and protect your rights when things go wrong. Written in plain English, it shows you how to:
-inspect a place before you move in
-negotiate a lease or rental agreement
-put roommate relationships on a sound legal footing
-understand key rules on rent increases and rent control
-get needed repairs and maintenance
-protect your privacy
-fight illegal discrimination
-break a lease with minimum financial liability
-get your security deposit back
-understand and prepare for eviction proceedings
The updated 5th edition of Every Tenant's Legal Guide comes complete with tear-out forms, as well as charts that help you find and understand the latest laws of your state.
Janet Portman is the Managing Editor at Nolo. She specializes in residential and commercial landlord/tenant law, legal issues related to courts, landlords and tenants, and neighbor disputes. She is the co-author of Every Landlord's Legal Guide, 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. Ms. Portman received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University and a law degree from Santa Clara University. Before joining Nolo in 1994, she practiced law as a public defender.
Marcia Stewart has been a Nolo editor and author since 1989, writing and editing books on landlord-tenant law, real estate, and other consumer issues. She is the co-author of Every Landlord's Legal Guide, Every Tenant's Legal Guide, Leases and Rental Agreements, and Renters' Rights. She has edited dozens of Nolo books, including Every Landlord's Guide to Finding Great Tenants, How to Buy a House in California, and Nolo's LeaseWriter Plus software for landlords, and Parent Savvy.
It goes almost without saying that choosing a place to live is an extremely important decision. 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 -- spending too much money; picking the wrong location, landlord, or neighbors; or settling on a place that's too small, dreary, noisy, unsafe, or in bad shape. Sure, if you're in a tight rental market, such as those in New York City, San Francisco, or Chicago, you can have an especially difficult time finding a good place to live at a reasonable price, but it's still possible to find decent
Finding a good place to live is rarely a lucky accident. Whether rental housing is plentiful or scarce, there are specific steps you can take to find an apartment or house that meets your needs and budget. Most important, you need 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, or (horrors) moving back in with your parents temporarily, it may 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.
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 choose (or reject) tenants -- for example, the report lists any bankruptcy filings, uncollected child support, and unpaid debts that have been reported to the credit reporting agency. It 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, both as to your budget and what's available for rent.
Here's our approach to finding a house or apartment you can afford and will enjoy living in:
Step 1: Firmly establish your priorities -- such as maximum rent, desired location, and number of bedrooms -- before you start looking. The list of Rental Priorities, below, will help you do this.
If you're renting with one or more other people, review the Rental Priorities list together and make sure you agree on the basics. Always consider each person's strong likes and dislikes when you're choosing a rental. For example, you might care most about a modern kitchen and a sunny deck or patio. If so, you'll surely be miserable if you allow your spouse or partner to talk you into renting an older apartment with its original 1940s kitchen because it has a great view (but no deck).
Step 2: Once you've set your priorities, you'll want to see how prospective rental units measure up. To make this simple, we've prepared a Rental Priorities Worksheet, shown below. There's space for you to write down your mandatory ("must have") priorities, as well as secondary ("it would be nice, but aren't crucial") priorities and your absolute "no ways." Try to limit your mandatory priorities to those features your rental unit must have, such as "less than $750 a month rent," "two or more bedrooms," and "near the bus line to work." Take time developing your list of "no ways." Avoiding things you hate -- for example, a high-crime area or noisy neighborhood -- may be just as important as finding a place that meets all your mandatory priorities.
A tear-out copy of the Rental Priorities Worksheet is in Appendix 2.
Step 3: Once you complete the priorities section of the worksheet, make several copies for use when looking at apartments or rental houses.
Step 4: Complete a worksheet for each rental unit you're seriously considering, as follows:
Enter the address, contact person, phone number, 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 All Important Conditions of the TeNancy
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 may include provisions that you find unacceptable -- for example, restrictions on guests, design alterations, or the use of an apartment as a home office. 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.
When you're making your list of priorities, consider these issues:
Figure out the maximum you can afford to pay. Be sure to include utilities and any additional charges, such as for parking. As a broad generalization, you probably don't want to spend more than 25% to 35% of your monthly take-home pay on rent, but this will obviously depend on your 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.
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 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 the features that are important. If living in a low-crime area or being able to walk to bookstores, restaurants, athletic facilities, or a kid-friendly park are important, don't end up renting a nicer apartment in a neighborhood with none of these features.
If you have school-age children, the proximity and quality of local schools are very important considerations. If you're new to the area, start by 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 local schools and school districts to learn about class size, class offerings, instructional practices, and services. Finally, check out resources such as newspaper articles on the local school board or PTA at public libraries and online sites.
Work or School Commute
If you're looking at a potentially long commute, note the maximum times or distance you're willing to travel to and from work or school.
Ability to Work From Home
If you're planning to work 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.
Do you need to be close to a bus line, subway, train, or airport? Write it down.
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 high number of people, given the size of the rental you can afford, 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.)
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.)
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 your while. (Remember the importance of patience.) 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 -- for your pottery studio or band practice or kids' playroom? 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.
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. For some people, an ISDN or T-1 line for fast Internet access is important. (Chapter 10 explains your right to install a satellite dish.) If you need multiple phone lines for your fax and modem, make sure your building (and budget) can accommodate them. If you are disabled and 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.
For many people, a top-notch security system for the building and rental unit 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.
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 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.
While we'd all like quiet, considerate neighbors, you may prefer a building with certain types of tenants -- for example, mainly seniors, college students, gays, or families with children. While
your landlord cannot deliberately choose tenants because they belong to these groups (and exclude others) without courting a lawsuit, sometimes renters tend to choose, on their own, certain properties. 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.
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 check the real estate section of your bookstore or library (or online sites) for advice on the subject.
1. Finding a Place to Rent
2. Leases and Rental Agreements
3. Basic Rent Rules
4. Security Deposits
6. Inspecting the Rental Unit and Moving In
8. Major Repairs and Maintenance
9. Minor Repairs and Maintenance
10. Making Improvements and Alterations
11. Your Right to Privacy
12. Injuries on the Premises
13. Environmental Hazards
14. Crime on the Premises
15. How Tenancies End or Change
16. Moving Out and Getting Your Security Deposit Back
17. Termination Notices Based on Nonpayment of Rent and Other Illegal Acts
18. Evictions: An Overview
19. Resolving Problems Without a Lawyer
20. Lawyers and Legal Research
Appendix I. State Laws and Agencies
Appendix II. Tear-Out Forms