Renters' Rights: The Basics

Overview

Aimed at everyone from the new renter on the block to more seasoned tenants who just want to know the basics, this primer is packed ...

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Overview

Aimed at everyone from the new renter on the block to more seasoned tenants who just want to know the basics, this primer is packed with the critical legal and practical information that every renter needs, written in plain English.
 
Renters' Rights covers important concerns like:
. leases and rental agreements
. discrimination
rent
security deposits
. privacy
. roommates
. repairs and maintenance
 
Co-authored by two experts in tenants' rights, this book is as indispensable as a friend with a pickup truck and a free weekend. This edition is completely updated to reflect changes to your state's laws, including new information on what to do if your rental goes into foreclosure and increased legal protections for domestic violence victims.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Nolo is one of the most popular -- and most trusted -- publishers of legal guides for nonlawyers. This book answers all the issues that come up when you are renting an apartment or house -- from leases and security deposits to roommate dilemmas and clogged pipes.
From the Publisher
 "This lively, practical and occasionally humorous new book... is another in the Nolo series that makes learning about legal topics interesting and almost fun." San Jose Mercury News

"Get Portman's Renters Rights: The Basics... and research quirks in rental law specific to the state where your teen will be going to college." Houston Chronicle  

"If landlords nationwide were to recommend [this] book to renters, I'd bet only half of today's landlord/tenant problems would exist in the future." Orlando Sentinel
 


Orlando Sentinel
If landlords nationwide were to recommend [this] book to renters, I'd bet only half of today's landlord/tenant problems would exist in the future.
San Jose Mercury News
This lively, practical and occasionally humorous new book... is another in the Nolo series that makes learning about legal topics interesting and almost fun.
Sacramento Bee
I wish this book had been available when I graduated from college and rented my first apartment from a greedy landlord who gouged her tenants at every opportunity.
Long Beach Press Telegram
As user-friendly as it informative, Renter Rights' concludes each chapter with a list of key points, so readers can get right to the information they need when they need it.
San Francisco Chronicle
If you expect Renter's Rights...to be dull, boring and irrelevant...think again. This new book relates to everyday, residential rental situations in all states.
Robert J. Bruss
This new book is another in [Nolo's] series that makes learning about legal topics interesting and almost fun. Well written, well researched and practical describe this thorough rental-law guide book. On my scale of one to 10, this outstanding book rates an off-the-chart 12.
Los Angeles Times
Orlando Sentinel
If landlords nationwide were to recommend [this] book to renters, I'd bet only half of today's landlord/tenant problems would exist in the future.
San Jose Mercury News
This lively, practical and occasionally humorous new book... is another in the Nolo Press series that makes learning about legal topics interesting and almost fun.
Sacramento Bee
I wish this book had been available when I graduated from college and rented my first apartment from a greedy landlord who gouged her tenants at every opportunity.
Long Beach Press Telegram
As user-friendly as it informative, Renter Rights' concludes each chapter with a list of key points, so readers can get right to the information they need when they need it.
San Francisco Chronicle
If you expect Renter's Rights...to be dull, boring and irrelevant...think again. This new book relates to everyday, residential rental situations in all states.
Booknews
Attorney Portman and consumer writer Stewart update their 1999 guide for renters. They take up such matters as playing and winning the landlord's game to get a desired unit, signing a fair lease or agreement and avoiding traps, getting along with roommates, dealing with snoopy landlords and troublesome neighbors, and understanding rent control laws. They include state-by-state charts and lists of laws, but no bibliography. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781413316902
  • Publisher: NOLO
  • Publication date: 5/4/2012
  • Edition description: Seventh Edition
  • Edition number: 7
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 789,111
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

As Nolo's managing editor, Portman oversees editorial work on all Nolo books. She specializes in residential and commercial landlord/tenant law, legal issues related to courts, landlords and tenants, and neighbor disputes. She is the author or 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 and California Tenants' Rights. 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.

Stewart writes and edits books on landlord-tenant law, real estate, and other consumer issues. She is the co-author of First-Time Landlord, Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, Every Landlord's Legal Guide, Every Tenant's Legal Guide, Leases and Rental Agreements, and Renters' Rights.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Looking for a place? No problem -- with money, great references, no pets, not too many roommates -- it's a breeze!" 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 anti-discrimination laws, landlords are limited in what they can say and do when selecting tenants. Basically, unless a landlord has a legitimate business reason for turning you down, she risks running afoul of these laws, which can spell big legal trouble for her. Because anti-discrimination laws are so important, we devote a whole chapter to them -- Chapter 5.

The sobering news. Aside from complying with anti-discrimination laws, landlords have a lot of leeway in choosing tenants. Landlords are legally free to chose whomever they think will be the best, most stable tenant -- ideally, someone who pays the rent on time and won't cause any problems.

Since landlords can choose tenants based on their likelihood of being "maintenance-free," applicants with a shadow or two in their past (a bad reference, a few late rent payments) or a shaky present (low income relative to the monthly rent) need to know how to anticipate -- and head off -- the landlord's hesitations before they solidify into a "No." And if you live in a tight rental market -- like New York City or San Francisco -- you'll need to be fast, persistent and street-smart to score a reasonably priced rental.

This chapter alerts you to the main factors landlords consider when choosing tenants, such ascredit reports and references, and gives advice on how to improve your chances of getting a place you like -- and can afford.


TENANT TRAPS

Read this chapter to find out why you should:

  • Never rent from a landlord who asks non-business-related questions or subjects you to an inquisitory grilling. These are red flags that indicate that the landlord does not understand -- or chooses not to follow -- the law.
  • Never pay more for a credit check than a reasonable approximation of the landlord's actual costs. A landlord who gouges you on this one will do the same on another occasion.
  • Never let a prospective landlord see your credit report before you do. If the report is inaccurate, you need to take immediate steps to fix it. If the report is correct but damaging, you should prepare your explanations and defenses in advance.
  • Never lie on the rental application. It's the kiss of death.
  • Never rent a place that you have serious misgivings about -- whether it's the landlord, the neighbors, the neighborhood or the unit itself. It may be harder than you think to get out.

Legal and Illegal Reasons for Turning You Down

A landlord is legally free to set whatever conditions he wants for a tenancy as long as they are reasonably related to his business needs and don't violate anti-discrimination laws. The Federal Fair Housing Acts (42 U.S. Code 3601) prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, familial status (having children) and physical or mental disability (including alcoholism and past drug addiction). In addition, many states and cities also prohibit discrimination based on marital status or sexual orientation. Chapter 5 discusses illegal discrimination and how to file a complaint with a fair housing agency.

A landlord may reject you for poor credit history, income that a reasonable businessperson would deem insufficient to pay the rent, negative references from a previous landlord or employer, a criminal conviction or a prior eviction lawsuit you lost. As long as he doesn't discriminate, a landlord can basically choose whomever he wants. For example, a landlord can refuse to rent to smokers or allow pets because smokers (and pet owners) as a group are not protected by anti-discrimination laws. If your landlord's policy is no pets, no smoking or some other legitimate lease or rental agreement term, you're out of luck unless you can make some convincing arguments for your case. (Chapter 2, Section D, suggests ways to get around landlord restrictions.)

What about roommates? A landlord can limit the number of occupants 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 Chapter 5, Section A.

You are your own worst enemy if you lie on your rental application. Your landlord can easily find out that you don't make $50,000 per year by talking with your employer. Misrepresentations on the rental application are always legitimate grounds for rejection. And even if you slip by, ask yourself whether you want to rent from a landlord who is so careless. Would you be concerned to learn that the "former schoolteacher" next door is really a recently released rapist? If the landlord didn't check up on you, he probably didn't check up on your neighbor, either.

1. Rental Application Questions -- How Far Can They Go?

Most landlords will want you to fill out a rental application with information on your employment, income, credit and financial information, rental housing history and any criminal convictions. It's legal to ask for all this information and use it to make rental decisions. Landlords may also legally ask you for your Social Security and driver's license numbers and (except in New York) for proof of your legal residency in the United States. Landlords may even ask if you smoke or if you've ever been sued.

How far can landlords go? They can ask for any information that will:

  • tell them whether you're likely to be a good tenant, and
  • help them find you if you skip town owing them for rent or property damage.

Questions that don't relate to these two issues are probably not legal. Keep in mind, however, that not all discrimination is illegal, so some questions that may not "sound right" may, in fact be legal. (See "Are You Two, Like, Together?" below.)

Look at it this way: When you rent a car, you're often asked for multiple forms of ID and your driving history. Renting a place to live isn't all that different: The landlord, as much as the car rental agency, needs to know whether you're a good risk and how to find you if things go awry. In fact, since rental property is a much bigger investment than a car, a landlord is motivated to be even pickier.


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 he'll see on your credit report), he is not obligated to rent to you. Many landlords use a rent-to-income ratio of one-to-three (rent can be no more than one-third of your income) as a rule of thumb.

As a broad generalization, you too probably don't want to spend more than 25% to 35% of your monthly take-home pay on rent, but this will obviously depend on your other expenses. And you won't want to live in a penthouse if it means you need to eat popcorn every night.

2. 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. As mentioned above, federal and state anti-discrimination laws make it illegal to single out members of certain groups (such as people of a certain race or ethnic background) for special treatment -- and interview or application questions that aren't directed at everyone constitute special treatment. For example, landlords who ask about immigration history should ask all tenants, not just those whom they suspect might be in the country illegally. Questioning only Hispanics 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.

Do a little background investigation of your own. If your prospective landlord is conscientious, he'll probably take the time to learn about your rental and employment history. There's no reason why you, too, can't ask a few questions to find out whether you want to rent from him. Ask current tenants and neighbors what it's like to live there; ask the tenant whose unit you're considering why she's moving out. If you learn that she's leaving in disgust over poor management or dreadful neighbors whom the landlord won't evict, you'll want to think twice about signing a lease or rental agreement. Keep in mind that a building with a large turnover rate, and especially one where evictions are common, is probably not run very well.


ARE YOU TWO, LIKE, TOGETHER?

Most landlords don't care a bit about who you share your bed with -- they're much more interested in whether you pay your rent on time, 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 most states, landlords can get away with these kinds of choices. That's because unmarried straight couples and gay and lesbian couples are not protected by anti-discrimination laws except in a few states. (See Chapter 5, Section B.) This means that in most states it would not be illegal for a landlord to question you and your would-be roommate about the nature of your relationship.

If you and your friend are questioned concerning your relationship, what should you do? This is an issue for all roommates, even the ones who are just friends and heterosexual, whom the landlord would presumably welcome with no problem. Think about what this line of questioning bodes for future dealings with this landlord: Here is a businessperson who is inappropriately interested in his customers' private lives. Chances are he spends his time and energy checking up on his tenants' love lives, at the expense of running a pleasant and livable building. If at all possible, look elsewhere.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
1. Play the Landlord's Game and Win
2. Leases and Rental Agreements
3. Rent Rules
4. Security Deposits
5. Discrimination
6. Roommates
7. Repairs and Maintenance
8. Tenants' Rights to Privacy
9. How Tenancies Change and End
10. Getting Your Deposit Back
11. Landlord Retaliation
12. Rent Control
13. Getting Help With Your Dispute
Appendix 1: How to Find Landlord-Tenant Laws Online
Appendix 2: State Laws
 

Read More Show Less

Introduction

Introduction

Looking for a place? No problem -- with money, great references, no pets, not too many roommates -- it's a breeze!" 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 anti-discrimination laws, landlords are limited in what they can say and do when selecting tenants. Basically, unless a landlord has a legitimate business reason for turning you down, she risks running afoul of these laws, which can spell big legal trouble for her. Because anti-discrimination laws are so important, we devote a whole chapter to them -- Chapter 5.

The sobering news. Aside from complying with anti-discrimination laws, landlords have a lot of leeway in choosing tenants. Landlords are legally free to chose whomever they think will be the best, most stable tenant -- ideally, someone who pays the rent on time and won't cause any problems.

Since landlords can choose tenants based on their likelihood of being "maintenance-free," applicants with a shadow or two in their past (a bad reference, a few late rent payments) or a shaky present (low income relative to the monthly rent) need to know how to anticipate -- and head off -- the landlord's hesitations before they solidify into a "No." And if you live in a tight rental market -- like New York City or San Francisco -- you'll need to be fast, persistent and street-smart to score a reasonably priced rental.

This chapter alerts you to the main factors landlords consider when choosing tenants, such ascredit reports and references, and gives advice on how to improve your chances of getting a place you like -- and can afford.

TENANT TRAPS

Read this chapter to find out why you should:

  • Never rent from a landlord who asks non-business-related questions or subjects you to an inquisitory grilling. These are red flags that indicate that the landlord does not understand -- or chooses not to follow -- the law.
  • Never pay more for a credit check than a reasonable approximation of the landlord's actual costs. A landlord who gouges you on this one will do the same on another occasion.
  • Never let a prospective landlord see your credit report before you do. If the report is inaccurate, you need to take immediate steps to fix it. If the report is correct but damaging, you should prepare your explanations and defenses in advance.
  • Never lie on the rental application. It's the kiss of death.
  • Never rent a place that you have serious misgivings about -- whether it's the landlord, the neighbors, the neighborhood or the unit itself. It may be harder than you think to get out.

Legal and Illegal Reasons for Turning You Down

A landlord is legally free to set whatever conditions he wants for a tenancy as long as they are reasonably related to his business needs and don't violate anti-discrimination laws. The Federal Fair Housing Acts (42 U.S. Code §§ 3601-3619) prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, familial status (having children) and physical or mental disability (including alcoholism and past drug addiction). In addition, many states and cities also prohibit discrimination based on marital status or sexual orientation. Chapter 5 discusses illegal discrimination and how to file a complaint with a fair housing agency.

A landlord may reject you for poor credit history, income that a reasonable businessperson would deem insufficient to pay the rent, negative references from a previous landlord or employer, a criminal conviction or a prior eviction lawsuit you lost. As long as he doesn't discriminate, a landlord can basically choose whomever he wants. For example, a landlord can refuse to rent to smokers or allow pets because smokers (and pet owners) as a group are not protected by anti-discrimination laws. If your landlord's policy is no pets, no smoking or some other legitimate lease or rental agreement term, you're out of luck unless you can make some convincing arguments for your case. (Chapter 2, Section D, suggests ways to get around landlord restrictions.)

What about roommates? A landlord can limit the number of occupants 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 Chapter 5, Section A.

You are your own worst enemy if you lie on your rental application. Your landlord can easily find out that you don't make $50,000 per year by talking with your employer. Misrepresentations on the rental application are always legitimate grounds for rejection. And even if you slip by, ask yourself whether you want to rent from a landlord who is so careless. Would you be concerned to learn that the "former schoolteacher" next door is really a recently released rapist? If the landlord didn't check up on you, he probably didn't check up on your neighbor, either.

1. Rental Application Questions -- How Far Can They Go?

Most landlords will want you to fill out a rental application with information on your employment, income, credit and financial information, rental housing history and any criminal convictions. It's legal to ask for all this information and use it to make rental decisions. Landlords may also legally ask you for your Social Security and driver's license numbers and (except in New York) for proof of your legal residency in the United States. Landlords may even ask if you smoke or if you've ever been sued.

How far can landlords go? They can ask for any information that will:

  • tell them whether you're likely to be a good tenant, and
  • help them find you if you skip town owing them for rent or property damage.

Questions that don't relate to these two issues are probably not legal. Keep in mind, however, that not all discrimination is illegal, so some questions that may not "sound right" may, in fact be legal. (See "Are You Two, Like, Together?" below.)

Look at it this way: When you rent a car, you're often asked for multiple forms of ID and your driving history. Renting a place to live isn't all that different: The landlord, as much as the car rental agency, needs to know whether you're a good risk and how to find you if things go awry. In fact, since rental property is a much bigger investment than a car, a landlord is motivated to be even pickier.

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 he'll see on your credit report), he is not obligated to rent to you. Many landlords use a rent-to-income ratio of one-to-three (rent can be no more than one-third of your income) as a rule of thumb.

As a broad generalization, you too probably don't want to spend more than 25% to 35% of your monthly take-home pay on rent, but this will obviously depend on your other expenses. And you won't want to live in a penthouse if it means you need to eat popcorn every night.

2. 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. As mentioned above, federal and state anti-discrimination laws make it illegal to single out members of certain groups (such as people of a certain race or ethnic background) for special treatment -- and interview or application questions that aren't directed at everyone constitute special treatment. For example, landlords who ask about immigration history should ask all tenants, not just those whom they suspect might be in the country illegally. Questioning only Hispanics 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.

Do a little background investigation of your own. If your prospective landlord is conscientious, he'll probably take the time to learn about your rental and employment history. There's no reason why you, too, can't ask a few questions to find out whether you want to rent from him. Ask current tenants and neighbors what it's like to live there; ask the tenant whose unit you're considering why she's moving out. If you learn that she's leaving in disgust over poor management or dreadful neighbors whom the landlord won't evict, you'll want to think twice about signing a lease or rental agreement. Keep in mind that a building with a large turnover rate, and especially one where evictions are common, is probably not run very well.

ARE YOU TWO, LIKE, TOGETHER?

Most landlords don't care a bit about who you share your bed with -- they're much more interested in whether you pay your rent on time, 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 most states, landlords can get away with these kinds of choices. That's because unmarried straight couples and gay and lesbian couples are not protected by anti-discrimination laws except in a few states. (See Chapter 5, Section B.) This means that in most states it would not be illegal for a landlord to question you and your would-be roommate about the nature of your relationship.

If you and your friend are questioned concerning your relationship, what should you do? This is an issue for all roommates, even the ones who are just friends and heterosexual, whom the landlord would presumably welcome with no problem. Think about what this line of questioning bodes for future dealings with this landlord: Here is a businessperson who is inappropriately interested in his customers' private lives. Chances are he spends his time and energy checking up on his tenants' love lives, at the expense of running a pleasant and livable building. If at all possible, look elsewhere.

Your Credit Report Can Make or Break Your Application

For many landlords, credit reports are a litmus test that show how responsible you have been managing money. Like it or not, your financial history is a powerful indicator of whether you will be a reliable tenant who pays rent on time and is not likely to cause problems. A landlord can legitimately turn you down for a bad credit report.

Fortunately, there are some restraints on the method of collecting and reporting on an individual's credit history. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (15 U.S. Code §§ 1681 and following) covers all aspects of credit reports, including your access to your file, 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.

1. 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
  • convicted of a crime or, in many states, even arrested
  • 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 or not 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 which 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 he 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 Section B, below, for advice on how to deal with this situation.)

2. 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 -- $20 or $30 is common. You can call the credit bureau to verify the actual cost of getting a report. Some states regulate how much the landlord can charge (call your state's consumer protection agency to find out if your state has set a limit). If the landlord has charged an unreasonable amount, you can report him to that agency. (See Appendix 2 for state-by-state listings.)

3. Your Right to a Refund of a Credit-Check Fee

Some unscrupulous landlords collect credit-check fees but never run a credit check, pocketing the money instead. If your landlord has done this, you're entitled to a refund. If you suspect this illegal behavior, contact a credit reporting agency as soon as you've been rejected by a landlord to see whether or not the landlord actually requested your report. If he didn't, ask for your money back; and if you get no results, contact your state's consumer protection office.

If a credit report was ordered and you decide not to take a rental unit or the landlord chooses someone else, you are not entitled to a refund.

4. Your Right to Know When Your Credit Report Does You In

A landlord who does not rent to you because of negative information in your credit report is legally required to give you the name and address of the credit agency that reported the negative information. He must also tell you of your right to a free copy of your file from this agency.

5. Why and How to Check Your Credit Rating

Because your credit report is so important, you should always check it before you start your housing search. This will give you the opportunity to correct or clear up any mistakes, such as out-of-date or just plain wrong information. It's all too common for credit bureaus to confuse names, addresses, Social Security numbers or employers. Especially if you have a common name (say John Brown), chances are good you'll find information in your credit file on other John Browns -- or even John Brownes or Jon Browns. Obviously, you don't want this incorrect information given to prospective landlords, especially if the person you're being confused with is in worse financial shape than you.

Looking for inaccurate information isn't the only reason to check your credit report. If your report contains accurate but damaging information, it's better that you know exactly what it says before your prospective landlord sees it. Seeing it first enables you to anticipate an objection and formulate an explanation, which will better your chances of convincing the landlord that your financial troubles are all in the past.

Copy your own credit report and save on credit check fees. If you're applying for more than one rental, you'll find that credit-check fees (at $20 or $30 a pop) mount up quickly if every landlord orders a report. Get your own credit report and make several copies to give landlords when you apply for a rental. While landlords may want to order your credit report directly (some may fear that you're doctored your copy), it's worth a try.

CREDIT BUREAUS

The three largest credit bureaus, with offices throughout the United States, are Experian (formerly TRW), Equifax and Trans Union. 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 landlords and others upon request. You can obtain a copy of your own credit report from any or all of these agencies.

You'll have to pay a fee of about $8 for a copy of your report, but it is free if you:

  • receive public assistance
  • are unemployed and planning to apply for a job within 60 days following your request for the report
  • believe your file contains errors due to fraud, or
  • were denied credit (including a place to live) because of information in your report. (You must request the report within 60 days of being denied credit or the rental.)

To request a copy of your credit report, contact any one of the credit bureaus: Experian at 888-397-3742, www.experian.com; Trans Union at 800-888-4213, www.tuc.com; or Equifax at 800-997-2493, www.equifax.com.

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

If you see entries in your report that are wrong, take action. Contact the reporting bureau and ask for an investigation form. On the form, list each incorrect item and explain why it's wrong. Under federal law, the credit bureau must investigate within 30 days (in some states, it's less). If the investigation confirms that you are right (or if the creditor who provided the information can no longer verify it), the bureau must delete the information from your file.

Unfortunately, a request for an investigation does not always right the situation. If the credit reporting agency fails to remove inaccurate or outdated information, lists a debt you refused to pay because of a legitimate dispute with the creditor or reports a bogus lawsuit against you that was abandoned, you have the right to place a 100-word statement in your file, giving your version of the situation. Be sure to submit such a statement immediately if your situation fits one of the above descriptions. In addition, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission to complain about the inaccuracies. Check the government section of your phone book or call the national office at 202-326-2222.

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.

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

If your credit file shows negative but accurate information, or you have no credit history because you're a first-time renter and have never borrowed money or used a credit card, there are steps you can take to look better to prospective landlords.

  • See if your landlord will accept a co-signer -- 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 co-signer with the same criteria he used for you -- so your willing but broke college buddy isn't likely to be accepted.
  • Pay a large security deposit, or offer to prepay rent for several months. (Chapter 4 discusses security deposits and state limits.)
  • Show proof of steps you've taken to improve bad credit -- for example, your enrollment in a debt counseling group, your recent history of making and paying for purchases on credit and your maintenance of a checking or savings account.
  • Get positive references from friends, colleagues, employers and previous landlords.

For a detailed description of how to obtain a credit report and challenge its contents, and for information on your state laws, see Money Troubles, by Robin Leonard (Nolo). For suggestions on how to re-establish your good credit, see Credit Repair, by Robin Leonard (Nolo).

References Are All-Important

Your past relationships with landlords, managers and employers can make the difference between getting a rental unit and getting rejected. Prospective landlords will usually want to talk with your current and previous landlords, your employer and friends. Here's what they'll typically ask:

From other landlords and managers:

  • Did you pay rent on time?
  • Were you considerate of neighbors (no loud parties, out-of-control kids or dangerous dogs)?
  • Did you make unreasonable demands or complaints?
  • Did you take good care of the rental unit?

If your landlord says you were a pain in the neck, always paid rent late and left the place a shambles, don't expect the next landlord to welcome you with open arms.

From your boss:

  • How long have you worked at this job and how much money do you make?
  • Are you a responsible person?
  • Do you have any serious character flaws or weaknesses?

From friends:

  • Character references from people (non-relatives) who know you well and can attest to your reliable, honest nature, good housekeeping habits and consideration for others.

A landlord can't force you to name names. And you may not want to, particularly if your current landlord or boss is a complete jerk and will have nothing good to say about you.

But unless you can come up with a good substitute -- another supervisor or maybe a resident manager -- a prospective landlord will conclude that you're withholding the name because you're afraid of what the person might say. If you really can't come up with some names, at least have a reasonable explanation for your reticence.

Many past landlords and employers won't talk to your prospective landlord unless they have a signed release from you stating that it's okay to answer the prospective landlord's questions. In this litigious society, many landlords are afraid that you'll sue them for defamation or the invasion of your privacy. This written permission assures your previous landlord, current employer, credit sources or personal references that you won't object if they respond truthfully to a landlord's relevant questions about your work and employment history. For this reason, many prospective landlords will ask you to sign a release.

Smart Moves: How to Find a Good Place

Knowing what questions landlords are legally allowed to ask and preparing for them will give you confidence as you head into your rental search. But your success will also depend on some "street smarts," not just legal know-how. Here's some proven strategies that will make your efforts more efficient and successful:

Set your rental priorities before you start looking -- the rent, desired location, number of bedrooms and whether you want to keep a pet. This will help focus your search. You don't want to drive yourself crazy running around looking at inappropriate places.

Sign up with an apartment-finding service. Expect to pay a flat fee, such as $50 to $100 for a one-month membership, providing a centralized listing of rental units for a particular geographic area. (Be aware, however, that in areas such as San Francisco and New York City, where the rental market is extremely tight, the service may well be very expensive, tied to the monthly rent of the apartment you choose.) If you have e-mail or access to a fax machine, look for a service that will deliver daily updates of available rental units this way. Otherwise, you'll need to stop by the company's office to check out listings. Some apartment-finding services provide roommate referrals and some agencies specialize in this exclusively -- check the Yellow Pages under "Roommate Assistance" or "Referral Services."

Use your personal contacts. Get leads from people who live or work near where you want to live. Don't be shy -- ask friends, co-workers, even local businesspeople with whom you have a friendly relationship. You never know who may come through with the perfect apartment -- it might be the receptionist at work, your dental hygienist or a waitress at your favorite restaurant.

Check classified ads early in the day, especially in the Sunday paper. Some newspapers issue their Sunday paper with classifieds early -- even a day early. Also, many newspapers have their classified ads available online.

Work with a real estate broker or property management firm. If you're moving to a new city, these may be your best options. Be sure to check out fees. In New York City, where many property owners list their rentals exclusively with real estate brokers, you can expect to pay a fee that is tied to the rent (for example, 15% of the first year's rent) or a flat fee of $1,000 or more for a rental.

Check out university and corporate housing offices. Professors leaving on sabbatical and corporate employees who are temporarily transferred are often anxious to rent their homes for a year or more. University housing services and corporations sometimes maintain databases to help them in their leasing efforts.

Go online. Post your own "Apartment Wanted" notice on a site that permits personal messages, or check out an online rental service such as Rent.Net (www.rent.net), which lists over one million rental units.

Hit the streets. Walk or bike around the neighborhood you want to live in and look for "Apartment for Rent" signs in windows or notices on local bulletin boards. These rentals can be great finds -- especially if they're not advertised in the paper, reducing the competition. If you want to live in a particular apartment building or complex but there's no sign posted, stop and talk to the manager or doorman. Get on a waiting list, if possible.

Advertise your rental search. Consider posting your own "Apartment Wanted" sign (and maybe even offer a finder's fee) in a local store, health club or other business; or put a classified ad in a newspaper or newsletter.

Try not to compromise. If you can at all help it, don't move into a place that's a complete disaster, next to a drug house or run by a landlord who is well known by the housing inspectors and the local legal aid office. Even if you consider it temporary, try not to settle for a questionable place. Keep looking.

Take your time. Unless you're positive that you've found your dream rental (and there's 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 off-hand remark about his tenants' private lives that, viewed in retrospect, may spell trouble ahead? Often a return visit, or candidly sharing your doubts with a wise friend, can bring important issues to the fore. You don't want to look back later and say, "I should have seen it coming."

How to Impress Prospective Landlords

To gain a competitive edge over other tenants, bring a completed rental application when you first meet prospective landlords. Ask for a copy before you go, use the form from Nolo's Every Tenant's Legal Guide (by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart) or simply bring the following information:

  • Written references from landlords, employers, friends and colleagues. If that's not possible, be sure to bring a typed list of current phone numbers and addresses. It's always a good idea to alert references to expect a call from prospective landlords. And make sure they'll speak well of you.

  • A signed release from you giving permission to these references to answer the landlord's relevant questions.

  • A current copy of your credit report. You can order one from any of the major credit bureaus (see Credit Bureaus, above). It usually takes about two weeks.

Be on your best "good tenant" behavior. Show up on time, dress neatly and present yourself as someone who is both conscientious and agreeable. Realize that landlords hate dealing with overly demanding or fussy tenants who constantly complain about trivial things, so don't start off asking for a long list of improvements and special favors before you're even offered the place.

To clinch the deal on a great place, you may need to sweeten the pot -- for example by offering to pay more rent or a higher security deposit. Be aware of the possible downsides of this strategy. (See "Greasing the Wheels Can Get Messy," below.)

GREASING THE WHEELS CAN GET MESSY

If you're looking for a home in a tight rental market, you might be tempted to improve your chances over the many other applicants by offering to pay more rent, pre-pay rent, pay more security deposit or do maintenance chores. Tenants have been known to barter all kinds of deals, including the offer of airline or sports tickets and attractive merchandise. If you engage in creative bribery, be aware of some realities:

  • Waiving your rights might set the stage for having them trampled in the future. If you offer a higher security deposit than the law allows or agree to under-the-table rent in violation of a rent control ordinance, you've sent a signal that you are willing to overlook the law. If you later want to assert other rights (such as your right to basic repairs and maintenance), don't be surprised if your landlord ignores your wishes -- she'll figure that if you were willing to waive legal protections once, you can be talked out of these, too.

  • Offering carrots now might make the landlord expect more. You obviously don't want to continue to bribe the landlord every time you make a reasonable request. But once wooed, he may continue to expect "deal sweeteners." This could get expensive.

  • Choosing tenants based on the quality of their gifts is no way to run a railroad. The best landlords are the ones who choose the best tenants -- those who are responsible, considerate and law-abiding. If you live in a multi-unit 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 month's pre-paid rent. Beware a landlord who hasn't learned this lesson.

 
RULES TO RENT BY
  • Be prepared. Get a copy of your credit report, check it for accuracy (and press for corrections if necessary) before your prospective landlord lays his eyes on it. Develop plausible explanations for damaging entries if possible. Get your references lined up before you start apartment hunting. Make sure that your roommates do the same.
  • Be creative. Look for rentals in newsletters, bulletin boards, early editions of the weekend papers and by networking.
  • Be choosy. Don't be in a rush, and check out the landlord, the rental unit, the neighbors and the neighborhood by asking current tenants what it's like to live there.
  • Be realistic. Don't take on a rent that will cripple your social life or make it impossible to make other necessary expenditures.
  • Be a negotiator. Follow our tips throughout this book on how to negotiate more favorable terms at the start of your tenancy -- for example, a lower security deposit.
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