Renters' Rights

Your guide to a more pleasant renting experience

Oct 7, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Whether you’re looking for an apartment close to your school or close to your new job, follow these three rules to get the best out of your new relationship with your landlord.

Step 1. Read your lease

First, read over your lease to make sure it doesn’t state anything you think is unfair or enforceable. If something seems different or fishy with your lease, ask your landlord any questions you have as to its validity.

If you disagree with something, ask your landlord if the wording can be changed or some other arrangement can be made. If it can’t, and you still don’t feel right, don’t sign the lease. There will always be another apartment out there. If you do decided to sign that specific lease, make sure to get a copy.

“Really read that document,” says Bill Den Herder, owner of NMJ properties. “If everyone agrees upfront who does what, it’s just a case of following that lease. If something happens with my tenants, I pull out the lease.”

Many leases are one-year terms, and Den Herder says it’s a common misconception that month-to-month leases are the best option.

“It consistently amazes me that people want to go month to month,” he says. “Renters think that’s to their advantage, but it’s not. They are totally on the renter’s policy. That means I can write them a letter each month changing their rent, instating new policies; it gives both parties 30 days to leave or be evicted.”

When reviewing your lease, find out what happens at the end of your lease. How do you notify your landlord you’re leaving, and how far in advance must you make that decision? Is there an option to buy the place you’re renting?

Finally, plan for the unusual. Ask your landlord what happens if he or she sells the building in the middle of your lease term. What happens if your landlord dies? Unfortunately, these are very real possibilities you have to be aware of, and your landlord should have contingency plans.

Step 2: Be an aware tenant

As you start searching for apartments, make sure to ask plenty of questions: When is your rent due and how should you deliver it? How much is your security deposit? Which utilities do you have to pay and how much do they cost, on average, per month?

Also, you want to find out the rules of the building where you’re planning on staying. For instance, when are common areas open? Are you allowed to live with Fluffy or Fido? If you are, do you need to pay a larger security deposit or pay a fee each month?

You also need to know how to communicate problems with your building, including the small stuff (burned out light bulbs) and the big stuff (broken appliances or no heat). Does your landlord want to be notified first, or does he have a list of people to call to fix certain issues? Will a simple phone call suffice, or do you have to submit a work request in writing?

It’s also good to get an idea of how quickly these problems will be addressed and what to do if your landlord happens to be out of town or unavailable when these issues occur.

You should also ask questions about trash pick-up and recycling options. Is there a dumpster out back you can use? If so, what if it’s full? If the trash is picked up at the curb, are you responsible for supplying trashcans? Does the neighborhood you live in qualify for free recycling pick-up? If so, how do you get a recycling bin, and if not, where are local places you can go to drop off your recyclables?

“It’s that upfront exchange that’s key,” Den Herder says. “The landlords should spend the time with the prospective tenant.”

After all questions are fully answered, keep in mind you’re also required to act in a responsible manner. This means everything from using electrical fixtures properly to not trying to flush your roommate’s cat down the toilet. Also, if you have friends over, you’re now responsible for their actions. If they destroy any property or incur any fines from fighting with the neighbors, you are held responsible.

The landlord also holds many responsibilities. For instance, he or she must keep the property in good condition, follow all local health and safety laws, keep all common areas in good condition and keep all appliances working.

And every change a landlord makes to your living situation should be in writing. So keep an eye out for updates in your mailbox.

Step 3: How to solve a problem

Many times simply talking to your landlord and airing your concerns is enough to get a problem fixed. If not, send the landlord a written notice to repair certain items or to make repairs to the building. State in this document that the landlord must make repairs within 30 days of this notice, and send the notice to the same address you send your rent. This way, you ensure the landlord has the best chance of receiving the notice. If you try talking and get no response, involve a third party.

For instance, if you suspect something in your building is against health and safety laws, such as the rusted fence in your back yard that’s falling down, call the health department. They’ll come out to the property, inspect the issue, and, if it is truly against code, give your landlord a warning or a fine.

If the problem is extremely problematic for your health or safety — your toilet has been backed up for days and your landlord still hasn’t fixed it — the health department could deem the apartment unfit to live in and kick you out for safety reasons.

If you and your landlord have a money misunderstanding, involve a small claims court to help work out the problem. Or you can escrow your rent. If something’s not being handled correctly, take your rent to your county’s clerk of courts. Tell the court you’re unhappy with your landlord, and pay your rent to the court. The court will then hold your rent until the landlord fixes the problem. This is a good way to get your landlord’s attention and still be in compliance with your lease.

You can also use a local tenants’ rights organization for help with moderation. This is usually used if one tenant thinks another tenant plays his music too loud or for addressing other personal “getting along” issues.

In the end, Den Herder says communication with your landlord can solve many issues before they turn into larger problems.

“People should look at it as a partnership,” he says. “The landlord should take care of them, and they should take care of the landlord. It’s not an us vs. them issue.”