6. Know What You're Signing: A Lease or a Month-to-Month Rental Agreement
Once you've found a suitable rental, you'll want to sign a lease or rental agreement (oral understandings are legally enforceable but unwise, because they're hard to prove if there's a disagreement). Here's the difference between the two, and why it matters:
- A rental agreement runs from month to month, and self-renews until the landlord or tenant terminates it, with proper notice (in most states, 30 days). The landlord can also increase the rent with proper notice. The ability to leave on 30 days' notice makes the rental agreement flexible, but also exposes you to a rent hike (or termination) by the landlord.
- A lease is for a specific period of time, typically a year, during which time the rent can't be increased. You also can't be told to leave unless you've done something wrong, such as not paying the rent. You pay a price for this stability: should you decide to leave, you'll still be responsible for the balance of the rent. In most states, if you break your lease early the landlord must take reasonable steps to rerent and offset your rent liability with the new rent.
As best you can, consider which arrangement is better for you (assuming the landlord gives you a choice). Keep in mind that rebuilding a house can easily take several months, especially with architects and contractors suddenly in short supply. If the market is tight and you think it will continue to be so, you might benefit from a lease, knowing that the rent will be locked in and that if you leave, the landlord won't have much trouble finding a replacement tenant. However, know that the rent-gouging law referred to above covers only tenancies that run month to month, not leases.
7. Brush Up on Your Knowledge of Fair Housing Laws
Housing law has changed greatly over the past 20 or even ten years; among the many advances are fair housing laws that protect all applicants from discrimination on the basis of familial status (families with children), disability, and gender.
You may need to call upon fair housing law if, for example, you encounter a landlord who has set an overly restrictive occupancy limit, perhaps trying to keep out families. In general, landlords must allow two persons per bedroom (in California , the rule is "two per bedroom plus one"). If your family of three is willing to live in a one-bedroom apartment, the landlord is on thin ice by declaring it's too small.
8. Know Your Rights as a Renter
The landlord's major responsibility is to provide and maintain a safe and habitable home. This means that if the roof leaks, the toilet doesn't work, or the hot water is scalding, you're entitled to repairs. Other important tenant rights include the right to a rental that's reasonably secure from criminal intrusion, and the right to privacy (many states limit the reasons, and time, a landlord may enter your home, and set specific notice periods). Especially if you'll be a renter for a substantial period of time, you'd be well advised to learn the rules (see "Resources," below).
9. Make Sure Your Leave-Taking Will Be Smooth
You'll be leaving this rental when your home is rebuilt, repaired, or you choose another. Make sure you're in line to get that security deposit back and leave with no lingering hassles with the landlord. You're expected to return the rental in the same condition as when you rented it, normal wear and tear excepted. If you damage the property, the landlord can deduct from the security deposit for repairs.
10. Get Renter's Insurance
While you're a renter, you need to protect the items that you're purchasing to get on with your life. Talk to your insurance agent about adding a renters' policy to your existing homeowners' policy (it shouldn't cost much).
Resources for Renters
While you're a renter, make sure you understand your rights -- and your responsibilities. Check out these resources from Nolo:
- California Tenants' Rights, by attorneys Janet Portman and David Brown, explaining the law to California renters.
- Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by attorney Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart, which covers the law in all 50 states.
- Renters' Rights, by attorney Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart, a shortened version of Every Tenant's Legal Guide, geared for use by tenants in every state.
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