Every Tenant's Legal Guide
Every Tenant's Legal Guide
Know your rights
Janet Portman, Attorney and Marcia Stewart
May 2015, 8th Edition
What every renter needs to know
The only book of its kind, Every Tenant’s Legal Guide gives you the legal and practical information (plus dozens of sample letters) you need to:
- find a great home and landlord
- know your rights when it comes to pets
- fight improper rent increases and late fees
- get a landlord to make repairs pronto
- withhold rent without getting into legal trouble
- protect your privacy
- fight illegal discrimination
- handle roomate problems
- deal with lead paint, mold, asbestos and bed bugs
- break a lease with minimum financial liability
- get your security deposit back
The 8th edition of Every Tenant’s Legal Guide includes the latest laws of your state—from security deposit rules to termination notice requirements, and a new section on tenant rights to use Airbnb and similar services.
“Virtually every book from Nolo can be highly recommended without reservations. This book is no exception.”-Chicago Tribune
“Don’t let the title Every Tenant’s Legal Guide mislead you. Although this superb book is written primarily for residential tenants, landlords should also read it for its valuable information.”-Oakland Tribune
Looking for a place to rent
Rental Priorities Worksheet
Apartment-Finding Service Checklist
Applying for a rental and moving in
Consent to Background and Reference Check
Receipt and Holding Deposit Agreement
Agreement Regarding Tenant Improvements to Rental Unit
Amendment to Lease or Rental Agreement
Moving out and getting your deposit back
Tenant's Notice of Intent to Move Out
Termination of Lease
Consent to Assignment of Lease
Demand for Return of Security Deposit
Your Tenant Companion
1. Finding a Place to Rent
- Setting Your Rental Priorities
- How to Find an Apartment or House for Rent
- Visiting Prospective Rentals
- Checking Out the Landlord and Manager
- Checking Out Other Tenants and the Neighbors
- Rental Applications and Credit Reports
- How Landlords Reject Tenants
- Finder's Fees and Holding Deposits
- Choosing Roommates
2. Leases and Rental Agreements
- How Leases and Rental Agreements Differ
- Oral Leases and Rental Agreements
- Typical Provisions in Leases and Rental Agreements
- Negotiating With the Landlord
- Changing a Lease or Rental Agreement
- Signing a Lease or Rental Agreement
3. Basic Rent Rules
- How Much Can Your Landlord Charge?
- Rent Control
- When Is Your Rent Due?
- Grace Periods for Late Rent
- Where and How Rent Is Due
- Late Charges and Discounts for Early Payments
- Returned Check Charges
- Negotiating Partial or Delayed Rent Payments
- Rent Increases
- Talking the Landlord Out of a Rent Increase
4. Security Deposits
- Dollar Limits on Deposits
- How Landlords May Increase Deposits
- Last Month's Rent
- Nonrefundable Deposits and Fees
- Interest on Deposits and Separate Accounts
- How the Deposit May Be Used
- If Your Landlord Sells the Property
- Kinds of Discrimination Prohibited by Federal Laws
- Kinds of Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law
- How to Fight Back
6. Inspecting the Rental Unit and Moving In
- How to Inspect the Rental Unit
- Photographing the Rental Unit
- How to Handle Problems
- Clarifying Important Terms of the Tenancy
- Organizing Your Rental Records
- Using Email or Text Messages for Notice or a Letter of Understanding
7. Roommates, Guests, and Airbnb
- Renting a Place With Others
- Adding a New Roommate
- Tenant Rights to Use Airbnb and Similar Vacation Rental Services
- Taking In a Roomer
8. Major Repairs and Maintenance
- Your Basic Right to Livable Premises
- State Laws and Local Housing Codes
- Court-Imposed Rules
- Your Repair and Maintenance Responsibilities
- Making Tenants Responsible for Repairs
- How to Get Action From Your Landlord
- What to Do If the Landlord Won't Make Repairs
9. Minor Repairs and Maintenance
- Minor Repairs: What Are They?
- The Landlord's Responsibilities
- Tenant Responsibilities
- Getting the Landlord to Make Minor Repairs
- Making Minor Repairs Yourself
10. Making Improvements and Alterations
- Improvements That Become Part of the Property
- Improving Your Rental Unit Without Enriching Your Landlord
- Cable TV Access
- Satellite Dishes and Other Antennas
11. Your Right to Privacy
- Entry by the Landlord
- Entry by Others
- Other Invasions of Privacy
- What to Do About Invasions of Privacy
12. Injuries on the Premises
- What to Do If You're Injured
- Is the Landlord Liable?
- If You're at Fault, Too
- How Much Money You're Entitled To
13. Environmental Hazards
- Carbon Monoxide
14. Crime on the Premises
- The Landlord's Basic Duty to Keep You Safe
- Problems With Other Tenants
- Illegal Activity on the Property and Nearby
- Getting Results From the Landlord
- Protecting Yourself
15. How Tenancies End or Change
- Changing Terms During Your Tenancy
- How Month-to-Month Tenancies End
- How Fixed-Term Leases End
- Retaliation and Other Illegal Tenancy Terminations
- How to Stay When Your Landlord Wants You Out
- Getting Out of a Lease
- Condominium Conversions
- If the Landlord Sells or Goes Out of Business
- If the Landlord Declares Bankruptcy
- If the Rental Property I Foreclosed
16. Moving Out and Getting Your Security Deposit Back
- Basic Rules for Returning Deposits
- Deductions for Cleaning and Damage
- Deductions for Unpaid Rent
- Avoiding Fights Over Deposits
- Security Deposits From Cotenants
- How to Handle Deposit Disputes
- Suing Your Landlord in Small Claims Court
- If Your Deposit Doesn't Cover What You Owe
- Your Abandoned Property
17. Termination Notices Based on Nonpayment of Rent and Other Illegal Acts
- Termination Notices
- Other Violations of the Lease or Rental Agreement
- Violations of Your Legal Responsibilities as a Tenant
- Illegal Activity on the Premises
- Negotiating With the Landlord
- Getting Help From a Mediator
- Refusing to Move Out
- Cutting Your Losses and Moving
18. Evictions: An Overview
- When to Fight -- And When to Move
- Illegal "Self-Help" Evictions
- How Eviction Lawsuits Work
- Stopping Eviction by Filing for Bankruptcy
19. Resolving Problems Without a Lawyer
- How to Negotiate a Settlement
- Using a Mediator
- Suing in Small Claims Court
- Tenants Working Together
20. Lawyers and Legal Research
- How a Lawyer Can Help You
- Finding a Good Lawyer
- Fee Arrangements With Lawyers
- Resolving Problems With Your Lawyer
- Doing Your Own Legal Research
A. State Landlord-Tenant Law Charts
- State Landlord-Tenant Statutes
- State Rent Rules
- State Rules on Notice Required to Change or Terminate a Month-to-Month Tenancy
- State Security Deposit Rules
- Required Landlord Disclosures
- State Laws in Domestic Violence Situations
- State Laws on Rent Withholding and Repair and Deduct Remedies
- State Laws on Landlord's Access to Rental Property
- State Laws on Handling Abandoned Property
- State Laws Prohibiting Landlord Retaliation
- State Laws on Termination for Nonpayment of Rent
- State Laws on Termination for Violation of Lease
- State Laws on Unconditional Quit Terminations
- State Small Claims Court Limits
- Landlord's Duty to Rerent
- Consequences of Self-Help Evictions
B. How to Use the Interactive Forms on the Nolo Website
- Editing RTFs
- List of Forms Available on the Nolo Website
Finding a Place to Rent
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. (For details on antidiscrimination laws that limit what landlords can say and do in the tenant selection process, see Chapter 5.)
Preparing for a move. 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 below, Rental Priorities, 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 1960s 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 $1,000 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.
The Nolo website includes a downloadable copy of the Rental Priorities Worksheet. See Appendix B for the link to the forms in this book.
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, email, 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 for your home business. 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.
How to Find an Apartment or House for Rent
You’ve just done an important part of the job of finding a place to live by creating your list of Rental Priorities. Now you need a plan to find a place that matches it as closely as possible. Focus on your time and financial constraints and consider how they will influence your search. For example, the housing search of a well-paid single person with money in the bank who wants to move to a bigger apartment sometime in the next six months should differ tremendously from that of a graduate student on a limited budget with a small child who only has a few weeks to find a place before school starts.
What type of search will work best for you will also depend on a number of factors, most importantly where you want to live and whether you want a lease for a year or more or prefer a month-to-month rental agreement. In many cities, Craigslist is your best resource. In others, you may want to work with a real estate broker. In all areas, it always makes sense to assertively and creatively use your own personal contacts and networks. Of course, the tighter the rental market you face, the more important it will be to pursue as many search options as possible. Here’s a rundown of your choices.
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, satellite TV is important. (Chapter 10 explains your right to install a satellite dish.) If you need multiple phone lines, 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, 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 do additional research for advice on these subjects.
Rental Priorities Worksheet
Contact: Email: Phone:
Rent: Deposit: Other fees:
Term: Date seen: Date available:
Brief description of rental unit and building:
Absolute No Ways:
If you know people who live or work near where you want to live, ask them for leads. Using personal contacts as housing scouts can be quite effective, because when people plan to move, friends, neighbors, and business associates almost always know about it before a for-rent sign goes up.
Prepare a brief description of exactly what you want (your rental priorities). Send this to friends, coworkers, and your social media networks. Don’t forget local businesspeople with whom you have a friendly relationship—doctors, shopkeepers, lawyers, and insurance brokers may all have good leads for available rentals. If your company has an employee grapevine (possibly part of your internal email system), get the word out this way. Let as many people know of your housing search as possible. You never know who may come through with the perfect apartment—it might be the woman with the flower stand down the block or your dental hygienist.
See the sample Apartment-Hunting Note, below, for a good way to describe your housing needs and priorities.
If you decide to offer a reward, such as a $50 restaurant gift certificate to the person who finds you the apartment you end up renting, mention this in your apartment-hunting note.
Sample Apartment-Hunting Note
We’re in the market for a new apartment and hope you can help. We’re looking for a three-bedroom, two-bath place near the university. We can afford up to $3,000 per month. We’d like to move within the next few months, but definitely by April 1 when Hannah starts her new job.
It is important that the apartment be light and airy, in good condition and in a secure building (doorman preferred). We love to cook, so a decent kitchen is a must. Hardwood floors and a fireplace would be great. We don’t have any pets but are thinking of getting a cat in the future, so we’d like a place that allows pets.
We have always been good tenants and can provide excellent references and credit.
If you hear about a rental unit that seems likely, please phone us at 609-555-3789 (home). Here are our work numbers:
Dennis: phone 609-555-2345;
Hannah: phone 609-555-4567;
Thanks so much for your help!
Dennis Olson and Hannah Silver
Craigslist is enormously popular in the hundreds of cities it serves, and is the best place to begin your housing search, whether on your computer (www.craigslist.org) or via an app on your smart phone. Craigslist is free to both landlords and tenants.
If you respond to a Craigslist ad, be cautious about giving out personal identifying information, such as your Social Security number and even your phone number, before you’re reasonably sure that there’s no shady business going on. While the majority of advertisers are legit, a few have used the service for scams and worse. Arrange to view the rental and meet with the owner or property manager; once you’re comfortable, you can proceed with an application.
Pound the Pavement
In addition to enlisting the help of friends, you can do much looking on your own. In some neighborhoods, landlords simply post “Apartment For Rent” signs in front of the building or in one of the windows. Others put notices on neighborhood bulletin boards, such as the local laundromat or coffee shop.
Many tenants find great apartments or houses to rent by posting their own “Apartment Wanted” signs (sometimes offering a finder’s fee) in local stores or businesses, such as a dance studio, a health club, or even an auto repair shop. You might also consider buying a classified ad in the local weekly paper or putting a notice in the newsletter of a community organization. Some enterprising tenants go so far as to track down the owners of houses that have been for sale for a long time, hoping to work out a rental arrangement.
If you want to live in a particular apartment building or complex, but there’s no sign listed, stop by anyway and talk to the manager or doorman. (A generous tip might just do the job!) Also, try to talk with some of the other tenants. You might just get a good lead on someone who’s planning to move soon. Spend a lot of time walking around the neighborhood you want to live in—this will give you a chance to meet local people who may know about available rentals before they’re advertised.
Many landlords in smaller cities advertise their rental units in the newspaper real estate classified ads. The largest section usually runs in the Sunday paper. The classifieds are usually organized by city or neighborhood and include basic information such as rent, location, number of bedrooms and baths, and any special features such as a fireplace or view.
Get early editions of papers (for example, Sunday papers are available late Friday night in some areas) and start calling as soon as possible to get a jump on the competition. Better yet, go online. Many papers post their classifieds before the information hits the streets.
Illegal ads. Classified ads run by landlords should never mention sex, race, religion, disability, or age (unless the rental is really legally sanctioned senior citizens housing). Chapter 5 discusses the topic of discriminatory advertising.
Online Apartment and Rental Listings
For many tenants, Craigslist will be the best place to find an apartment or rental housing. Local online services may also be available, particularly in large urban areas, such as Apartable.com in New York City.
There are also many websites that offer national listings, including:
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 apartmentguide.com.
Before you use any online apartment rental service, make sure it’s reputable. Check how long the company has been in business and how they handle problems with apartment listings. Check for any consumer complaints, and avoid paying any hefty fees without thoroughly checking out a company and its services.
What the Words Really Mean
With online ads, as with print ads, you need to watch for misleading statements or just plain puffery. We took a look at ads for rentals in the Bay Area and came up with this gem for a Marin County apartment:
Closest train: BART
Distance to train: More than 5-minute drive.
Nearest highway: 101 Freeway
Distance to nearest highway: Less than 5-minute drive.
The real story: The closest BART station is in the next county, over a bridge that has poor public transit—more like an hour’s trip on the bus. The freeway is, indeed, less than five minutes away—it’s directly across the street!
Looking for a pet-friendly rental? Go to a local park or veterinarian’s office and talk to people with animals. They may have some good leads. Also, check out www.humanesociety.org (search “renting with pets”). They provide helpful advice on how to put your best paw forward, with links to sites listing animal-friendly apartments.
Real Estate Brokers
Some local real estate offices, especially in large cities, also handle rental properties, often exclusively for a property owner. If you’re moving into a new area, especially someplace like New York City, or have limited time to apartment-hunt, real estate brokers can be very useful. A good broker should do lots of legwork for you. The more prepared you are (by setting priorities as we discuss above), the more helpful a broker can be.
As with apartment-finding services, choose your broker carefully:
Get full information about all fees, which can be quite hefty. In New York City, for example, real estate brokers often charge either 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. Sometimes the property owner covers the real estate broker’s fee, but typically the tenant pays.
Avoid brokers who try to pressure you into paying their fee before you sign a lease or rental agreement. Don’t pay until the deal is final.
Ask about the type and exclusivity of the broker’s listings. Why pay a hefty fee if you can find the same place through Craigslist, or for a lower price through an apartment-finding service? And don’t waste your time with a broker whose properties don’t meet your needs as to neighborhood, type of unit, or budget.
Choose a broker with lots of experience and a good reputation. The best way to do this is through recommendations from people who have used the particular broker in the last few years and whose judgment you trust. Interview a few brokers and ask a lot of questions about their services, how long they’ve been in business, and their knowledge of the area. Be sure to check if any complaints are on file with a local consumer agency or Better Business Bureau.
Property management companies often contract with landlords to rent units and manage all aspects of the rental property. In many areas, a handful of management companies control a significant number of rental properties. You can find the names of the bigger companies just by driving around and looking at signs posted outside apartment buildings. Or, check online (or in your local phone book) under “Real Estate Management.”
You can usually approach management companies directly. When choosing a property management company, follow our advice on real estate brokers (discussed above).
Beat the competition by getting on a waiting list. If you want to rent in a particular big complex and you have a little time, you may be able to prequalify and get on a waiting list for the next available rental unit. To convince the landlord to screen you now (and to allay his fears that he would be wasting his time because you’ll probably end up living elsewhere before he has a vacancy), assure him that you are in no hurry and are not considering other properties.
University, Alumni, and Corporate Housing Offices
College housing offices can be an excellent source of rentals, especially services geared to faculty members. If you want a short-term rental, you can often find places that never appear in the newspaper—for example, the home of a professor who’s going on sabbatical for six months. If you’re not affiliated with a university, try to find someone who is. The same holds true for housing offices available to employees of local corporations. And don’t forget to check out your college alumni association. It may also provide information on rentals in the area (or you can contact fellow alumni for leads).
Apartment Rental Guides or Magazines
Depending on where you’re looking, publications such as For Rent Magazine, available at supermarkets and online, may provide useful information on local rentals, including photographs of the building and rental units.
Renting a Place When You’re New in Town
If you’re completely unfamiliar with the area you’re moving to, you’re at an obvious and serious disadvantage —you simply don’t have the basic information normally considered essential to locating a good place in a congenial location at a fair price. Your personnel office at work or college housing office are good places to start. Also, check online community resources and see if the local library or bookstore carries area guidebooks. But there’s no substitute for your own legwork. Ask your friends and colleagues, walk and drive around neighborhoods, talk to local residents and shop owners, read local newspapers, check the library’s community resources file, visit the local planning department and chamber of commerce, and do whatever else will help you get a better sense of a neighborhood or city. Also, a good real estate broker can be invaluable.
If you’re in a hurry to move, one sensible alternative is to leave your furniture in storage and stay in a hotel or take a short-term furnished rental. Check out Airbnb, VRBO, and similar services for good leads. While finding a temporary rental means moving twice, it’s far better than settling on an apartment or area that’s not to your taste.
Visiting Prospective Rentals
Everyone needs a home-hunting strategy—whether you make an appointment to see an apartment by yourself or attend an open house with dozens of others. Here are some basic tips:
Visit promising rentals as soon as they come on the market. Especially in college towns and popular neighborhoods, apartments and rental houses move fast. If a place sounds good, schedule a visit as soon as it’s listed.
Be prepared. Come equipped with your own handy-dandy apartment-hunter’s kit. Include a street map, notebook, pen or pencil, pocket calculator, tape measure (to make sure the living room is big enough for your carpet), graph paper, and camera. (You may want to take pictures if it’s okay with the landlord.) Your smartphone may have everything you need. Most important, bring your Rental Priorities Worksheet as discussed above. Don’t forget your checkbook. (You may fall in love with a place and need to leave a holding deposit while the landlord checks out your credit history and references. Holding deposits are covered below.)
Impress the landlord by showing up with everything you need to fill out a rental application, including references and credit information. (See “Rental Applications and Credit Reports,” below, for more on these issues.)
Be on your best “good tenant” behavior. Clearly understand that while you’re looking at a rental unit, the landlord or manager will be looking at and evaluating you. This means showing up on time, dressing neatly, and presenting yourself as being both conscientious and agreeable. (This also means keeping your love of drums to yourself.) Realize that landlords live in fear of overly demanding and fussy tenants who will give them constant headaches by ceaselessly complaining about trivial things. So while we recommend checking out the rental unit’s condition (see below) and making sure significant defects are being remedied, it’s usually a mistake to ask for a long list of upgrades and repairs before you’re even offered the place. Better to save your requests until the landlord makes you an offer. But make sure you do your essential negotiating before you sign a lease or rental agreement.
Look around carefully for tell-tale signs of problems in the rental unit and building. While you don’t want to come across as a nit-picking housing inspector with white gloves, do keep your eyes open. Don’t broadcast your concerns (subtlety is a strong point here), but try to check as many of the following things as possible:
Look for obvious damage, such as loose steps, torn carpet, or shaky handrails.
Check for dirt, mildew, and signs of insects or rodents. (But try to overlook the sloppiness of a current tenant. Piles of dishes in the sink and mounds of clothes on the floor are only temporary.)
Flush the toilet and run water in the shower and sinks. Check the water temperature and pressure.
Make sure the windows and doors are in good shape, open and close easily, and have secure locks.
Walk around the building, checking out any elevators and common areas such as stairs, laundry rooms, and lobbies, as well as the parking area, garage, and yard. Again, check for general cleanliness and repair. Good lighting is especially important in common areas.
Ask about building and neighborhood security, especially if you have concerns about the area. If there have been criminal incidents on the property, find out what kind and when, and what steps have been taken to provide reasonable safety to tenants and guests. If you learn later that the answers were not accurate, you may have grounds for getting out of your lease or rental agreement. Chapter 14 gives more information on your rights to a safe place to live.
At this point, you’re just trying to get a general sense of the place. Ask yourself: Does this feel safe and comfortable? Clean and in good repair? If you decide you want the rental unit, and before you actually sign a lease or rental agreement, you will want to do a more detailed inventory of the condition of the rental unit, completing the Landlord-Tenant Checklist we recommend in Chapter 6. (You want your landlord to acknowledge any existing defects so he or she can’t blame you later for causing them.)
If there are some minor problems, or improvements you want—for example, a new coat of paint in the living room—you may be able to negotiate with the landlord on this before you move in. (Chapter 2 shows how.) Major problems, such as lack of heat, may be the landlord’s legal responsibility to fix. (For details on housing standards and landlords’ responsibility to provide habitable housing, see Chapter 8.) Also, see Chapter 2 for information on disclosures landlords must tell prospective tenants, such as the presence of lead-based paint in the rental unit.
Think of creative ways to use space. You may need to compromise on the number and type of rooms in exchange for a great location or lower rent. Use your imagination or check out home design books, magazines, and websites such as www.apartmenttherapy.com for ideas on how to make the most of your living space. For example, you might be able to carve out a study at the end of an extra-large living room, using bookcases or screens to divide the space. Rolling carts with butcher block tops can add instant space to a kitchen with limited counters.
Walk around the neighborhood. If you’re not familiar with the area, check out restaurants, shops, local businesses and schools, and bus, subway, and train stops.
Checking Out the Landlord and Manager
Your prospective landlord will probably check you out pretty thoroughly (asking for references and getting a credit report); turnaround is not only fair play, but is also a good way to find out what it’s like to live in your landlord’s building.
Ask Current Tenants
Visit the building after work and ask residents, especially the person whose unit you’re considering, about pluses and minuses of living in the building. Inquire about security and noise in the building or neighborhood and if there are any problems regarding repairs and basic services such as heat and hot water. See if you can get a sense of the landlord’s personality and style of operating. An excellent indicator of whether you can expect smooth sailing is to find out how often there are vacancies in the building and, in particular, how often your prospective landlord has had to evict tenants. A low rate of turnovers and evictions suggests that tenants like living there and that the landlord has chosen considerate, law-abiding renters who will be good neighbors.
Ask Neighbors in Nearby Buildings
Other people and businesses in the neighborhood may know something about the reputation of the building, landlord, or manager. Ask if tenants seem to stay more than a year—if so, that’s the mark of a well-run building. By speaking with neighbors, you can confirm the truthfulness of the landlord’s or property manager’s representations, such as a claim that there have been no recent incidents requiring a police response.
Check Out www.apartmentratings.com
This comprehensive website has millions of reviews of individual apartments and property managers nationwide. It includes other information useful to new tenants, such as the estimated rent and pet policy of each rental.
You may also want to go to CheckYourLandlord.com, where you can obtain information (for free) about the property, such as whether a notice of default has been filed against it. More comprehensive reports (not free) provide information about liens; defaults on other properties owned by the landlord; and judgments, bankruptcies, and court judgments lodged against the owner.
Google the Landlord or Manager
Don’t let your interest in a particular rental go too far without running a Google search on the owner and/or property manager, and even the address. If the property has been in the news lately, you’ll read all about it, and chances are, the story won’t be comforting. Likewise with the owner or manager—you don’t want to rent a place whose management has been the subject of a feature article on the woes of renting.
Check for Any Notices of Default
If you’re concerned about the landlord’s financial stability, find out whether the property you’re considering is the subject of a notice of default (the first public step toward foreclosure). Banks and other lenders must file these notices, in the courthouse of the county in which the property is located, when the owner has failed to make payments on a loan or mortgage for a specified number of months (two is common). Obviously, renting a property that’s liable to be foreclosed upon during your tenancy is not a good idea—even if you get to stay, you may end up with an owner (especially if it’s the bank itself) who will not be a conscientious landlord.
Checking Out Other Tenants and the Neighbors
Not surprisingly, many tenants are as concerned about who their potential neighbors will be (and what kind of background they have) as they are about the physical aspects of the prospective rental. Anyone who has lived in close proximity to others, be they down the hall, on the other side of the wall, or over the fence, knows that a law-abiding, considerate neighbor is every bit as important as a view, a second bathroom, or a parking spot.
If you visited the rental and had a chance to talk with other residents, you may already have a rough impression of your prospective neighbors. But depending on your situation, you may want to learn more. In particular, if you’re a single female or have young children, you may want reassurance that the tenant next door doesn’t have a dangerous criminal background. How much information can you expect to learn from your landlord and from law enforcement? In general, here’s what you can expect.
First, there is no law requiring your landlord to investigate the criminal history of his tenants. Of course, many landlords do inquire or run background checks, and most will decline to rent to those with violent criminal backgrounds. But if you ask and are told, “I have no idea,” you have no legal basis to press your landlord for more. And even if the landlord does know about a tenant’s unsavory past, there is no law requiring him to disclose it to you (though the landlord may be held liable if you are later injured by this tenant, as the example below illustrates).
Example: Nancy and her teenage daughter rented an apartment from Lester. When Nancy applied for the apartment, she told Lester that she was not home in the afternoon and that her daughter would be on her own until Nancy came home from work. Nancy was concerned for her daughter’s safety and asked Lester if any of the other tenants had criminal histories or had done anything to suggest that they would act inappropriately with children.
Lester told Nancy she had nothing to worry about from the neighbors. In fact, however, Lester knew that a downstairs tenant had a conviction, albeit an old one, for child molestation. Tragically, this neighbor molested Nancy’s daughter. Nancy sued the offender and Lester, on the grounds that he knew about and failed to disclose a dangerous condition—namely, the presence of a known molester. Lester’s insurance company settled the case in Nancy’s favor for a large sum.
Although you cannot count on your landlord for a full answer to your questions, you may be able look online for help. Every state has a version of “Megan’s Law,” a federal law passed in 1996 and named after a young girl who was killed by a convicted child molester who lived in her neighborhood. The original law charged the FBI with keeping a nationwide database of persons convicted of sexual offenses against minors and violent sexual offenses against anyone (42 U.S. Code §§ 14701 and following). The state versions typically require certain convicted sexual offenders to register with local law enforcement officials, who keep a database on their whereabouts.
If you are concerned about whether prospective neighbors are registered sex offenders, you can search for their names on your state’s database.
To find out how to access your state’s sex offender registry, contact your local law enforcement agency,
or call the Parents for Megan’s Law Hotline at 888-ASK-PFML, or check www.parentsformeganslaw.org. Of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll know the full names of all the residents of a large apartment complex. Even when you do have that information, keep in mind that a database search may not give you accurate information. In many states, the databases are not current, or have mistaken information, which may result in both false positives (typical when dealing with common names) and false negatives.
Concerned about too many Airbnb guests in the rental property? Many tenants rent out their apartments on a short-term basis through websites such as Airbnb. While that might be fine with you (maybe you even hope to do the same), you may not want to live someplace where lots of different people are coming and going. At any rate, be sure you know your landlord’s policies on Airbnb and common tenant practices. See Chapter 7, “Tenant Rights to Use Airbnb and Similar Vacation Rental Services,” for more on the subject.
Report Deceptive Advertising
If a rental unit is unavailable, inferior, or higher priced than advertised, contact the consumer fraud division of the local district attorney’s office. Such deceptive advertising is illegal, and many property owners have been prosecuted for such practices.
Rental Applications and Credit Reports
Once you find a place you like, you’re part, but not all, of the way home. First, you will probably be asked to fill out a rental application. Landlords use rental applications to screen potential tenants and select those who are likely to pay the rent on time, keep the rental in good condition, and not cause problems. Conscientious landlords will insist on checking your references and credit history before signing a lease or rental agreement. You should be happy they do so. You’ll probably have fewer problems with other tenants in the building if the landlord is strict about screening. Who wants to move into a great building where one tenant is dealing drugs, holding midnight rehearsals for her rock band, or otherwise causing trouble that the landlord could have averted by proper screening?
On a written rental application, you must provide information on your employment, income, credit history (including any bankruptcies), and rental housing history (including evictions), as well as any criminal convictions. If you are self-employed, the landlord may require the last few years’ tax returns and other documentation of income. It’s legal to ask for your Social Security, driver’s license number, or other identifying information (such as an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN). Except in California and New York City, landlords may also ask for proof of an applicant’s right to be in the United States under U.S. immigration laws. Under federal fair housing laws, landlords who ask for such immigration information must ask all tenants, not just those whom they suspect may be in the country illegally. It is, however, illegal to discriminate on the basis of national origin. (See Chapter 5.)
A sample Rental Application is shown below, so that you can get an idea of the information you will need. It may be a good idea to complete this rental application and take it with you when you see a potential rental unit. This type of information is sure to impress a landlord.
Most careful landlords will make a few calls to confirm that the information you’ve supplied on the Rental Application is correct. Current and past landlords, credit sources, and employers will normally request permission from you before they’ll talk to a prospective landlord. Along with the Application, you’ll want to give your landlord a Consent to Background and Reference Check, which supplies this permission. This consent form carefully limits the information that sources are authorized to give to that pertaining only to your qualifications as a tenant. In other words, you aren’t giving the landlord carte blanche to inquire about extraneous matters, such as “Where is this fellow from?” or “Do you think there is a boyfriend in the picture?” While such irrelevant questions are often illegal (because they’re discriminatory), they’re annoying even if they’re not. Hopefully, the wording on the form will remind (or instruct) both the reference and the inquiring landlord that only tenant-related questions should be asked.
The landlord can make copies and mail, email, or fax them to the sources he wishes to speak with. A sample Consent to Background and Reference Check is shown below; note how the applicant has filled in her own information but left blank the lines for the prospective landlord’s name, the date, and her signature.
Keep in mind that even with your consent to a reference check, you cannot force a prior landlord or an employer to provide information.
The Nolo website includes a downloadable copy of the Rental Application and the Consent to Background and Reference Check forms. See Appendix B for a link to the forms in this book, which are available after purchase.
Fill out applications only when you’re truly interested. Don’t waste your time (or money, if the landlord charges a credit-check fee) filling out a rental application unless you really want a place. If you are interested, but still want to keep your options open, go ahead and fill out an application. Don’t worry that this will lock you into taking a place—only signing a lease or rental agreement does so.
Consent to Background and Reference Check
I authorize to obtain
How to Impress Prospective Landlords
Bringing the following information when you first meet prospective landlords will give you a competitive edge over other applicants:
a completed rental application
written references from landlords, employers, friends, and colleagues
current copy of your credit report.
If you have a pet, you might even bring a completed pet application form (find one at www.humanesociety.org).
Landlords usually want references from your current and previous landlords, and details on your rental history. In talking with your past landlord or manager, prospective landlords will ask the following types of questions:
Did you pay rent on time?
Were you considerate of neighbors (no loud parties; you cleaned up after your dog)?
Did you make any unreasonable demands or complaints?
Did you take good care of the rental property?
In general, were you a good (ideally, great) tenant?
Do You Need References for Your Dog (or Cat)?
If you have a dog or cat, don’t be surprised if the landlord wants to meet your pet, to make sure it’s well-groomed and well-behaved, before making a final decision. If pet-friendly apartments are especially tight in your area, be prepared to make the best case you can for Max or Bella. Here are some ideas for doing so:
Get written references from current and previous landlords and neighbors saying how sweet and well-mannered your dog (or cat) is.
Bring a cat or dog résumé, describing your pet, favorite activities, and health. See the San Francisco SPCA website (www.sfspca.org) for samples.
Pull together any materials that support your pet’s good behavior, such as paperwork that shows your dog passed obedience training classes.
See the “Pets” section in Chapter 2 for more advice on negotiating with landlords on pets. Also, see the discussion of tenant rights when it comes to service and support animals in Chapter 5.
If you are leaving a current rental because the neighbors, the landlord, or the manager was awful, prepare your defense in advance—by mounting a preemptive offense. Explain the difficulty and offer evidence to bolster your version, such as a letter from other dissatisfied tenants, police reports chronicling disturbances at the property, a list of the times the former landlord was hauled before the local rent board for violations, or, if problems rose to the point of litigation, a copy of a court judgment in your favor. No matter how righteous your position, however, be advised that it won’t count for much unless you can show that, aside from your use of legal tenant remedies such as rent withholding, you always paid the rent on time, left voluntarily, and left a clean and undamaged apartment or house.
Extra-picky landlords may actually want to visit your current rental to see how it looks. If your place usually looks like a cyclone just hit it, either clean up or forget it.
Conscientious landlords will usually want to speak with your current employer to verify your income and length of employment and to get a better sense of your character—for example, to see if you’re a responsible person.
Before talking with a prospective landlord, your employer may require your written permission. Use the Consent to Background and Reference Check, explained above.
Some landlords also want character references from people (nonrelatives) who know you well. Below is an example of the type of letter that will help you beat the competition.
Alert references. Make sure that all of your references know to expect a call or email from a potential landlord. Even better, get written references first. And obviously, only give out the names of people who know you well and who have positive things to say about you—anticipate the crafty landlord who asks for four references and calls only the fourth one on the list.
Complete all rental applications truthfully. Prospective landlords will be able to verify much of the information you give by ordering a credit report. Nothing will hurt your chances of getting a place more than lying, whether it be by failing to reveal a previous eviction, providing the name of a friend as a landlord reference, or overstating your income.
We hope you enjoyed this material. The rest of this chapter is available when you purchase the book.
This Book Comes With a Website
Nolo’s award-winning website has a page dedicated just to this book, where you can:
DOWNLOAD FORMS - All forms in this book are accessible online. After purchase, you can find a link to the URL in Appendix B.
KEEP UP TO DATE - When there are important changes to the information in this book, we will post updates
And that’s not all. Nolo.com contains thousands of articles on everyday legal and business issues, plus a plain-English law dictionary, all written by Nolo experts and available for free. You’ll also find more useful books, software, online services, and downloadable forms.