Today in the US, more than 38 million people rent their primary residence. For those who are renting for the first time or havenÂ’t rented in recent decades, itÂ’s important to know that laws and regulations have changed considerably in the past twenty years--particularly in the past ten. Rather than be caught off-guard, it pays to fully understand your legal rights as a renter/lessee before beginning the search for a house or apartment.
Today in the US, more than 38 million people rent their primary residence. According to the US Census Bureau, this amounts to about one-third of total US residences.
Even through homes are currently selling at historically low prices across the country, due of the financial instability the nation now faces, many Americans (and visitors) are choosing to rent rather than buy a home, preferring to maintain physical and financial flexibility until the economy--and the job market--improves. Thus, the demand for apartments and homes to rent is growing steadily in many areas of the country.
For those who are renting for the first time or haven’t rented in recent decades, it’s important to know that laws and regulations have changed considerably in the past twenty years--particularly in the past ten. And rather than be caught off-guard, it pays to fully understand your legal rights as a renter/lessee before beginning the search for a house or apartment.
Be aware that housing laws and regulations can vary greatly state to state (and even county to county), so you can’t assume that what you learn in one city automatically applies in another.
Categorically, here’s what you want to know.
1. Background Check:
To help landlords select responsible tenants, many use background checks and credit reports to learn about a prospective tenant’s credit worthiness and criminal history. While this may seem like an invasion of one’s privacy, it is in fact, legal, and a trend growing in popularity. While some landlords will ask that you sign a permission form to allow this search, others will do so without notice. In either regard, it is better to be upfront about any problems or indiscretions that may come to the surface during a background check in order to gain the landlord’s trust rather than let them become aware of them and assume the worst.
2. Know Your Rights:
In the US, it is illegal for a landlord to discriminate against you according to race, sex, color, religion, class, gender, or ethnicity, and thus refuse your rental application. Landlords cannot legally say a rental is not available if it is, or use different screening criteria for different applicants. Also, in the event that you are turned down, you have the right to know why.
3. What Should Be Included in a Lease or Rental Agreement:
A lease* may be wordy or filled with legalese, but it must have particular points covered: length of tenancy (month-to-month, for a period of x-number of years, etc), amount of rent, amount of deposit (should one be required), the number of people allowed to occupy the property, who is responsible for paying the utilities, whether pets are permitted (and which kinds), whether tenant is permitted to sublet property, with landlord’s access to rental property clearly expressed.
*Insist on a written copy of the agreement. While an oral agreement is binding in some parts of the country, without a written and signed contract, you have no legal recourse in the event of a dispute.
4. Safety Issues:
In many states, landlords must provide minimum safety features such as peepholes, window locks, deadbolts, and safety glass. If these features are not present and are required by local law, add a timetable to the lease within which the landlord is required to install these features and comply with the law.
5. Renter’s Insurance:
As American society becomes more litigious, it is highly advisable to acquire renter’s insurance whenever possible. While some landlords do provide certain limited coverage, should you suffer theft or property damage not covered by your lease, or should someone sustain an injury while on your property, you’ll want to be covered. (Such events occur much more often than you may think.)
6. Maintenance Problems:
In most cases, the landlord is responsible for all house/apartment maintenance issues. It is wise, however, to document the condition of your rental before moving in, keeping a written record as well as photos of preexisting damage when possible. Your lease should state how long you can expect to wait for subsequent repairs to be completed, and it is your right to withhold a portion of the rent (some states require an escrow bank account to be established), pay for the repairs yourself and then be reimbursed or deduct that amount from the rent, or to abandon the property with no further liability or repercussion if the landlord refuses to meet his legal obligations.
7. Noisy Neighbors:
One of the biggest issues many renters face is noisy neighbors. If your neighbors are unreasonably noisy, notify your landlord. Many are happy to act as mediators to keep the peace. It also pays to know your local noise ordinances in the event that your landlord refuses to get involved. In either regard, it is advisable to notify your landlord if noise issues involve the need for law enforcement.
8. Security Deposit:
Security deposits are one of the most disputed legal issues a renter can face, so make sure that your lease spells out in detail what you must do to recoup your deposit. Unscrupulous landlords may intentionally keep such details vague in an effort to prevent you from making a legal claim against your deposit, so do not assume that just because you return the property in as good or better condition than when you moved in that you will automatically have your money returned. When possible, it is wise to do a final walk-through with the landlord before signing a lease, during which you note and photograph preexisting damage, and have them sign an acknowledgment statement.
Evictions are seldom easy issues to remedy. If you are legally notified that you must vacate (the “legal notification” process varies greatly across the country), even if you can prove that you are in the right, it is often costly to fight the issue in court (while some states do provide for free arbitration), and even if you win, you will still have to deal with the same landlord--with whom the relationship is now strained--and you may find that it becomes only a matter of time before another issue sends you back to court.
10. Tenant/Landlord Disputes:
While it is often not the way you’d prefer to view your tenant/landlord relationship, in reality, it is essentially one of legality. Regardless of the cordiality that may evolve as you reside on your landlord’s property, you are part of a legal and binding contract that most landlords will not hesitate to enforce. While many landlords will give leeway to otherwise reliable tenants during times of financial or personal difficulties, most do not forget that you have signed a binding contract and that you are only an asset as long as your problems do not impede his or her ability to collect the rent.
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