10 Ways to Protect Yourself As a Renter
#1: Know your rights as an American.
Federal law provides protections for renters, and you should familiarize yourself with the major acts designed to protect tenants. Federally, the Fair Housing Act passed in the 1960s prohibits discrimination by landlords and lenders on the basis of race or color, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, gender, marital status, age or disability. The Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, created in 1972, outlines landlord-tenant law practices in a format then modified by individual states. More recently, the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act was passed in 2009. Under this law, when a property you rent enters foreclosure, you still have rights. These include 90-day notice before an eviction due to foreclosure and the right to complete the lease, unless the new owner of the property will use it as a primary residence, in which case you may be asked to vacate in less than 90 days.
#2: Know tenants' rights in your state.
Tenants and landlords' rights and regulations vary by state. Familiarize yourself with state rules on leases, treatment of deposits (which in some states must be placed in an interest-bearing checking account and returned to you with interest), the eviction process, etc. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers a list of state housing agencies that detail landlord-tenant law. In addition, the Landlord Protection Agency offers a list of state laws and guidelines. (While LPA is focused on educating landlords on how to deal with tenants, the laws posted here apply to both renters and landlords.)
#3: Investigate buildings and properties.
Landlords and management companies are as varied as the tenants who inhabit their properties. If you're considering renting from a larger community or management company, hit social media for reviews. Also, check apartment rating sites such as Apartment Ratings and Apartment Reviews. Read neighborhood blogs, whether intended for renters or owners — especially if you're considering renting in a condo building that was originally intended for owners but was converted to rentals. These buildings may "go condo" again as part of the developer's strategy, so if you're planning to stay awhile, keep that in mind. Take a look at foreclosures in an area, too, using tools like ZIP code searches from providers such as RealtyTrac.
#4: Get a lease -- and read it.
Whether you're entering a long-term rental agreement or just subletting for a few months, you need a lease. It will explain how the landlord is to behave and how you are to behave, and the consequences of either party not living up to expectations. Leases will spell out rules on deposit (how much, how long it will be held after move-out, whether it must be placed in an interest-bearing account or not); landlord access to the property (how much notice, etc.); fees or eviction procedures if you pay rent late or fail to pay; and more. They may also spell out policies on roommates, subletting, ending the lease early, going month-to-month and more.
While most landlords and renters begin their relationship with the best of intentions, circumstances can change and leases help provide a guideline for how to navigate them. When in doubt, ask questions. Also, keep in mind that leases are negotiable: You want to pay a lower pet fee, spread your deposit out over a few months, or go month-to-month at the six-month mark instead of the 12-month mark? It never hurts to ask.
#5: Expect a background check.
Landlords routinely conduct background checks, calling prior landlords, confirming your income or employment, reviewing your credit report or other forms of payment history and verifying whether you have any legal infractions in your background. Check your own credit and background before you begin looking to rent a home. You want to check before your landlord does so that you know in advance about any red flags that appear on your record and can prepare for a conversation with the landlord or property manager rather than stammer on the spot. Keep in mind that some background check services don't always get it right: If you have a common name (i.e., John Smith) or same-named person living in the area (perhaps a relative), occasionally information crosses wires.
Separately, if your credit is poor, but your outlook is brightening -- say you were out of work for a time and ran up credit cards, but now have a new job and have been in it for a few months — a landlord may be forgiving when told the reason for the poor scores. Check your background using services like Intelius or PeopleSmart and run your credit report (free, once a year) at AnnualCreditReport.com.
#6: Keep records and receipts.
Regardless of how much you like your landlord, it's wise to keep records and receipts related to your lease and any home maintenance spending you do, as well as copies of email or written correspondence between you and a landlord or management company. If your landlord becomes unresponsive and you're suspicious as to why, use mail requiring a signature, such as certified mail. Some less-scrupulous landlords deliberately don't cash checks as a means to begin the eviction process and then raise the rent upon your move-out, claiming they never received your funds and thus you're not behaving as a tenant. Signature-stamped mail or hand-delivered mail can help prevent that.
Separately, when requesting that a landlord perform maintenance on your home, use email or a handwritten note with a recorded date, and keep a copy; if the landlord doesn't respond or deal with the repair in a timely manner, and you choose to handle it, save your receipts and negotiate for repayment. In some states, it may be legal to withhold the cost of repairs from a next rent check, but verify this locally before trying it with your landlord.
#7: Use renters insurance.
Most landlords will have insurance on their buildings, but what that covers may not extend to your home or its contents in the event of problems like fire, burglary or natural disaster. And if you have a guest who hurts himself or herself at your home, or a pet that bites, you might be liable for others' medical coverage if they choose to sue. To protect yourself, use renters insurance; some landlords require that you have renters insurance, which minimizes the risk of landlord-tenant disputes in the event of problems in your home. Renters insurance is relatively inexpensive — typically $15 to $30 per month, depending on the policy type, provider and level of coverage — and generally covers theft and damage from fire, windstorms and hail, and internally generated water damage (such as that resulting from sprinkler system activation).
You can also buy policies that cover a business you run from home, that offer a living allowance should you need to move out while your place is under repair, and so forth. Some varieties of renters insurance cover personal property inside your home as well as property that might be with you outside the home (like a laptop normally stored at home that you leave in a car trunk, for instance). Shop around at portals such as Renters Insurance, ask your auto insurer if it offers policies or hit any of the major national insurers for more information.
Communicating with landlords is vital. If you've got an emergency, let them know pronto. If you're running behind on rent or having a financial issue, ask for a creative work-around rather than sitting there silently, letting your landlord think you don't respect the terms of your lease. For instance, if you're having a tough financial time, maybe the landlord can use your deposit for this month's rent, and you replenish the deposit soon after. Or if you're stuck out of town on the day you'd normally hand over a rent check, rather than run late with it call the office, explain the situation and ask how to proceed. You could pay online or by phone, Western Union or PayPal, or your landlord may be willing to wait a day.
#9: Use your camera.
When you take possession of your rental and also when you move out of it, take photos noting your rental's condition. These images can be useful if you wind up in any kind of disagreement or dispute concerning maintenance, damage or insurance coverage. If your phone or camera has a time-stamp feature, use it to verify when the images were recorded. It's not being paranoid — it's using common sense.
#10: Know where to complain.
If you feel that your landlord or management company is mistreating you, you have a variety of places to complain. For discrimination, including rejection of a rental application on potentially discriminatory grounds, contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can complain to state agencies about neglected maintenance, disputes around deposits and payments and unfair evictions.
Jane Hodges is the author of Rent vs. Own: A Real Estate Reality Check for Navigating Booms, Busts, and Bad Advice.