Protecting renters

Problems arising from rental relationships can be especially upsetting when the home becomes an extension of the day's frustrations, rather than a refuge from them. Some landlords neglect maintenance, while others habitually enter without notice. Even those fortunate enough to avoid major issues may sometimes find it difficult to recover the security deposit. Although landlords often have the upper hand, tenants may still come out on top if they are savvy, informed consumers.

  1. If you have never met a potential landlord in person: a) never send them money by wire transfer, and b) never give them private financial information (such as your social security number, bank account numbers, credit card numbers). Beware any potential landlord who makes such requests.1
  2. Carefully inspect the exact unit that you want to rent, not just a model unit. Open every door and closet, note any odd smells or noises, check for deadbolt locks, and confirm there are adequate exits in case of emergency.
  3. Read the lease contract carefully to make sure you can live with everything that is (or isn't) there. If the landlord makes additional promises, they need to be written on the lease document before signing. Never rent without signing a lease.2
  4. Take video and/or photos of the unit during the walk-through with the landlord. The more photos, the better—if your landlord later tries to withhold your security deposit for existing damage, you will have proof that you were not responsible for it.3  
  5. Buy renter's insurance whether or not the landlord requires it, and make sure it is “replacement cost” insurance. A typical policy may cost anywhere from $10-30/month, and could even be less inexpensive if bundled with a car or life insurance policy.4
  6. Do not allow your landlord to violate your right to notice before entry. Most jurisdictions require at least 24 hours notice before the landlord may enter—knowing the law in your area will make it easier for you to protect your privacy.
  7. Tell your landlord to make repairs. Landlords are required to provide basic amenities of habitability, which typically includes heat, water, electricity, cleanliness, and safety. If talking to the landlord isn't going anywhere, you may be able to remedy the situation by withholding a portion of the rent, calling the building inspector, or breaking the lease and moving out without penalty.
  8. If you need help with your specific situation, get free legal advice from your local branch of the Legal Services Corporation—they frequently specialize in landlord-tenant questions.

Additional Resources:

Student PIRGs: Renter's Rights       
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Tenant Rights

State-specific consumer guides for tenants:

Sources:

  1. FTC Consumer Website: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0079-rental-listing-scams 
  2. HUD Renter's Guide: Ten Tips for Tenants: http://www.hud.gov/local/shared/working/r8/mf/topten.cfm?state=nd 
  3. NYC.gov Rental Tips Website: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dob/html/homeowners_and_tenants/renter_tips.shtml
  4. HUD Renter's Guide: Ten Tips for Tenants: http://www.hud.gov/local/shared/working/r8/mf/topten.cfm?state=nd

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