Tenant Handbook: A Guide To Renting

After you find the perfect apartment or rental house, do not rush into signing a rental agreement before considering the legal requirements of your lease. Taking the leasing process step-by-step may save you costly fees, legal hassles, and stress later on. Many tenants do not read the terms of their leases carefully enough and are surprised that they must pay extra for their pet, that they cannot have long-term house-guests, or that they owe additional rent because they did not give proper termination notice. Avoid potential problems before they happen by following these steps.

Inspect the Unit

Before signing a lease, inspect the exact unit you will be renting. Look for a clean unit that appears in good repair. Every rental unit must include working smoke detectors on the ceiling near the bedrooms, in the living room, and in or near the kitchen. If heat is provided by gas, oil, or wood, there must be a carbon monoxide detector as well. Make sure there are adequate electrical outlets and that there are no burns around the outlets, that could indicate faulty wiring and that there is no exposed wiring. Make sure there is no mold growing in kitchen or bathroom cabinets. Inspect the plumbing by turning on faucets, showers, and toilets to make sure the water runs smoothly. Make sure all appliances are in working order. Look for any noticeable flaws or damage to carpets, flooring, walls, and ceilings.

Sign a Move-In Checklist

A move-in checklist lists preexisting damages to a rental unit. The checklist lists each room and feature of the rental unit. For example, under “kitchen”, the checklist will include boxes for the counters, sink, ceiling, floor, walls, cabinets, windows, and each appliance. Note any damage in the appropriate box. Be specific: list stains, scratches, holes, and any other flaws by color, size, and location. Sign the move-in checklist with your landlord and request a copy for your records. A move-in checklist safeguards you, as the tenant, from being charged for preexisting damages when you end your lease and helps you get your entire security deposit back.
Review the Rental Agreement

The rental agreement lists the address and unit to be rented and the term of the rental (one year, six months, or month-to-month). The agreement also covers the amount of rent to be paid each month, when the rent will be paid, where the payment should be sent, how the rent should be paid, and any late payment charges. The agreement will also include the amount of the security deposit and information on how the deposit will be used to cover damages. Any services to be provided by the landlord, such as snow removal or lawn maintenance, are noted. The agreement will also specify what, if any, utilities will be paid by the landlord. The rental agreement will specify the condition of the property and expectations for tenant maintenance and cleaning and for landlord maintenance and repairs. The agreement may also include a clause on subletting the unit and procedures for doing so. Review the agreement thoroughly to make sure you know and agree to what is expected of you and what you should expect of your landlord.
What Should I Look for in a Lease?

Before signing a lease, review it carefully. Note the term of the lease (six months, one year) and what notice period is required to end the lease (some leases require notice of up to 120 days). Be aware of the amount of rent due each month, when it must be paid, how it must be paid, and any fees for late rent. Look to see if the lease allows subletting and if so, the provisions. Note if the lease allows pets and if so, what kinds and under what conditions. Some leases include pet deposits or additional monthly fees for pets. Determine whether you pay or your landlord pays the utilities. Make sure the lease includes your landlord’s name and address (not a post office box). Determine if the lease requires you to have renters’ insurance. If you plan to sign the lease with roommates, look for a joint and several liability clause. This clause makes each individual who signs the lease liable for the total rent due and for any damages to the property. Look for the number of people who can live in your rental unit and whether additional rent must be paid for long-term guests. Note if you may alter the property in any way, such as installing shelving or painting. Be aware of what will happen if you terminate your lease early.
Reasons for Termination of Lease

If you have not paid your rent, the landlord will serve you with notice of impending lease termination if you do not bring your rent current within a certain amount of time (as little as three days in some locations). If you do not pay your back rent, the landlord can terminate the lease. If you violate the terms of the lease, perform illegal activities on the property, or damage the rental property, the landlord may serve you notice terminating your tenancy after a certain amount of time (as little as ten days in some areas). If you have a month-to-month rental agreement, your landlord may terminate your lease at any time by giving the proper notice. If your landlord terminates your lease, you must vacate the property or face an eviction lawsuit.
Responsibilities as a Tenant

Tenants must comply with the terms of their leases. Tenants are responsible for paying their rent on time according to the terms of their rental agreement. Keep copies of your rent checks or ask for receipts from your landlord to prove you have paid your rent on time. Tenants must maintain the property, which means keeping the rental unit clean and free from damage. Tenants may not remove anything from the property without landlord approval. If your landlord gives you proper notice, usually 24 hours, you must allow the landlord to enter and inspect the property to make repairs. Tenants must give proper notice, according to the terms of their lease, before moving out of the property.

Ending Your Lease

If your rental agreement is a month-to-month agreement, you may give your landlord 30 days’ notice to end the agreement. In a lease, your rental term is fixed. Most lease terms are six months or one year. Although the terms of the lease are fixed, some leases require you to give 30 or 60 days’ notice that you plan to end the lease. Some leases include automatic renewal clauses that will renew the lease if you do not give proper notice of your intent to end the lease. If you wish to move out before the end of your lease, you notify your landlord and negotiate the terms of ending your lease early. These terms may include paying rent while the landlord secures a new tenant, paying rent for the entire term of the lease, or paying all or part of the landlord’s cost to advertise for and find a new tenant. You may also try to find a subletter to take over the rest of your lease.

Security Deposits

Your landlord may ask for a security deposit of up to two months’ rent. This does not include a separate pet deposit. After your lease ends, your landlord has 30 days to return your deposit in full or give you a list of reasons in writing why all or a portion of your security deposit is being kept. Your landlord may use your security deposit to cover unpaid rent or the cost of cleaning and repairing the unit (this cannot include routine cleaning or repairs for normal wear and tear). Tenants should keep a receipt of their security deposit and take pictures of their unit after they leave to show it was left in good condition.

Before signing your lease, make sure you understand each and every clause. If you are unsure what a clause means, consult a lawyer. Do not rely on your landlord’s verbal explanation if you think a clause is ambiguous or if it includes legal language you do not understand. Be aware of tenant rights in your state and give your landlord the proper notice if you feel your rights have been violated.

Resources for Tenants

  • Tenant Rights by State: This website from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides links to information on tenant rights in each state.

  • Tips for Tenants: This site is recommended by the U.S. HUD and gives 10 tips that every tenant needs to know before renting. The site also links to frequently asked questions on privacy rights, leases, and landlord tenant dispute resolution.

  • Inspection Tips: This interactive site gives tips on how to perform a tenant walk through inspection.

  • Lease Help: This site informs renters what they should look for in a lease.

  • 10 Tenant Tips: This site gives tips for renters to use when considering a rental property, when signing a lease, and when dealing with a landlord.

  • Tenant Questions: This site provides questions for tenants to ask before deciding on a rental property.

  • Residential Leases: This site provides information on what to look for in a residential lease. The site also gives tips for renters on how to present themselves to potential landlords.

  • Renter Resources: This site links to tips for renters, information on renter’s rights, renter safety, and renters’ insurance.

  • Legal Questions: This site provides answers to frequently asked legal questions about tenant rights.

  • Information for Renters: This site includes information on rental agreements and leases and potential legal issues.

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