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Help for renters who may not know their rights

Given the current state of the housing market in many parts of the country, it might make more financial sense for you to rent for the time being rather than buy a home.

Let’s face it: Given the current state of the housing market in many parts of the country, it might make more financial sense for you to rent for the time being rather than buy a home.

Such a move truly could work to your advantage in the coming months. Many experts predict that home prices will continue to drop for a while longer, so waiting to buy could pay off for you.

What’s more, because houses and condos are staying on the market for longer stretches of time, many developers and would-be sellers are eager to rent them out. This jump in the inventory of available rental properties puts you in a good position to haggle for more desirable rent prices. You also may encounter landlords who are willing to lower security deposits, cover your utilities or allow you to move in rent-free for the first month.

Even though the tide has turned in renters’ favor for now, renters still need to understand their rights and protect themselves. Whether you’re a longtime renter, a short-term renter or a young person who’s on the prowl for your very first apartment, these tips can help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls of renting.

1. Become an expert on your local rental market. No matter how pressed for time you might be, don’t rent the first place you find. Take time to shop around, visiting several places so you can compare prices and amenities offered. Check the classified ads online at your local Craigslist site and in a variety of daily and weekly newspapers, and ask friends and co-workers if they know of any available rental units. Use a professional rental service only if the fee charged is not too exorbitant.

2. Don’t tolerate discrimination. Federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, family status or disability. State and local laws prohibit other kinds of discrimination. For information, call the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s housing discrimination hotline at (800) 669-9777. Renters also can file discrimination-related complaints through this Web site.

3. Eyeball the lease closely. Unless the lease says differently, the landlord cannot raise your rent during the term of the lease. In turn, the lease usually commits you to rent payments for a fixed amount of time, whether or not you live in the unit. If you must move out, clarify in writing what would happen if you or your landlord are able to find another person to rent the space. Make sure you’d be liable for rent only during the time the unit is vacant.

4. Watch out for lease provisions that are undesirable or downright illegal. Undesirable provisions may restrict your guests, pets, minor design alterations or ability to run a home business. They also may include phrases such as: “automatic lease renewal”; “tenant agrees to obey all future rules of landlord”; “rent may increase”; “no one but tenant and immediate family may live in apartment”; and “unannounced or unlimited entry of landlord.” Illegal provisions include: an exculpatory clause that protects the landlord from liability for his own negligence; excessive penalties for late rent; or automatic forfeiture of deposit, which means you’ll lose your security deposit no matter what. Before you sign the lease, make sure you understand everything in it and that all blanks are either filled in or crossed out. If you don’t like certain provisions, negotiate to cross them out, write in changes and have both parties initial the new wording. Do this on all copies of the lease.

5. Know the skinny on security deposits. Landlords typically collect security deposits from tenants up front to cover unpaid rent or damage to the rental unit. As mentioned in the introduction to this column, you may be able to have the amount of your security deposit reduced while the housing slump continues. If you can’t, though, keep these details in mind: All security deposits are refundable; landlords only can keep compensation for unpaid rent, damage to the unit or a failure on your part to leave the unit as clean as it was when you moved in. Before you move in, do a walk-through with the landlord and document any damage that you see, both in writing and via photographs. Take good care of the unit while you live there, and clean it meticulously when the time comes for you to leave. For more details on security deposits, check out this helpful Nolo article on the subject.

6. Clarify exactly when and how the landlord can enter your unit. Do you value your privacy? Then the significance of this tip can’t be overstated. Generally speaking, landlords cannot simply enter your home without giving you some kind of advance notice. Rules on this thorny issue vary from state to state, so it’s important to understand what’s allowed and what isn’t where you live. To find out, check out this chart. In states where landlords’ access to rental properties is regulated, landlords typically are permitted to enter in cases of emergency, in instances when repairs are needed or at times when they need to show the unit to potential renters or buyers. But because statutes do vary, take the time to read up on the rules that apply to you.

7. Understand how to proceed if repairs are needed. Landlords are responsible for keeping their rental properties “livable” and “habitable.” That means your unit should have heat, water, electricity and sufficient weatherproofing, and it also should be structurally sound and sanitary. It doesn’t mean that your landlord is on the hook for purely cosmetic repairs. If a cosmetic repair is really bugging you and you really want to tackle it, don’t assume that doing so will give you a break on that month’s rent. Any such arrangement must be agreed upon by your landlord in advance and spelled out in writing. For those more serious repairs that fall in the “livable” or “habitable” category, though, do this: Write to your landlord about the problem and keep a copy of the letter. Give him or her reasonable time to make the repairs. If the problem never gets addressed even after you follow up about it, you have a variety of rights. For instance, you could withhold a portion of your rent, handle the repairs yourself and deduct the cost from your rent, or report your landlord to local building or housing authorities. For more details, check out this article.

8. Invest in renters insurance. Renters insurance is really a form of homeowners insurance. It covers losses to your property from a variety of perils, including fire, lightning, windstorms, hail, explosions, riots, aircraft, vehicles, smoke, vandalism, theft, falling objects, electrical current damage and accidental overflow of water. Flood damage is not covered, however, so you must buy flood insurance separately through the National Flood Insurance Program. You may think you can’t afford the added expense of renters insurance, but that probably isn’t the case. Many insurers offer decent policies for $150 to $250 a year, or about $12 to $21 a month.

9. Stay safe. Are you thinking about renting in an up-and-coming area that may still have its share of crime? Regardless of the neighborhood you’re considering, it’s a good idea to contact that area’s local police precinct and inquire about crime statistics. If you have children, ask the police to help you determine whether any sex offenders live nearby. Also check state and local laws to find out whether your landlord is obligated to provide renters with certain safety devices, such as window locks or deadbolts. You can get help finding this information at your local library or through this Web site.

10. Is an eviction looming? If, for whatever reason, you receive an eviction notice from your landlord, you have a decision to make: Should you fight it, or should you walk away? If you’re absolutely convinced that you’re in the right, you may want to follow through with an eviction lawsuit. This may be a wise course to take if your unit is clearly uninhabitable or your landlord didn’t give you adequate notice about the eviction. In other cases, though – particularly if you’ve done anything to warrant the eviction – you should probably just move out. In addition to costing you hundreds if not thousands of dollars, an eviction lawsuit could hurt both your credit score and your ability to get other landlords to rent properties out to you in the future.