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5 Must-Knows Before Renting a House

Are you considering renting a house? Here are five things you absolutely must know! If you do, you'll be better prepared to sign a lease with confidence and get the most out of your new residence.

Know Your Rights as a Potential Renter

Before beginning your search for a rental property, you should be aware of federal protections against housing discrimination. The Fair Housing act forbids landlords from choosing or discriminating against tenants on the basis of race, sex, religion, ethnicity, mental or physical disability, or family status. Some states and metropolitan areas also have laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or marital status.

On the other hand, it is okay for a landlord to pick or exclude tenants based on valid financial reasons. It is not considered discrimination for a landlord to require a certain income, number of references, or job status, as long as these conditions must be met by all tenants, regardless of their identification in any of the categories above.
If you believe that you are facing discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act, either as a tenant or a potential tenant, you can contact your local HUD office and file a complaint. Complaints about violations of state or city fair housing acts should be filed with the appropriate local office or enforcing agencies.

Know what your lease can and can't do for you… before you sign

Many new tenants assume that local laws govern the conditions of tenancy and leasing agreements. Not so. When it comes to your new living arrangement and your rights as a tenant, in many cases, your lease is the law. So take the time to review it carefully - the thirty minutes spent reading and understanding the terms of the lease will be well worth it. Don't just assume that the conditions are acceptable, or that there is nothing you can do to change the wording of the lease. Using your potential tenancy as bargaining power, you have more control over your future living conditions at this point than any other. However, once you've signed your name, there will be little you can do to change the agreement in the lease.

If something in the lease strikes you as unfair, don't be afraid to speak up. And don't accept verbal assurances - demand to get it in writing. Even if your potential landlord assures you that some clause of the lease will not be enforced, or promises additional benefits or concessions, he has no legal obligation to keep these promises. And likewise, you will have no way to enforce a mere verbal agreement. So make sure that all assumptions, agreements, and assurances are mutually approved, in the lease.

Know What to Get in Writing

If you've never rented a house before, there may be new aspects to residency and property care that you haven't yet considered. For the most part, these conditions will be defined solely by the lease. Don't make assumptions! Make sure you and your landlord are on the same page, particularly regarding:

  • Who is responsible for caring for the yard? Keep in mind that if you're the one responsible, you may have to invest in lawn tools - like a lawnmower. If you're living within city limits, there are frequently city codes that require that your yard is kept up. Don't forget about raking leaves in the fall and shoveling snow in the winter, either. Make sure the lease specifies who is responsible for yard care.
  • Who is responsible for maintaining large appliances? If the house comes with appliances like a washer, dryer, refrigerator, or oven, don't assume that these appliances will necessarily fall under the landlord's responsibility. Ensure that the lease is clear on who will fix or replace these appliances should they break.
  • What are your privacy rights? Is the landlord required to give you a verbal or written notice before entering the house or coming onto the premises, or is she free to enter at any time? If she is required to notify you ahead of time, how much warning can you expect? Many leases reserve the right for the landlord to enter at will.

Getting it in writing is a habit that starts with the lease, but it shouldn't end there. It's a good rule to follow as a tenant, too. Any correspondence with your landlord should be put in writing, and then filed in your records. Having a written record of all correspondence is the best way to fairly and diplomatically negotiate any problems or disagreements that might arise.

Know How to Protect Your Security Deposit

When is the best time to start thinking about getting your deposit back? Before you even move in! Plan strategically to protect your deposit by doing a thorough walk-through and recording any pre-existing damage.

The best time to do your walk-through is just before you move in, while the rooms are still empty. Create a written record by commenting as specifically as possible on the current condition of the house. If there is any existing damage, note the exact type and where it is located. The more specific and detailed you are, the more useful your record will be, and the better it will hold up should disagreements about damage occur later on. "Mildew spots in left inner corner of tub" is much more difficult to argue with than "Water damage in bathroom".

It's also a good idea to take a camera with you and take pictures. Create a visual record to back up your written list, taking detailed snapshots of all aspects of the house and property. These pictures may come in handy a year or more down the road as additional bargaining power in securing the return of your deposit. Of course, this record won't prevent you from getting charged should you do any damage to the unit, but it can help protect you from being blamed for pre-existing damage.

Think like a detective when doing your walk-through, by looking beyond the surface. Make sure that any appliances work and take note of any performance problems. Turn on the faucets and check out the water pressure and sink drainage. Look inside closets and open and close the windows. Pay attention to how things in the house work, not just how they look.

Know How Renter's Insurance Can Help You

If you are renting a house (or any kind of rental unit), you need renter's insurance! Renter's insurance will protect you against losses or damages due to fires, flooding, robbery, electrical damage, or similar adverse events. Unless your landlord actually causes the disaster, his insurance will only provide coverage for damage to the actual unit. Anything that you lose in the event of damage is your responsibility. If the house burns down with all your belongings in it, or flooding ruins all your furniture, the cost of replacing these items will be your burden alone. And, so will the cost of staying somewhere else while repairs are made to the house.

Renter's insurance can help you prepare for these types of events. In addition, renter's insurance protects you from personal liability for accidental damage to the property of others in your care, or for harm done to visitors in your home. If you were to be sued because your dog bit the neighbor, or because your child's friend was hurt while at your home, renters insurance will extend coverage to cover these costs. In general, renter's insurance is fairly affordable, averaging $150 to $300 a year. Accidents happen, and being prepared is always a good investment.


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