How to Protect Your Rights as a Renter

by Kathy Batesel

By taking preventative steps and reading lease agreements, tenants can avoid problems with bad landlords.
By taking preventative steps and reading lease agreements, tenants can avoid problems with bad landlords. | Source

Warning: Rental Agreements May Vary

Leasing a home or renting an apartment isn’t as risky as plunking down money to buy a house, but your choice can make the next year miserable if you miss out on important factors that are often overlooked by tenants.

Today, I am the landlord, but I've also been a tenant many times. One landlord tried to sue me for a couple thousand dollars, and several other landlords were problematic. (Problem landlords are one of the many reasons I now own instead of rent!)

I'll tell you a few of my experiences and explain why you should never overlook these critical factors.

Your View

Have you had a bad rental experience?

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Lease Contract Terms

Landlords who manage their own properties can slip unusual clauses into a rental contract. When we met, my ex-husband was a single man who had leased his home without reading the paperwork. As our relationship deepened, I started spending weekend nights with him. His landlord discovered this and warned him that she would evict him if the practice continued. Rather than complying with the landlord’s requirement, he asked her to release him from his contract. She agreed, but withheld his security deposit because, she claimed, he’d used the fireplace. She’d also inserted a clause prohibiting that! (In truth, he hadn't built any fires in it, but had burned a newspaper to rid the flue of a wasp nest.)

Most leases have standard clauses that cover restrictions, obligations, and penalties:

Restrictions

  • Parking requirements
  • Number, size, and types of pets allowed
  • How many people will live in the residence
  • How long guests may stay on the property without written consent
  • Making changes to the property without written permission

Obligations

  • Utilities the tenant is required to pay for
  • Maintenance of the property and/or grounds
  • Deposits and monthly rental amount
  • Date payments are due, and instructions on how to make them

Penalties

  • Late payment fees
  • What happens if the tenant breaks the lease
  • Lost key replacement charge

Other terms might be added. I mentioned two unusual ones above - no overnight guests allowed at all, and not being allowed to burn a fireplace that's in the residence. Even if your prospective landlord isn’t an eccentric, these terms can affect your quality of life and prove costly if you don’t comply. Your state law may allow property owners and managers to assess fines or evict tenants and hold them responsible for the amount owing for the entire remainder of the contract.

If the property is in a subdivision, the property owner might have signed an agreement not to rent the property out at all. This will not be in the lease terms, and the property owner might not be aware of the restriction, but it could result in an unexpected eviction. Ask about whether a housing association exists, and if so, ask for a copy of its bylaws to see whether it allows its members to rent the property.

Once you sign an agreement, you're stuck with its terms. Don't sign it if you don't understand it or can't accept some of its terms.

Your Opinion

In the experience I had, what should the judge have decided?

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Breach of Contract

That's what my former landlord tried to sue me for when I broke a lease just a couple of months into the one-year term. I counter-sued, claiming the landlord had breached the contract when they rented the apartment to me.

I was pregnant, newly single, and quite young. The property manager showed me two apartments - one with a gray color scheme that I'd originally asked if they had, and another one with beige carpet and brown counters. I decided to take the earth-toned apartment because the gray one smelled like dog urine and left me feeling queasy. We returned to the clubhouse, and I signed the lease.

I did not pay attention to the apartment numbers, so I hadn't noticed that she'd written in the number of the odorous apartment. When I picked up my key the following Monday and discovered that it was the apartment I did not want, she told me they'd already placed a different tenant in the other unit and I was locked into the contract. I tried to make the best of it, but my problems had just begun. As it turned out, the apartment was badly infested with roaches, and their exterminator refused to spray because of my pregnancy.

I contacted Legal Aid because I didn't have enough money to hire an attorney. I followed their instructions to the letter, which were nearly identical to the steps described in this article. I provided thirty days' notice that I was moving, and I signed a new lease elsewhere.

The landlord tried to sue me for ten months' rent and "double damages." Because I had learned about my states' laws from Legal Aid and followed their directions, the judgment didn't go against me. If it had, the landlord would have received about $4,500 in rent, doubled by the double damages permitted by law, plus court costs and attorney fees! A $10,000 judgment could have plagued my credit for decades.

Both a tenant and a landlord can breach the contract, but in most cases, the landlord understands the contract far better than the tenants who sign their leases, usually without bothering to read its terms.


Negotiate Your Rental Contract

If you see terms you dislike or want something added to the lease, you can negotiate for changes. Some contracts contain harsh penalties for terminating the lease early, for instance. If you know you might relocate for your job in five months, you could ask to include job relocation as a valid reason to terminate without penalty. This can save you thousands of dollars and preserve your credit rating if you get promoted (though you may be asked to put up an additional deposit or pay slightly higher rent in exchange).

Remember, every contract is negotiable, as long as the parties are both willing.


One other important detail that tenants should consider is the way repairs are completed. State laws require that a residence be habitable, which essentially means the home has:

  • Adequate plumbing
  • Sufficient water access
  • Both hot and col running water
  • Electrical service
  • Reasonable temperature control to prevent health risks
  • No conditions that create dangerous or unhealthy conditions

Landlords may be reluctant to make repairs, especially if they are costly. This can be worse if the property is managed by a rental company who must relay your request to the property owner. They may try to keep the owner's expenses as low as possible.

If the home you’re considering is managed by an agency, ask to see the property management agreement terms for repairs. This is the contract between the manager and the property owner. Some property managers will not order any repairs without the owner’s express written consent, while others obtain an agreement that their agency can authorize repairs up to a certain dollar amount. This means you’re less likely to face resistance for pesky problems that are certain to arise over the next year.

If the property owner represents himself, you can request a clause in the lease allowing you to do repairs up to a specified dollar amount, and to deduct the cost from your rent (as long as you provide written proof that you hired a professional to complete the job.) If he refuses, you can ask for references from prior tenants to call and inquire about their maintenance experiences, but this is riskier than having a written agreement. Never rely upon verbal promises from the landlord or a management company!

Check Your Tenant Savvy

Tenant Checklist Before Signing a Lease

Sign your lease only after investigating these conditions. Finally, take photos of defects and make an exhaustive list of every minor flaw you can find in your new home on the day you take possession, and provide a copy to your landlord within three days. This is your best line of defense against unscrupulous property owners who attempt to keep security deposits unfairly. Use this checklist to make sure you haven't missed any important points:

1. Tour the actual property you are considering renting.

2. Read the full contract, including any homeowner association bylaws that can affect the owner's ability to rent to you.

3. Negotiate better terms if necessary.

4. Ask to see a property manager's authorizations to make repairs without a landlord's consent, if applicable. Otherwise, ask the landlord to insert a clause allowing you to deduct rent for necessary repairs you make.

5. Sign the lease only when its terms are acceptable to you.

6. Complete a thorough move-in checklist that notes even minor deficiencies.

7. Document those deficiencies with date-stamped photographs.


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Comments 13 comments

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

I scored 100%! Proves you have written this well, Jellygator. Thanks for the advice. I am sure many renters will benefit from what you have written.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Valuable information Jelly! Nice job compiling all of this.


jellygator profile image

jellygator 4 years ago from USA Author

Thank you both!


jimmythejock profile image

jimmythejock 4 years ago from Scotland

Woo Hoo, I scored 100% lol, I did have a landlord who refused to refund my deposit when I left, his reason being that their was a teaspoon missing from the inventory, How sad is that?.....jimmy


jellygator profile image

jellygator 4 years ago from USA Author

Wow, that's pathetic - not your test results, but that landlord! Good job on the quiz!

I don't know the laws in Scotland, but here in the U.S., he would probably only have been allowed the replacement cost of the spoon if you'd contested it in court.


Dancing Water profile image

Dancing Water 4 years ago

Very well written and clear hub! Gee, it seems that landlords hold all of the marbles. Thank you for your kind consideration in writing this hub during these financially challenging times.


jellygator profile image

jellygator 4 years ago from USA Author

It certainly can seem that way, Dancing Water! I think many tenants don't realize that they can negotiate terms to make sure things are balanced for them. Someone shoves a contract in front of them and says "Sign here" like they aren't allowed to ask questions or even read it.


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

I am waiting to see if I have to take my previous landlord to court for my deposit. Hooray! I've seen so many people, usually college kids, get taken advantage of because they don't know their rights. I've lost a small chunk of a deposit before because I didn't know it wasn't allowed. That's not the case this time! My old landlord was a very sketchy guy and I sent him my new address by certified mail. He has one week before I can start the process of getting my money back through more cumbersome means (and from the records I've found online, I won't be the first former tenant to take him to court!). It will be worth it, though, because the law is on my side and he should ultimately have to pay my legal fees, too. It will be a pain for me, too, and I will relish every minute of it because he deserves it.


jellygator profile image

jellygator 4 years ago from USA Author

LOL... Usually people aren't quite so enthusiastic about going to court!

I'll keep my fingers crossed for you, Natashalh!


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

Hahaha, true. And, yes, small claims court it will have to be! I do wish I didn't have to wait so long to get my own money back, but it is what it is.

He once promised me that he didn't care about going to court because he 'goes all the time.' I'm sure he does! I'm excited because it make take me years, but I'm legally entitled to 3x the money withheld, which will make him really upset. I'm also excited because he doesn't lots of things illegally, so I'm sure going to court won't actually be a very comfortable experience for him.


jellygator profile image

jellygator 4 years ago from USA Author

One thing I encourage you to learn about if it's small claims and you're representing yourself is the order of presentation that will take place. When I went, I was unable to present my witnesses because I didn't understand when to do it and the judge wasn't helpful about such things. They also brought in an attorney, which was a bit intimidating.

It turned out okay, but I think I'd have done better yet if I'd understood what to expect more.


Naomi 21 months ago

Unfortunately all legal questions suohld be answered by an attorney. However, my layman opinion is a landlord is able to raise the rent as much or as little as they want since there is no governmental rent control in Texas. Typically rent changes will be based on changes in demand for the apartment.


jellygator profile image

jellygator 21 months ago from USA Author

Yes, supply and demand definitely affect rent changes, and every state's laws are a little different from other states. Only an attorney can offer legal advice.

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