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Finding a place to rent

Renting an apartment or a house is the choice for people in many different life situations. You might be saving for a down payment on a house, planning to move in a few years, or you're just not interested in the additional expense and responsibilities, such as maintenance and repair, of a house. No matter why you're choosing to rent, you can greatly improve the experience by selecting the right place for you, properly protecting your assets, and avoiding any unnecessary financial and legal problems..

A lease is a binding contract that lays out the conditions and responsibilities of a rental agreement, both for the owner and the renter. It stipulates the monthly rental price, payment due date, the length of the lease as well as what happens if one of you breaks the lease. Other information contained in the lease is which of you pays the utilities, if pets are allowed, and any other restrictions and requirements the landlord wants to include.

Read your lease agreement very carefully before you sign it. You will be held accountable for knowing everything included in the lease, even if you never read it! Also, keep a copy of the lease for your records. It may come in handy if you have a question about what you are or are not allowed to do.

  • Cosigner. If the landlord is not convinced that you will be able to make your payments, he or she may require you to get a cosigner. This is someone who will share financial responsibility for the lease. If for some reason you are unable to make the payments, the cosigner will then be responsible for making the payments.
  • Breaking a lease. You should avoid breaking a lease if at all possible. Each lease agreement has its own penalties for breaking the terms. Some only require the payment of a penalty. Some will require you to continue paying rent until the apartment is re-rented. Check your lease to make sure you can handle the financial ramifications before you break your lease.

When you sign a lease, you are held to the terms specified in that lease except for the following:

  • Any conditions that are unfair or unenforceable.
  • Any terms that force a tenant to pay for repairs that the landlord is responsible for.
  • Any wording that limits the right of the tenant to sue the landlord for an injury that occurs on the premises.
  • Any agreement that requires the tenant to pay the landlord's legal fees.
  • Any terms that waive the tenant's right to be legally evicted through a court process.

Leases are also required to list the name and address of the property owner and his or her agent, if there is one. If this information is not in the lease, it must be given to the tenant at move in.

You must give the landlord notice when you intend to end the rental period described in the lease. In return, the landlord must notify you when he or she wants to end the rental agreement or raise the rent.

If you rent monthly, notice must be given at least 30 days before the end of the rental. If you rent weekly, notice must be given at least 7 days in advance.

Your rights
Tenant rights are, for the most part, set by state law, so you should check for the specific laws that affect tenants in your state. The following is information on some fairly common tenants rights that may or may not be applicable to your state.

  • Your responsibilities.
    • Keep the apartment clean
    • Put out garbage in proper containers
    • Use electrical and plumbing fixtures properly
    • Follow local housing, health and safety rules
    • Do not damage the landlord's property or disturb neighbors
    • Make sure guests do not destroy the landlord's property or disturb other residents
    • Use appliances with care
    • Notify the landlord when repairs are needed
  • Landlord's responsibilities
    • Obey all health and safety laws and regulations.
    • Make all repairs needed to maintain the property in good condition.
    • Keep all common areas safe, clean and in good repair.
    • Maintain all electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning fixtures and applications that the landlord provides or is required to provide.
    • Provide and maintain garbage cans and provide for trash removal where there are four or more units in the building.
    • Supply running water and enough hot water and heat at all times, unless there are separate heating or hot water units for each dwelling unit and the utility fees for the heating and hot water are paid directly by the tenant to a public utility company.
    • Give at least 24 hours notice to a tenant before trying to enter his or her apartment and enter only at reasonable times unless there is an emergency.
    • Do not abuse the right to enter.

Security deposit
Landlords may require a security deposit that will be used to cover any unpaid rent or damages you cause. This money must be refunded within 30 days of the end of the rental agreement. The landlord, however, may deduct the cost of any repairs that he or she has to make, other than maintenance from normal wear and tear. Any charges deducted from the security deposit must be listed separately and sent with the remainder of the deposit. If you disagree with the deductions or you do not receive the security deposit, you may sue your landlord.

A landlord can require any amount for a security deposit. A few states require the landlord to pay you interest on your deposit.

Other issues
There are other items that you need to take care of, or may consider, when renting:

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