5 Shockingly-Common Renter Failures

Real estate, Rights, Tips & how-to

More people in the U.S. are opting to rent, creating greater demand for apartments and lease properties. Renters should know their rights in this competitive market and make sure to avoid these common tenant pitfalls.

The Top 5 Shocking Renter Failures — and How to Avoid Them

1. Not taking “before” photos. Before you move in to that perfect apartment you should take out your camera and snap photos–perhaps even before you give a deposit. See that water damage below the tub?  If you see damage, document it and provide copies of the dated photos to your manager with a written notice of damage, always keeping a copy for yourself. If your landlord fails to make timely repairs, you may have to take further steps (more on that later).

2. Not getting a receipt. Most landlords are in business for the long haul, so even if you pay in cash they will document it correctly. But there are a few shifty landlords out there who prey on the innocent. Here’s a key rule for all transactions with your landlord management. Document the day you pay in cash and have the manager sign your receipt. Don’t hand over money without a signature from your landlord. If you pay with a check, your bank will have a record of the cashed check.

3. Not understanding how to handle repairs. Imagine a leak in the roof of your apartment. Taking quick action, you call the manager to request an immediate repair. When nothing happens for a week, you get your brother-in-law up on the roof for $1200 repairs that you then withhold from your $1200 rent. When the manager demands full rent, you are at a loss to pay. What did you do wrong? First off, when you saw the leak you should have given a written notice (retaining a copy for yourself) to the building manager, which would have started the clock running regarding the defective condition. Know what your rights are under state law; you can retrieve this information from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In some states, a defective condition that deprives a tenant of heat, electricity, or hot or cold water, or that causes an imminent hazard, requires the landlord to repair it within 24 hours (lest you should have to relocate for several days or weeks, paying rent elsewhere until the issue is resolved). Less urgent situations such as broken refrigerators, ranges, or plumbing fixtures have a longer waiting period (sometimes 72 hours). If the repair does not involve one of these major problems,  the landlord may have 10 or more days to take care of it. In California, renters may have the legal right to repair and deduct repair costs from their rent twice in a 12-month period; they may also move without notice depending on the landlord’s breach.

Each state is different — some more tenant-friendly than others — and you need to know the rules by checking out HUD.gov or by getting a recommendation to a tenant lawyer. Check Avvo’s Q&A section for common questions, and search articles by our lawyers (which are specific to your location) to help you learn your rights and get disputes resolved. Whatever the rules of your state, follow them exactly. Don’t take a shortcut when it comes to requesting the landlord to make repairs, or you could find yourself out repair and rental money. In disputes involving repairs, utilizing the services of an experienced tenant attorney is necessary.

4. Subletting the apartment to other renters. Typically, leases prohibit subleases; if you need leave, provide timely written notice to your manager and ask how best to proceed (refer to your contract’s early termination clause, if it contains one). Many landlords will require you to end your term and have the new tenant go through the entire application process through the landlord. This is good practice by the landlord, who needs to protect the property, so don’t take this action personally. In fact, it’s best to never sublease your apartment because you don’t want to be liable for damages caused by the sub-lessee.

5. Forgetting to leave a forwarding address. When you move out, your landlord is obligated to assess the premises for damages that may be deducted from your security deposit, so here’s another time when it makes sense to use your camera. Before you lock the door one last time on move out day, record the state of the premises, especially carpets and walls. The best practice is to show the before-and-after photos to the manager during a final walk through and have the manager agree on paper (or even on video) that there is no new visible damage.

In some states, such as Washington, the landlord has 14 days to detail the damages that are assessed and send that document to you at your forwarding address; in Louisiana, the landlord has a month. In order to receive your security deposit back, you need to leave a forwarding address with the manager.

Knowing your rights protects you as a renter, whether you are looking for, living in, or moving out of your apartment. Be informed about your state’s tenant protections and landlord responsibilities, and you’ll be more likely to save money and avoid legal issues.