House of the Day #7: 409 W. 120th Street

Renter’s Rights 101

Renting a home or apartment can feel restricting. For one, it’s difficult to customize a space with paint or architectural changes that don’t violate the rental agreement. What’s more, few people want to spend time adjusting a rental unit, when their time their is so temporary. Leases have different durations and properties can be sold, forcing moves.

Finally, it can be difficult to know your rights as a renter. Without owning the property you reside on, your rights sometimes feel blurry. This week, we are looking to both the Legal Network and the Home Expert Network for advice on all aspects of renting.

Why We’re Asking:

Even though renting can feel restrictive, it also offers great freedom. Renting a space allows you to move after your lease ends or even the ability to break your lease, albeit with possible penalties. Owning a home does not allow for this freedom and mortgage can be a huge source of stress for many.

Since undergoing the recession, renting has become a reality for more Americans. According to the Rental Protection Agency, about one third of Americans are renting a space to call home. We want to learn from our network about how to make these spaces beautiful, safe, and stress-free.

So we look to our home and legal networks for their top tips on renting:

Home Experts

How can renters use DIY projects to customize their rentals without permanently altering the space?

What items should renters not bring into their new-to-them space?

Is there a checklist for moving that can make the process more streamlined?

Legal Network

Are there any inspections that renters should require before moving in or signing a lease?

How can renters be aware of their rights? How do you know when your landlord is violating such rights?

What are the best sources for accessing rental laws that are specific to your state?

We look forward to learning more about renting from our legal and home experts. Check back next week to see what they have to say!

Network members, post your answers in the comment field below!

  • Steven D. Pattee 02/07/13

    Landlord-Tenant laws vary by state and state statutes generally control the minimum rights and obligations of the parties. These minimum obligations and rights can then be increased by the lease agreement but generally not decreased. An internet search for your state’s landlord-tenant statutes usually will direct you to the governing law. If you have any questions about your rights or obligations, you should consult a landlord-tenant lawyer. Many locations also have advocacy groups that will work with residential tenants to explain legal rights and obligations. In Minnesota, county housing courts also have information for tenants.

    A renter should view the property before taking possession and note any defects or items that need to be repaired. This serves to protect your deposit so you can show that you did not cause the damage as well as making the premises habitable if the property fails to meet the minimum living standards required.

  • Senen Garcia, Esq. 02/11/13

    1. Are there any inspections that renters should require before moving
    in or signing a lease? Yes, before signing any lease, all renters
    should properly inspect the premises for any damages or issues. These
    problems should be raised to the landlord and either repaired or noted for
    the purposes removing fault from the tenant at time of expiration. This
    notation is important so that the tenant’s security deposit cannot be
    claimed for the problem. Of course, the lease itself should be reviewed
    before signing.
    2. How can renters be aware of their rights? How do you know when
    your landlord is violating such rights? There are two ways a tenant can
    be made aware of their rights: speaking to an attorney or looking up the
    statutes regarding landlord tenant matters. Either should provide all the
    rights and responsibilities for both landlords and tenants. Of course, the
    lease itself will also list additional responsibilities for both the
    landlord and tenant which should be reviewed before signing.
    3. What are the best sources for accessing rental laws that are
    specific to your state? As with my response in #2, the best sources are
    your state’s statutes or an attorney.

  • Ingrid Perri 02/11/13

    I rented for many years and found that on many occasions, if something
    needed painting, for example, and you offered to paint, the landlord would
    pay for the paint and you could choose the color. That way, you have some
    input.
    Another way to get in the good books is to maintain the garden, if you have
    one. Treat the place as well as if it was your own and you will have a
    warmer and more personal experience.

  • Anthony Lolli 02/11/13

    The best piece of advice I can give to any renter who wants to customize their space is to read your lease carefully. Many renters skim and sign without making sure that they understand every clause, so they don’t fully understand their rights. Even before signing your lease, you can often submit questions to the landlord. When you apply for an apartment, that’s a good time to ask any questions about what you would be allowed to do there. It shows that you’re thinking seriously about making the apartment your home.

    Keep in mind that every landlord and every building is different. Some landlords are happy to let you paint your apartments however you like, for instance. Some will only let you paint certain colors. Some will actually pay for your paint if the apartment needed touching up anyway. Some won’t let you paint at all. And some will have specific demands – for instance, in older buildings, the owner may not want you to paint over the original crown moldings.

    In general, whatever project you undertake, the key should be to leave as small of a footprint as possible. If you’re going to paint, be sure to protect the floors. Nothing drives landlords crazy like stained floors, especially when the flooring is new. Also be aware that you may have to paint it back to the original color when you leave if you want your security deposit back. If you’re going to hang a flat screen TV, be sure to use a stud-finder to find the safest place to hang it, so you don’t end up ripping a huge hole in the wall. Don’t undertake any project that would permanently alter the apartment, like installing a fireplace or central air. Even if you think what you’re doing is objectively an improvement, your landlord may not see it that way. Be cautious and considerate, though, and you can customize your apartment to an incredible degree while staying on your landlord’s good side and holding on to your security deposit.

    As far as knowing your rights, every state (and usually city) has its own resources you can turn to. Some may be specific to your situation. For instance, in New York City, renters living in a rent-stabilized, rent-controlled, or recently destabilized apartment can turn to the Rent Stabilization Association (http://www.rsanyc.com/). You can also do a quick Internet search for your local housing authority.

    You can go to your local building department or propertyshark.com to find out if there have been any complaints lodged against the building or its owner before you move in. Simply doing a Google search for your landlord’s name or the building address may also turn up useful information, such as reviews from past tenants, bedbug history, or any major violations.

    But the most important tip, once again, is again, to read your lease carefully before you sign it. Ask questions if there’s anything you don’t understand. If a clause makes you uncomfortable, or makes you feel like you’re surrendering your rights, just don’t sign.

  • Shari Shore, Esq. 02/11/13

    Are there any inspections that renters should require before moving in or signing a lease? Yes, at the very least, a renter should have a check-in inspection (with an appropriate checklist) and do a walk through with the landlord. The condition of the apartment and anything else contained in the lease that the tenant is responsible for should be documented in the checklist. As an additional precaution, the renter may also want to include pictures of anything that is in questionable condition (i.e. chipped paint, warped floorboards, etc.).

    How can renters be aware of their rights? How do you know when your landlord is violating such rights? Renters can speak with a local housing attorney and/or check their state statutes. Many state judicial sites also have resources available online to provide handbooks or references for both tenants and landlords.

    What are the best sources for accessing rental laws that are specific to your state? It may vary state to state, but in general, state statutes or the state judicial site is a great place to begin.

  • Grace Dunklee Cohen 02/12/13

    A couple of things my son & daughter have learned the hard way during their
    post-college rental years:

    1. ALWAYS have RENTER’s INSURANCE

    2. Check for hidden MOLD in closets, baseboards & inside all cabinets
    when looking at perspective rentals

    3. If possible, speak with some renters about how quickly the landlord
    addresses problems and how the property is cared for

    My late-20-something kids have no interest in owning property – they would
    rather rent and have freedom and flexibility to pursue their life passions.
    This is a pretty different model than Mom . who graduated college and
    married in 1975 and became a homeowner in 1978.

    Both kids have had some interesting rental experiences that have helped them
    become pretty astute at sizing up properties and landlords.

    Clothing retailer, Marcy Sims always said, “An educated shopper is our
    best customer.” This philosophy holds true in the world of rentals, too!

  • Bruce Ailion 02/12/13

    The initial guide should be a lease. The lease is a legally binding
    contract and often provides for no altercations or only altercations
    approved in advance, in writing and usually require returning the property
    to the original condition. A tenant should always abide by the lease.
    The purpose of the lease is to have a written guide or understanding, that
    does not mean it cannot be altered by mutual agreement. A smart landlord
    will work to accommodate a tenant’s reasonable requests. Likewise a smart
    landlord should not object to a tenant offering to pay to make improvements
    to the property. A happy and comfortable tenant is one that renews. Many
    landlords will pay or share in the cost of modifications that improve the
    property. If you don’t ask you will never know. Your rights and
    responsibilities are what are in your lease contract and what you agree to
    in writing.

    Typical modifications might be:

    Ceiling fans / updated up graded lighting

    Replacing faucets / sinks

    Permanent window coverings like blinds

    Painting accent walls / rooms

    Replacing / resurfacing counter tops

    Changing flooring / Installing tile accent hard woods

    Installing plants / landscape

    Some of these items are capital improvements that cannot be easily taken or
    removed or returned to the original state. They also involve some degree of
    personal taste and just because you might like purple counter tops does not
    mean the owner or the next tenant will. Getting approval is critical along
    with a clear understanding of what happens at the end of the lease. Most
    importantly – GET IT IN WRITING.

    Today it is as important for a tenant to check out the property owner than
    the property owner check out the tenant. Ask to see the deed to the
    property. Most REALTORS will as a favor check the public record to see if
    there is a loan on the property and determine if the owner has equity in the
    property. Little, no, or negative equity and the risk of foreclosure
    increases. You might want the mortgage company’s phone number and loan
    number to check that the loan is current, you will need the owner’s
    permission to do this. You do not want to be improving a property or paying
    rent to an owner that isn’t making payments or planning on keeping the
    property. While a foreclosing lender may let you continue to rent the
    property, this is far from certain, banks are not in the business of
    managing properties. Ask 10 of your friends who rent if they or someone
    they know has had to move due to a property being foreclosed and chances are
    you will hear several positive responses.

    If a tenant is doing substantial modifications, expensive modifications,
    having a lease that allows those costs to be amortized is also important.
    As an owner I prefer longer term leases. A property manager might not like
    that because it reduces the fees they can collect. Be sure the property
    manager presents the longer term lease to the owner.

  • Shawn C. White 02/12/13

    I am a real estate attorney and handle tenant/landlord issues on a routine basis. I practice law primarily in Arizona; however, like most states, there are specific laws relating to landlord and tenants. These laws provide for specifics that govern the landlord/tenant relationship. Most state agencies, like the secretary of state and the attorney general office, provide handbooks for tenants to read. One of the things I tell my clients is to investigate the property and the landlord. The internet provides you with the possibility to determine if the landlord has been involved in any lawsuits or bankruptcies. These types of searches can take as little as 10 minutes. There are several things I tell my tenants (1) get it in writing; (2) buy renter’s insurance; (3) talk with your landlord if there is a problem and if he/she doesn’t respond then put it in writing; (4) be sure you are comfortable with the property and the landlord before signing the lease; and (5) ask the neighbors about the property. The last one sounds silly but you’d be surprised what the neighbors will tell you about the landlord and the property.

  • Renée E. Warren 02/14/13

    TIPS for Moving and Making the Space Yours

    1. Remember it’s not your home for life, but a temporary spot that
    you want to feel comfortable it. There are a few simple things you can do to
    make it yours!

    2. Color. Color is always a way to make it yours. What you can offer
    most landlords is to provide the paint and paint the walls the color you
    want. They must paint prior to you moving in. So, you supply the paint and
    then when you move out; just paint it back.

    This just happened. I rented/leased a space to a client this passed Thursday
    and the landlord had yet to paint the walls in the second bedroom. So, I
    suggested to the new tenant that if she bought the paint, I’m positive the
    owner would paint it for her. And, that he did.

    3. Light fixtures. This is a nominal cost. Lower priced apartments
    would have standard fixtures, you can purchase from Home Depot or in NYC we
    have the lighting district where you can change those ho-hum fixtures to
    something spectacular.

    4. Window Treatment. You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to
    have great curtains. Any fabric store will suffice. You can measure the
    widow and just buy a funky pattern or sew a hem at the top and bottom, buy a
    curtain rod – voila.

    5. Paintings or Pictures. If you like to take pictures, just blow up
    some of your favorites and frame them. If you don’t just purchase posters …
    it’s all about the frame.

    6. MEASURE: Always measure your apartment. Often times when moving
    to NYC or other large cities, people think they have more space. I have seen
    all too often people wanting to take a KING size bed into an 800 sq. foot
    apartment. Don’t take it, if it doesn’t fit!

    7. DON’T THINK it has to be perfect the day you move it. Let the
    space move you and it will become yours.

    8. CHECKLIST – as moving can be overwhelming and stressful, it’s
    always best to create a checklist.

    -BUDGET. Decide your Budget. Will you hire a moving company or do it
    yourself? If you do it yourself make sure you have the proper packing
    materials as not to break anything. If you are hiring a company, check their
    references and get their price in writing. Often times they may change their
    price if you DON’T have it in writing

    -LEASE. Check your current lease and make sure you are not breaking it and
    that you return the apartment back in the same condition to receive your
    security back.

    -Check your new lease and find out what incentives there are. Often times
    landlords will give one month free, appliances … it’s always good to ask.

    -STORAGE. Don’t put anything in storage is my first rule of thumb. Everyone
    I know that says they will use what they have in storage NEVER goes back.
    Sale it or give it away to charity and take the deduction.

    -2nd LOOK. Take a second look. After you decided you want the new apartment.
    Go back and take a second look. Create a punch list of things that the
    landlord may need to fix. (i.e. shower, re-do the floors …)

    -LAYOUT. On your second look, measure out your furniture. If it’s not going
    to fit, give it away and purchase new smaller furniture.

    -2nd Hand Stores/Goodwill/Thrift. Don’t think everything has to be new.
    There are great buys at second hand stores. Also, just as you may get rid of
    something, so will someone else. Don’t forget about yard sales!

    -Make a list of ALL items you will take, take pictures of your items …

    -Change your address for mail and all credit cards; send out change of
    address notes to friends

    -There many more items … but this is a start. But, always, always, ask your
    agent about the neighborhood you are moving too, how they would lay the
    apartment out as they may have seen what the last tenant did … and get to
    know the super in the new building as he will become your best friend.

    -And, never ever pack your clothes for the week w/ your furniture. Just in
    case things are separated. Keep cloths for one week w/ you and ALL personal financial items close to your vest.

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