Choosing a good apartment is only the beginning of the unique brand of power struggle that exists only between a renter and a landlord. No other contractual relationship places so much raw power in the hands of a landlord (or a property management company)1. In the United States, for the most part, the landlord tends to have more laws in place protecting him than you, the renter, have to protect your interests. This is probably because if you're renting an apartment, you're probably not rich.

Still, there are basic tenets that just about every state has put on the lawbooks to provide some protection to renters. I'll summarize the basics here; these should always apply, no matter where you live or who you're renting from2. Afterwards, I'll discuss specific steps to take during the different phases of apartment living (namely, moving in, living there, and moving out) that will help protect you and preserve your rights.

My focus in this piece is a rented dwelling; one you rent with the intention of living in it. Similar principles govern other types of rentals, though (like rental cars, storage units, electronics, movies, etc.), and so may be useful in other situations as well.

  1. Compliance with housing quality standards and availability of basic services.
    Any dwelling you rent should be suitable for human occupancy. This sounds obvious, but looking at how many slum lords are still around these days proves that not everybody realizes this. Your home should provide you with the basics: security (you should be able to reasonably secure your home with lockable doors and closable, lockable windows), privacy (when you make the effort to close everything up (including the blinds), nobody should be able to see or hear what you're doing in your home), protection from the elements (wind, rain, dust, pests, snow, and other environmental events should remain outside), and reasonable access to basic services (that means it should have good plumbing -- a working toilet, running faucets, a working bath or shower, etc. -- and should make available access to a phone line and waste removal services, and it should provide some kind of heating as well). Each city and state (and even the federal government) have defined minimum quality standards, and apartments are included in the list of dwellings that must meet those standards. It's not optional; your landlord must comply with this one.
  2. Prompt, appropriate, and competent maintenance and repair.
    The specifics vary from state to state, but you have the right to demand prompt and competent maintenance and repairs when something in the apartment, furnished by the landlord, malfunctions or is damaged through no fault of your own. I always recommend making repair requests in writing (see below), but even if you just walk to the management office and tell the drones there "my water heater is leaking and my heater isn't working at all, so it's 60 degrees or less at night in my apartment now," your landlord is still responsible for quickly and properly repairing the problem(s). In some cases, when a repair isn't done in a timely fashion, the unit can fall out of compliance with the above-mentioned housing standards, so no amount of stalling or legal maneuvering will get the landlord out of his obligation to fix the problem. In other cases, when the damage or malfunction is cosmetic ("I pulled on the little string to open up my drapes and they fell out of the window mounting completely"), the landlord is still generally required to repair the problem within a certain number of business days. Additionally, you are entitled to see an accurate, up-to-date price schedule for any and all maintenance and repair tasks your landlord bills you for.
  3. Reasonable expectation of privacy.
    Most leases include a paragraph that explicitly grants the landlord permission to enter the unit to make an emergency repair when the situation merits this. In most states, though, the law is very clear on what exactly constitutes an emergency. Basically, if the landlord can fix something in your apartment that would cause damage to other units or other tenants' property (a fire sprinkler goes off, a pipe bursts, a sewage line backs up, etc.), the landlord can enter without your permission (or even your knowledge) to fix the problem. That's all he can do, though. Otherwise, your landlord must normally have your express written permission (or at least verbal permission) to enter your home to do anything. Sometimes a landlord will try to sneak in addendums that try to force you to waive this right, but in general, such clauses are not enforcable (because you normally can't sign away your rights in these situations) -- don't fall for these.
  4. No discrimination.
    Another seemingly obvious but often overlooked point is that of racism and other forms of discrimination. Your landlord cannot refuse to rent to you, end your lease early, refuse to renew your lease, raise your rent, or take any other action (or refuse to take action) because your sex, race, age, religious affiliation, disability, or heritage. The minute you get even a hint of this kind of thing going on, stop reading Everything2.com and go hire a lawyer. This is one of the few things the federal government takes very seriously in renter's rights issues, and they come down hard on landlords who discriminate like this. Note your rent can still go up, but it needs to go up along with everyone else's.

Actually preserving these rights, and protecting yourself legally and financially, can be a daunting task. Thankfully there's plenty you can do to make it easier.

Moving In
When you first get the keys and a map to your shiny new apartment, it's tempting to just grab your stuff and start hauling it all in. Resist this urge; there's some things you need to check and do first.

  1. Check for damage.
    Look for holes in the walls (especially, look for spackled spots -- the previous tenant, or the landlord, might have covered them up). Look for cracked or missing wall plates (electrical outlets, phone jacks, cable jacks, etc.). Inspect any and all visible plumbing, such as the pipes beneath your kitchen and bathroom sinks, the line(s) to/from your toilets, and the bathtub and shower. Turn on every faucet, and watch for leaks. You should be able to get any desired water temperature from every faucet. There should be no leaks; check around the seals and such for moisture. Check any grouting for loose or missing grout. Make sure all drains actually train. Make sure the toilet(s) flush.

Check windows (and doors -- they tend to use cardboard doors in apartments) for cracks. Make sure every window and external door can be completely closed and locked, and that a person couldn't force one of them open from the outside (without throwing a brick through a window, that is). Check their seals, too; air should not easily flow in or out of the apartment unless you want it to. Look for markings on the walls, and check the carpet for soiled areas.

  • Document everything.
    Whether you find any damage or not, visually document every part of the apartment, floor to ceiling. Bring a witness who won't be living with you (a parent or relative is better than nothing for this, but a friend or coworker is better) do inspect the unit as well. If you have a camera, take pictures of the apartment. Include general overall views (these should show the general cleanliness level), and closeups of anything you found damaged or missing. If you have a camcorder, video everything. Make sure any damages are closely and carefully documented. Don't be afraid to speak up, either, during recording; narrate the video, as in "crack in the wall, master bedroom, South wall".

    When you've done all that, detail (in writing) any damage or problems you've found in the apartment. If the unit is safe for habitation at this point, you can start moving in. Make sure your landlord gets a copy of your itemized damage report; don't let him keep the only copy. If he gives you a form to fill in, don't leave his office until he gives you a copy of the completed form.

  • Ask for the apartment's repair history.
    You can do this when you hand in your damage report, or wait a bit until after you've moved in, but ask as early as you can for this. It doesn't have to be detailed or itemized, but your landlord should be able to tell you exactly what he had to clean, repair, or replace in your apartment after its previous occupant moved out and before you moved in. This establishes a repair history, which will be useful later.
  • Notify the landlord, in writing, that he must provide written advance notice when he wants to enter your apartment.
    Many leases already make this stipulation (or permit the renter to specify his choice), so if this is the case in your lease, that's good enough. If the lease doesn't mention it, or doesn't let you specify it, write a letter3 informing your landlord of your preference. If he ignores it, you may have legal recourse (again, see a lawyer). This boils down to a lot of common sense ideas, but lots of people are so excited about their new home that they tend to forget this kind of thing. Really, all you're doing is inspecting the unit and documenting problems for your landlord. By doing this, you automatically protect yourself against being billed for the problems you find as you move in, or of being accused of causing the damage in the first place. This is the single strongest form of protection you can have against a greedy landlord who tries to keep your deposit when you move out later on.

    Day-to-Day Living
    Once you've settled in, you'll quickly get a feel for how life in your new home and community will be, day-to-day. Make sure you include learning your landlord's rules, regulations, policies, and processes as you learn the rest. You need to know what to do when a problem arises, and how your landlord expects you to notify him. From here, it's mostly smooth sailing, but there's still some things you should keep in mind.

    1. Immediately report any maintenance problem as soon as it arises.
      Don't put off telling your landlord about a maintenance problem, even if it's just a bad weather seal or a rip in a window screen. Always notify your landlord, in writing, any time your apartment need maintenance.

      For one thing, this prevents a minor annoyance from becoming a gigantic problem. More importantly, though, it both prevents the landlord from blaming you later for the problem, and protects you on move-out in case the landlord decides he wants you to pay for some of the repairs.

    2. Enforce your right-of-entry election.
      If you've told your landlord not to enter (or permit his maintenance staff to enter) your apartment without advance notification, don't let him in if he just "drops by" unless it's actually convenient for you. Even if it is acceptable for you, remind him that he needs to provide written advance notice next time. If it's not a good time for you, schedule an appointment on the spot, or authorize him to enter just this once for whatever maintenance he's doing. It sounds like a slippery slope argument, but it's true in this case -- once you let him in once without a fuss, he'll come to expect it. Don't let that happen.
    3. Report problems with neighbors immediately.
      Whether your landlord invited you to or not, or whether your landlord takes action or not, always notify him (in writing) of any problems you have with any of your neighbors4. This should even include minor arguments, acts of rudeness or discourtesy (flipping you off, taking your space, etc.), and most certainly should include noise complaints, acts of vandalism (or other crimes), etc. Naturally for the minor things, you should try to resolve the issue with your neighbor directly, but if it doesn't work out, let your landlord know.

      Some people have a problem with this -- it does give the appearance of a person who can't solve his own problems. However, there are lots of reasons why keeping your landlord informed of neighbor disputes is a smart move.

      First, the United States is a very litigious country. You can be sued for just about anything, and in turn, you can sue anyone for just about anything. Some people will turn even a minor neighborhood squabble into a giant legal battle. Your best defense against people like this is to document everything that happens as soon as you can, so it remains fresh in your mind as you write. Providing your landlord with the details helps him in case the neighbor sues him for something later on, and is more likely to put the landlord on your side if your neighbor does anything else to you. If a neighbor becomes troublesome enough that the landlord is considering eviction, the more documentation he has from residents like you, the better. If he can walk into a courtroom, hand the bailiff an inch-thick pile of letters from his other tenants regarding the poor behavior of the bad neighbor, he'll be assured a victory when the neighbor sues for a wrongful eviction.

      Second, the landlord is more likely to just talk to your neighbor about the problem if he has a written account of what happened. If it was just a quick argument, this won't happen, but if you asked your neighbor politely to be quiet so you could sleep at 3:00am, and he got angry, yelled at you, and blasted his music even louder, the landlord is going to want a quick word with him about it. Remember, everyone else in your apartment complex is bound by the same (or similar) lease terms you are, and causing a disturbance to your neighbors will get you booted out, so why shouldn't it apply to other residents too?

    4. Document your landlord's actions and responses.
      Sacrificing the more casual phone-based relationship with your landlord may make the landlord/tenant relationship feel colder, but it will most certainly protect you if you ever have to take legal action (or defend yourself against it).

      Whenever you report a problem, whether it's a maintenance/repair issue or a rude neighbor, record the landlord's response to your report (if any), and record what action the landlord took to resolve the problem. Note how long it took.

      If the landlord is slow to act, it will work against him if you ever decide to break the lease; eventually you'll have a long list of slow responses, and you can just show it to him as you explain how he's violated the lease and give him his notice (if any). Courts love documentation; if you have to sue to get out of your lease, or if you have to defend yourself against a suit alledging you've broken the lease, you're very likely to win if you've got a big long list of problems and of how poorly the landlord responded.

    5. Don't make any modification you can't undo or repair when you move out.
      In general, while you are living in the unit, as long as you haven't caused structural damage with a modification (like adding shelving to the walls, replacing the cruddy shower head they always provide, or hanging posters), your landlord cannot order you to take it down or bill you for what it might cost to remove it for you.

      However, it's not a good idea to have a carpenter replace your kitchen cupboards and countertops with a custom job. Sure, it'll look wonderful, and your landlord might even forgive you mucking up his unit, but he might also get very angry that you've changed how the apartment looks and bill you for replacing the counters. In general, don't do anything to your apartment that you can't fix, undo, or at least hide properly when you move out.

    6. Stay informed of law changes in your area, and of community changes.
      It's not too hard to get a newspaper or find news online for your community, so stay on top of it. Laws your city or state pass (or repeal) may affect your rights as a renter. You may gain additional protections, or you might lose something instead. Also, pay attention to the changes, if any, that are made to your apartment community -- new features (a new tennis court, resurfacing a swimming pool, etc.), features being removed (removing the lush water display by the leasing office, reduction in parking spaces, etc.), rule changes (anyone under 18 must be accompanied by a tenant to use the pool after 10:00pm), and so on.

      If a feature is added to your apartment community, check your records on repair speed. If the landlord is slow to repair things in your apartment (claiming he's low on funds), but appears to have the money to build a new tennis court or a fancy addition to a swimming pool, it's time to start asking hard questions (namely, "why can you afford that when you claim you don't have the cash to repair my leaking toilet?"). Feature additions also always mean your rent will go up on the next lease renewal.

      If a feature is removed from the community, depending on the state you live in, you might have legal recourse to seek a reduction in rent (specifically, because the community no longer offers a feature promised you when you signed your lease, it is no longer worth the price you were paying to live in it). Also, it's worth asking for a reason why the feature is being removed, unless it's painfully obvious (the empty parking lot nobody ever uses).

    7. Don't be a hermit.
      Get out a bit, and try to get to know your neighbors. This seems to be more obvious in a homeowner situation than a rental one, but it still holds true; the more neighbors you know, the more likely it is you'll be on good terms with at least a few of them. You don't have to have them over for dinner or throw a party every week, but staying in touch with them keeps you included in a larger, more effective bargaining group. A problem you face alone may not be enough to convince your landlord to fix it, if it's cosmetic or trivial, but if a group of tenants combine their efforts, you can effect change that normally you just couldn't accomplish (think "clean the pool more often!" and "we need a security patrol to stop all this vandalism!").

    You may have noticed much of the above advice involves writing and documentation. It's impossible to explain just how important keeping good documentation can be, but I'll try anyway. Tracking, in writing, everything your landlord says and does, and everything "bad" that happens in your apartment during your lease, is the single most important protection you have when it comes time to move out!

    You don't have to be secretive about your documentation either; while you're not required to share your landlord's dossier with him, you may find it an effective tool in motivating him to take action, or to prevent him claiming your deposit when you move out. If you let your landlord know that you're documenting everything that happens during your stay, he'll be much less likely to try pulling a fast one (landlords often take advantage of inexperienced or ignorant renters) and will be quick to resolve any issue you raise.

    Moving Out
    Moving out of an apartment is never easy; you're juggling having to move all your stuff from one place to another, keeping your pets out of harm's way during the move, and of course the new lease (or the mortgage) of a new home to sign, mail to forward, address change letters to mail, and more.

    And here I am, about to pile even more onto your plate. Thankfully, these are pretty quick and painless.

    1. Put in maintenance requests to fix anything you've let slide, fix anything you've damaged yourself, and start cleaning.
      Another good reason why you shouldn't put off maintenance requests is that if you do, you get to juggle those into your moving nightmare as well. Still, nobody's perfect, so there's probably something cosmetically wrong with your place that you should tell your landlord about before you move out.

      Even after you've given notice, you're still a tenant, and your landlord still has to repair things in your apartment when you report them. In some cases, when it's just a cosmetic problem (like bent blind slats, or a new paint job), the landlord will schedule the maintenance task for after you leave the unit, but will state (in writing) that you won't be responsible for the costs of the work. This is acceptable.

      More importantly, though, you should start repairing any damage you've caused on your own. Spackle in any holes you've put in the walls, take down any shelving you've put up, and try to get all those stains out of the carpet. Finally, start cleaning the apartment, top to bottom. You'll still be able to go back after you've moved everything out of course, but that will be easier if you get some cleaning done now.

      Once you've emptied out the apartment, thoroughly clean it. When that's done, whip out the camera or camcorder and start recording everything. You want to show the unit is clean and undamaged. Get detail shots of everything you can possibly think of, including carpets, tile, faucets, drip pans, appliances, walls, ceiling, windows, even the bathroom tile.

    2. Schedule a walkthrough, attend it with your landlord, document it, and don't return the keys until after the walkthrough is done.
      Under no circumstances should you ever trust the landlord to perform the walkthrough without you and provide an honest damage assessment5. Yes, the landlord can (and will) do his own walkthrough after you're gone, but the walkthrough you perform together, if you document it properly, should be legally binding, in that damages your landlord finds later on could not have possibly been caused by you, since you were there when he inspected the unit the first time and found nothing. Your landlord will likely try to make you give back your keys before the walkthrough; refuse this outright. While rare, landlords have been known to enter vacated apartments, and cause more damage before the walkthrough; the tenant doesn't have any recourse in this case, unless you've documented how your unit looked when you vacated it. A good compromise on this point is to surrender the keys during or immediately after the walkthrough.

      Be very attentive and vigilant during the walkthrough about any item the landlord points out. Make sure you have someone along as a witness, and if possible, to document the walkthrough with a camcorder. Remember that list of repairs your landlord said he'd take care of and not hold you responsible for? Hopefully you've brought it with you on the walkthrough. If he points to something and you know it's on the list, he will quickly back off.

      At the end of the walkthrough, the apartment is officially no longer yours. At that point, you're entitled to a full, itemized list of things the landlord intends to charge you for. Unfortunately, the law doesn't say you get that list right away; the landlord usually has a disgustingly long amount of time to tally it up. Still, insist on at least a written list of damages, and ask that the move-out process be expedited. You should know, when you walk out of the landlord's office for (hopefully) the last time, roughly how much of your deposit you'll get back, what you'll be charged for, and when to expect the full itemized list and your refund check.

    3. Carefully scrutinize the itemized list when you receive it, and immediately challenge anything you feel is incorrect.
      The very day you receive your move-out list from your landlord, go through it with a fine-toothed comb. There should be a check included as well; if there wasn't, and you were expecting one, it's time for a lawyer.

      The itemized list should match exactly what your landlord pointed out during the walkthrough, and ideally also should match the list he gave you during your last meeting. The costs should also be identical to the quote he gave (if any) or should be close to the numbers he gave you during the walkthrough. This is why documenting the walkthrough (with a camcorder) is essential; "replacing that door should cost about $40" during the walkthrough automatically becomes "REPL. INTERIOR DOOR. $85.00" if you can't prove the landlord said it was only forty bucks.

      If you see any item you don't recognize, immediately contact the landlord and request an explanation. Doing this over the phone may be the most immediately satisfying way to do it, but keeping this inquiry in writing is the most effective route if the need for litigation ever arises.

      In general, you should not be billed for any of the following items:

      • Normal wear and tear - stuff deteriorates over time, and your landlord knows that. If the refrigerator in your unit was ten years old when you moved in, and you didn't damage it (in a way that can be proven, that is), your landlord can't bill you for any part of the cost of its replacement when it dies. The same goes for the carpet, paint job, bath tub, and fixtures.
      • Carpet replacement - unless the carpet is brand new and must be replaced because of stains you've left behind, you shouldn't owe any portion of the materials cost or labor charges for replacing the carpet.
      • Carpet cleaning - you also shouldn't be billed for carpet cleaning if you paid a carpet cleaning fee when you moved in (that's the next tenant's debt, not yours). If the landlord always cleans the carpet between occupants, it's normally either up to him to absorb those costs, or the tenant moving in. The only time this is acceptable is if you did not pay a cleaning fee when you moved in, and you agreed (in writing) to pay it on your way out. Watch this one closely; landlords love double dipping with this fee.
      • Upgrades or changes in the unit - your landlord can, of course, upgrade or change anything he wishes in his rental units; he owns them, after all. However, supposing he upgraded every apartment's water heater, but skipped yours, because of a scheduling conflict or a simple refusal ("ours is working fine, you don't need to replace it yet"), he cannot come back after you've moved out and claim you owe him the cost of the upgrade (even if it costs him more money to do it now than when he was doing all the others).

      When you're billed for any kind of work or materials above and beyond what you expected, you're entitled to see every piece of documentation your landlord has on the work. A photocopy of an estimate is not sufficient for this; your landlord must be able to justify the work, and prove that he both paid for it and had it done6. If your landlord can't prove he incurred any actual losses for the line item, he's not entitled to withhold it from your deposit.

    Again, this is all pretty common-sense stuff; document the condition the place was in when you moved into it, and document its condition on your way out. Document everything your landlord says and does, and keep track of the repairs that are needed. Don't let a landlord wander into your home whenever he wants, and don't let your neighbors turn your apartment into a prison with their unpleasant behavior.

    This relatively small amount of effort, though, can mean the difference between a smooth transition with a full deposit refund, and a small claims court case starring you in the defendant box and your ex-landlord in the plaintiff box.

    Feedback and additional suggestions are always welcome. Disclaimer: the author has been burned by landlords before because he didn't follow his own advice; bias against landlords should be obvious, but is stated here just in case.

    Disclaimer 2: Check with your local consumer protection bureau, or a local government housing office, for specifics on your city and state's laws and regulations regarding renter's rights. Some states favor landlords more than tenants, others are reversed, and a few others put them on pretty even footing. Note that you may not be able to force your landlord to accept your terms or comply with some of the requests I've suggested you make of him, but it is always wise to ask for it anyway. A good landlord will be eager to cooperate with someone who's really got it together, and won't have any problem at all maintaining a "transparent" relationship with you. It can make life easier for him, too.


    Footnotes

    1Not even a mortgage gives the lender as much power as the average apartment lease gives to the landlord. For the most part, a mortgage lender can't barge into your house unannounced or uninvited, even in an emergency. A mortgage lender can't randomly snoop around and bill you for making modifications to your home (inside or out), and really can't do anything at all unless you damage something severely enough that it lowers the value of your home. Meanwhile, a landlord can demand entry (with advance notice), bill you for any modification you make to the unit, and even evict you if you break even a simple community regulation.

    2While I'm assuming here that you have a written contract (called a "lease") between yourself and your landlord that defines exact terms and limits, in most states even if you're just putting a wad of cash in an envelope every month and living "informally", the law considers you a month-to-month renter and affords you similar protections.

    3Writing is quickly becoming a lost art, but you should endeavour to become a skilled practioner. A firm, effectively worded letter can be more powerful than a lawyer.

    4Is this snitching? Probably. Oh well -- nobody else is paying your rent, so unless your problematic neighbor wants to compensate you for your trouble, he probably shouldn't mess with you.

    5I did this exactly one time, and it cost me well over $850 -- the landlord claimed the carpet was too dirty to clean (in one spot, in one room) and needed to be replaced. They subsequently attempted to bill me for the entire cost (materials and labor) of replacing the entire carpet throughout the apartment. We ended up splitting the difference at half the cost, because I didn't have enough documentation or any common sense about such things when that trouble started.

    6Back to the carpet example, when I questioned my ex-landlord about the replacement, the only documentation I ever received was a photocopy of an estimate from one company. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but I should have demanded to see the actual receipts from the company who performed the replacement, photographic documentation of the damage to the carpet, and a statement from a flooring professional regarding the damage to the carpet. A bit of spilled milk is nasty, yes, but not $850 nasty.

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