8 things every renter needs to do

8 things every renter needs to do

For a while, one (very thin) silver lining of the recession was that renters could easily find a steal. Landlords offered perks like one month of free rent and waived broker’s fees. Well, according to a recent article in the New York Times, those days are over. New York City apartment dwellers can expect to see rents increase and perks decrease as brokers and landlords try to recoup last year’s losses.

But, take heart: You can still get a deal, if not a steal. If you’re looking for a new place or renewing your lease, here are 8 things every renter needs to do:

1. Negotiate with the real estate broker. In a major city like New York, renters are often expected to pay brokers as much as 15% of the year’s rent. First try avoiding brokers altogether by searching sites like craigslist.org, checking real estate listings for “no fee” apartments, and walking around neighborhoods where you’d like to live, looking for “contact landlord” signs on the buildings. If you do use a broker, explain up front that you’re a serious customer but are willing to pay only, say, 10%.

2. Try to negotiate the rent. Yes, even if you feel squeamish. When you find a place you like, tell the landlord you’re very interested but hadn’t planned to spend that much. Ask in a super-polite way if you can get a break—like paying $50 or $100 less a month. Check out rentometer.com to see the going rents in various neighborhoods, so you can judge if you’re getting overcharged and how low you can go.

3. Negotiate the terms of your lease. Carefully scrutinize your lease, looking for provisions that seem unfair; they may be illegal. To find out the rules in your area, call your state or county housing office or office of consumer affairs; they can help explain tenants’ rights. Nolo.com is a useful website that provides state-by-state info on renters’ rights. Also, look for clauses that, while legal, may be a pain, like a provision that gives your landlord the right to raise your rent if his taxes or operate costs increase. Try to negotiate them out of the lease before you sign. And think twice before agreeing to weird added conditions—I know one couple in San Francisco who were stuck washing their landlord’s plants every week with soap and water!

4. List all your roommates on the lease, and have them all sign it. This ensures that you all share legal responsibility in case of a problem. It also protects you if one of your roommates suddenly decides to move out before the lease is up.

5. Understand security deposits. A security deposit is money you give to a landlord to protect him in case you damage the place. Most states limit the deposit to one or two months’ rent. If you don’t cause any damage, the security deposit will be returned to you when the lease is up. To be safe, get a receipt or make sure it’s stated in the lease. Right when you move in, take pictures of the place and note any issues, so you can prove the condition the apartment was in when you arrived. Also, take pictures right before you move out, in case there’s a dispute over damages.

6. Know your rights. The law protects renters in many ways, but two to keep in mind:

  • With a fixed lease, such as for one or two years, the landlord is not allowed to raise the rent during the term of the rental contract and must tell you about an impending rent increase before your lease is up. The amount of time within which you must be told of the rent hike varies from state to state. For month-to-month rentals, you must be notified in writing 30 days before the rent is increased.
  • Federal law prohibits a landlord from refusing to rent to you based on your race, sex, religion, disability, national origin, or familial status (meaning whether you’re pregnant or have kids under 18). Some cities and states also prohibit housing discrimination based on age, marital status, or sexual orientation. You can always call the Housing Discrimination Hotline at 800-669-9777.

7. Get renter’s insurance. You may figure that because you have few valuables and little or no savings, you don’t need it. But if all your possessions were stolen or ruined in a fire, a renter’s policy would cover you up to a fixed dollar amount. A policy also offers you some liability protection inside and outside your home—say, if someone slips and falls in your apartment or you accidentally leave the tap running when you go to work. To find the best deal on a policy, get several quotes before you choose. netquote.com and insweb.com will poll agents at some of the biggest insurance companies to see which has the best deals.

8. Renew the right way. If you plan to renew your lease, contact your landlord two months before the lease is up and try to negotiate. At renewal time, your landlord may keep the rent the same, lower it, or raise it. Just don’t procrastinate on bringing up the subject. If you wait until the week before your lease ends, the landlord will assume you’re bluffing if you threaten to move out.

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