What Tenants Need to Know About Rentals
March 24, 2023
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According to the 2021 United States Census, around 35% of Americans lived in rentals.
That’s a decent portion of the total population.
And, if you’re reading this tenant guide, that probably means you’re a renter in America.
So, what do you need to know about rentals?
Let’s get into it below.
Determining the Legitimacy of a Rental
First, make sure the rentals you’re considering are legitimate. Sadly, some people run scams involving rentals and will try to dupe you out of a security deposit or the first month’s rent. Here are some things to look out for:
- Pay Attention to Price: If the rental price is significantly lower than comparable properties in the area or seems too good to be true, be wary. Rental prices are usually set based on the local rental market, so if one property seems substantially lower than most others, the listing could be a scam.
When it comes to pricing, be cautious if a property’s price seems too good to be true. Compare rental prices for similar local properties and trust your gut if something seems off.
- Conduct Research: First, use Google Maps to check the property’s location and make sure it exists. Then, look for reviews and ownership records to get a better feel for its history and reputation.
- See the Property Before Sending Money: Be sure to visit the property in person. This will give you an opportunity to meet the landlord face to face and see the property in real life.
Scammers often ask for the security deposit or first month’s rent before showing you the property. Thus, it’s wise to avoid sending any payment before seeing the property in person.
Trustworthy landlords or property managers will typically want to meet you and show you the property before they request payments.
- Use Reputable Listing Sites or a Real Estate Agent: Reliable websites with rental listings like Zillow and Apartments.com usually have safeguards in place to verify the legitimacy of their listings. In addition, these websites typically have reviews and ratings from former renters, which can provide insightful information on the property.
Working with a licensed real estate agent is another good option to avoid rental housing scams. Real estate agents are knowledgeable about the local rental market and can show you legitimate rental properties that fit your needs and budget. Furthermore, agents must adhere to rigorous ethical and professional standards, which adds another layer of protection for renters.
- Trust Your Gut: If your instincts tell you something is wrong, it most likely is. Scammers often utilize high-pressure sales tactics to get you to send them money or offer up personal information. For instance, they may claim to have tons of interest in their property to get you to act immediately to secure the spot.
If you find out you’re dealing with fraud, report it to the authorities as soon as possible to protect yourself and others.
Purchasing Renter’s Insurance
A key part of moving into a rental is renters’ insurance. Renters’ insurance is a form of property insurance that covers losses to personal property and protects the insured from liability claims. That said, injuries due to structural problems are your landlord’s responsibility. Renters’ insurance protects anything from a studio apartment to an entire house or mobile home.
Most renters’ insurance has three basic coverage elements: personal possessions, liability, and additional living expenses.
This element covers your personal belongings. Examples include clothes, furniture, and electronics. This coverage can help pay for the repair and replacement of items damaged or lost due to specific perils. You can find these perils listed in your policy.
This portion of the coverage protects you in the event of a lawsuit. Lawsuits can be substantial financial burdens, so this is an essential piece of renters’ insurance.
If someone gets injured on or off your property, liability insurance can save you a hefty sum of money.
Additional Living Expenses
Renters’ insurance usually pays for temporary housing in the event a covered disaster damages your current living space. Hotel bills, restaurant meals, temporary rentals, and other expenses incurred while your original place is repaired are all included.
If you are in this situation, you will most likely need to fill out an additional living expenses worksheet and get reimbursed.
Tips for Moving into a New Rental
Renters’ insurance is only one piece of the puzzle while moving into a new place. Several other things will help you as you move:
- Consider Hiring Professional Movers: Sometimes, your best option is to hire professionals. They have all the necessary supplies to make a move go well: boxes, tape, moving dollies, trucks, ramps to the truck, and experienced workers.
- Check in with Your Landlord: Let your landlord know the general time you’ll be arriving with your things. Also, go over any details you may need to know about pertinent to the move (e.g., if your landlord wants to be physically present for the move).
- Purchase a Parking Permit: In some cities, you may need a parking permit if there isn’t somewhere designated for you to park. Most places offer daily passes available for purchase online. You may need multiple passes to block enough space, depending on the size of your truck.
- Forward Your Mail: Once you know your official move-in date, let the US Postal Service know the date and have your mail forwarded. You can complete the necessary form online or go into the post office and fill it out in person.
- Ensure Utilities Are On Before Move-in: You’re going to need electricity and water right when you move in, so don’t wait to get these up and running.
- Organize Your Packing: Read this article – 7 Tips For Tenants Moving To A New Rental -for details on packing best practices. The more organized you are when you move, the smoother things will be.
- Prioritize Unpacking: We know moving can be exhausting. However, it’s important to unpack essentials as soon as possible, so that you can find things easily and feel more comfortable in your living space.
- Complete a Rental Move-in Checklist: Your landlord should provide a move-in checklist for you to complete. Make sure to fill this out thoroughly. It’s important to have things in writing in case there’s any confusion or disagreements when you move out.
Paying Rent Online
Once you move in, you’ll need to start paying rent. Your best option is to pay rent online if it’s available.
You can create reminders, set up recurring payments, settle disputes quickly, feel more secure, improve your credit, and more.
Furthermore, automatic record-keeping is a key feature of paying rent online. It means you don’t have to keep track of things manually. The continuous “paper trail” makes it easy to go back and see your rent payment history in depth.
Tenant Credit Reporting
Tenant credit reporting can impact your credit score. This can be positive. For instance, if you pay rent on time and in full, this can improve your credit score.
That said, paying your rent on time and in full doesn’t automatically boost your credit. Your payments must be reported to increase your credit score. You need rent-reporting services to send this information, so that your credit reports include your rental payments. Cost depends on the specific service.
To use a rent-reporting service well, you’ll need to know which credit bureaus it reports your payments to — and which credit scores take those payments into consideration. Read our article on tenant credit reporting to learn more.
How to Get Your Security Deposit Back
Paying your rent on time and in full isn’t just healthy for your credit score. It’s also helpful for getting your security deposit back. However, it’s only the first step. Below we go through several more steps:
- Read Your Lease Thoroughly: Most of this should be obvious—like leaving the unit in good condition when you move out, taking out the trash, and cleaning up messes—but some leases have addendums that involve things like painting the walls back to their original color, plugging nail holes in the walls, or cleaning the floors.
- Review the Move-in Checklist: If your landlord doesn’t provide you with a move-in checklist, go download one from a reputable site or create your own and send it to your landlord to have on file for future reference.
- Schedule a Move-out Inspection: Make sure your landlord approves of the unit’s condition before you leave.
- Make Repairs, if Needed: There are certain things you may be responsible for fixing (like holes in the wall). Take care of these before you move out.
- Clean the Unit: Cleaning your unit well is one of the best ways to ensure you get the full security deposit back. A deep clean may not be necessary, but take this process seriously and get the place looking as good as possible.
- Don’t Leave Things Behind: Remove all your stuff from the property. Landlords will probably deduct from your security deposit for things left behind that they have to dispose of. Even items as small as silverware or hangers could turn into deductions from your deposit.
- Take Photos When You Move Out: Taking pictures before you move out gives you a record of what the place looked like when you left.
- Return Your Keys: It’s obvious, but don’t forget to return your keys and anything else that may need to get back to your landlord (e.g., a parking permit).
How to Minimize Energy Bills in the Summer
In addition to getting your security deposit back, another way to recoup money is by following some of these tips to minimize your energy bill in the summer:
- Adjust the Thermostat: The US Department of Energy recommends setting your thermostat to 78°F (26°C) when you’re at your place and need cooling. If you leave your home for more than a few hours, set it a few degrees higher to save even more energy.
If you have a programmable thermostat, setting it to automatically adjust the temperature when you’re away can save energy, particularly because it’s easy to forget to change the temperature manually.
- Limit Usage of Heat-Generating Appliances: Most of us have several heat-generating appliances in our homes and rentals. Thus, during the summer, limiting the usage of these appliances (e.g., ovens, dryers, etc.) can help save money on energy bills.
- Use Windows Properly: Closing curtains and blinds during the day to limit sunlight, opening windows at night to let cool air in, and keeping blinds clean are just a few ways to use windows to lower your energy bill during the hotter months.
- Use Fans: Ceiling and floor fans keep air circulating, making your rooms feel significantly cooler.
- Seal Air Leaks: Find air leaks and use caulking or weatherstripping to seal them up. Install door sweeps to prevent leaks as well.
How to Minimize Energy Bills in the Winter
When it’s cold outside, there are also some great ways to save money on your winter energy bill:
- Adjust the Thermostat: Setting the thermostat to an ideal temperature can substantially impact your energy bills during the winter months. And that temperature depends on your personal preferences and the insulation of your rental.
Setting your thermostat to 68°F (e.g., 20°C) during the day when you’re around is a good starting point if you’re unsure. This temperature is comfortable for most people while being energy efficient. You can lower the temperature a few degrees at night or when you’re away from your rental to save even more energy.
- Use Curtains and Blinds: During the day, open your curtains and invite sunlight to heat your rooms. During the night, doing the opposite helps with insulation and heat loss.
- Seal Drafts: Once again, weatherstripping and caulking are great tools for sealing drafts.
- Use Space Heaters: Use space heaters to supplement your existing heating system, not as primary heating sources. For instance, you can use a space heater in your bedroom at night to make your room warmer while turning down the central heating system in the unit overall.
We’ve covered some ways to save money with your unit, but what happens if you need to move out for a bit and want someone else to take your spot?
Subletting is a viable option if you find yourself in this situation. If your landlord allows it, here are some things to know:
- A sublet, or sublease agreement, adds a new person to an existing lease. The new tenant (also known as the subletter or sublessee) replaces you (the sublessor) when you move out. A sublet rental agreement is a legally binding contract, and the same lease rules and rental laws apply to everyone involved.
- You should check with your roommates (if you have any) before you move ahead. You need their approval because they already live there.
- Start with friends and co-workers, and then widen your search online if you can’t find any friends interested in subletting.
- Have a good idea of who you’re looking for. You probably want someone gainfully employed with a record of paying their rent on time.
- Along with the bullet above, conduct a background check and reach out to references.
- Consider the risks of subletting. You’re acting as a landlord in some ways, and you’re on the hook if this person messes up.
- Remove valuables from your room. It’s always wise to protect your valuables just to be safe.
What maintenance issues are your landlord’s responsibility? Which are yours? What constitutes a maintenance emergency? These are all important questions you need the answers to. Below, let’s go through what you need to know about rental maintenance. Let’s start with rental maintenance emergencies versus non-emergencies:
- Fire, flooding, carbon monoxide leaks, gas leaks, loss of power, and loss of water are all examples of rental maintenance emergencies. A landlord should remedy these as quickly as possible for any tenant.
- Loud neighbors, a tenant locking themselves out of the unit, and burnt-out lightbulbs aren’t emergencies. They certainly require attention, but no one wants to be the boy who cried wolf. Save your extreme urgency for the issues listed in the previous bullet point.
Now let’s look at rental maintenance responsibilities:
- Your landlord is responsible for meeting local health and building codes, getting rid of mold, changing locks, exterminating pests, ensuring structural integrity and weather protection, and ensuring heat, water, and electricity all stay working.
- You’re responsible for fixing damage you or your guests cause, taking trash out regularly, not violating lease terms, and reporting maintenance issues in a timely manner. Also, it’s important to mention to check with your landlord before taking on a repair. They may want to take care of certain things even if it involves damage you caused.
No article on tenants would be complete without talking about evictions. It’s never a situation someone wants to be in, but you never know when you might be in this position.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Evictions Must Be Court-Ordered: The main thing you need to know is that only courts have the authority to evict you. Almost every state forbids landlords from conducting do-it-yourself evictions (including actions like changing the locks or removing the tenant’s belongings). These actions are illegal and can lead to legal penalties.
To get a court order, landlords must follow specific legal procedures. This process differs by jurisdiction, but they generally follow similar patterns.
- Evictions Require Valid Reasons: Your landlord can only evict you for offenses like non-payment of rent, violating the lease terms, illegal activity, and ending a month-to-month tenancy.
- Evictions May Require Court Hearings: Can you fight an eviction? Of course. That said, it may be prudent to get a knowledgeable lawyer, if you can afford it. In court, the landlord will need to prove their case based on the legal reason(s) they provided in the notice.
- Evictions Can Impact Credit and Rental History: Losing an eviction case can negatively impact tenants in many ways. An eviction can hurt your credit score, rental history, and future relationships with new landlords. Additionally, tenants may be responsible for court costs and lawyer fees, which can get costly.
Therefore, it’s important to consider seeking legal help if you face an upcoming eviction hearing. Legal aid organizations, tenant unions, and private lawyers may be able to help you with counsel, advice, and representation.
Last but not least, here are three other options to consider if you’re facing a potential eviction:
- Pay Outstanding Rent: If the eviction is due to non-payment of rent, you may be able to avoid eviction by paying the outstanding rent. Your landlord may be willing to set up a payment plan with you.
- Remedy Lease Violations: If the eviction is due to lease violations, you may be able to avoid eviction by fixing the violations in a timely manner.
- Negotiate with the Landlord: Sometimes, you may be able to negotiate with the landlord to avoid eviction. For instance, the landlord may agree to a temporary rent reduction, lease modification, or other special arrangement to help you stay on the property.
Eventually, you’ll need to move to a new home. So, what do you need to know as you move out? Here are a few moving out tips to help you out:
- Provide the Required Notice: The most important part of leaving a unit is giving the required written notice for moving out. Rules differ from state to state, but most follow the same general guidelines and depend on what kind of lease you’re dealing with.
- Clean Everything: Go room by room and make sure you’re thorough. Start with the bathroom and kitchen and move on from there. This article – Top Cleaning Tips For Renters – will help you do a great job cleaning every room.
- Take Care of Final Payments: If you paid the first and last month’s rent, in addition to a security deposit when you moved in, know that the security deposit and last month’s rent are different, even though the amounts may be the same. The security deposit is collateral for any damage to the property. Last month’s rent, if you paid it at the start, means you won’t owe a final payment at the end of your lease term. Your security deposit, even if it’s the same dollar amount, cannot be used to cover your last month’s rent.
- Contact Your Utility Providers: Call your utility providers two weeks prior to moving out and schedule dates for turning off power at your old place and turning it on at your new place. It’s wise to have them turn off the power the day after you move out (picture moving out on a scorching summer day with no electricity and no water). Then, schedule the utilities to come on at your new apartment the day before you move in.
- Get Renters’ Insurance: Transfer your existing policy or set up a new policy for your new place.
- Take Pictures: Once you take care of everything else on the list, you need to take pictures. If your landlord tries to keep your security deposit, you may need physical proof of the property’s condition.
- Collect Keys: Collect all the keys and return them to the landlord. Yes, even the set you made for your boyfriend or girlfriend.
The New Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights
Before we wrap up this article, it’s important to mention the blueprint for a renters bill of rights that the White House released recently.
According to the government, the goal of this document is to highlight key principles of resident-centered housing to help renters across the country.
In addition to releasing this document, the administration talked about several new actions that government agencies will take to strengthen tenant protections and prevent unnecessary evictions.
They also launched a Resident-Centered Housing Challenge to encourage Congress, state and local lawmakers, and private housing actors to improve or adopt practices that promote fairness and transparency in the rental market.
Your goal as a tenant should be to live in line with your lease terms, handle yourself with dignity, treat your landlord’s property with respect and have an excellent experience as a renter.
If you do the things we’ve outlined in this article, you should be well on your way to getting your security deposit back and having a great overall experience.