If you’re among the 35 million American households who rent, here’s some good news: the red-hot rental market of the past couple of years—fueled by home foreclosures, the uncertain housing market, and low vacancy rates—appears to tapering off.
Even so, apartment rents are still creeping up—2.4% in March, according to real estate monitoring firm Trulia. Vacancy rates are below 5% nationally, the lowest in a decade. Competition for rentals in cities like San Francisco and New York City remains fierce.
In a competitive market, you might feel like you need to sign over your worldly possessions to score a sweet apartment. Did you notice mold creeping down the bathroom walls? The heater doesn’t seem to be kicking out much warm air? When other tenants are lining up with checks in hand, you may feel pressure to turn a blind eye and take the unit as is.
Almost two-thirds of renters did not know that written records are the key to protecting themselves, and resolving landlord-tenant disputes. More than a quarter of renters said they did not read through their lease, or did not understand it, before signing. And 11% of tenants did not even have a signed lease agreement.
Needless to say, this can cause problems down the road. Your rent is likely to eat up a huge chunk of your income; add to that the hefty security deposit and last-months rent that you usually have to plunk down before you get the keys, and it’s a big financial commitment. And you could face penalties for defaulting. It pays to know what you’re getting into.
San Francisco landlord-tenant attorney Michael Bracamontes has three key pieces of advice for tenants to follow, no matter what kind of market you’re renting in:
If there’s one thing a renter should do, it is properly documenting the condition of the unit during the pre-move-in inspection. Tenants may be quick to check all the boxes saying everything is fine, and landlords will use that against a tenant later or when a request for repair is made.
Renters need to keep in mind that they have basic rights to have their unit maintained in good condition. A landlord can’t force you to “give up having a working heater” or take the unit “as-is” when there are known problems. Tenants can demand repairs even if they signed provisions to that effect.
Tenants often worry about rocking the boat and getting asked to leave if they complain. It is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against a tenant simply because a tenant is requesting repairs.
You can find more information on how to protect yourself as a renter in Rocket Lawyer’s renter center.