real estate

Renters beware: What to look for before renting

Publicist Lauren Marks just graduated college and made the big move to a rental house in suburban Miami with two other young, professional women.

The three-bedroom house was gorgeous. It had just been renovated.

View inspection checklist

"The landlord mentioned a few things he promised to fix. A light switch there, a baseboard here," she says. "There was no mention of potentially rabid animals."

But on that summer day they moved in last July and turned on the air conditioner, there it was.

"It smelled like, well, dead animal," Marks says.

The roommates lit scented candles, but the stench stayed. Then there were the scurrying noises in the ceiling at night. Soon, a family of raccoons was discovered living in the attic. The critters had easy access to the home through a hole in the exterior.

"They were living, having babies and dying up there," Marks says.

The landlord insisted there was no hole before he rented the home to them -- and certainly no vermin. But the women prevailed, and he sent out someone to remove the raccoons.

"He looked like the Crocodile Dundee," Marks says. "He even had fingers missing."

Later when there was a problem with the air conditioner, "Crocodile Dundee" showed up again, apparently the landlord's jack-of-all-trades.

Marks says the landlord was a first-timer. He never had tenants before and was learning with the three women as his guinea pigs.

Just about every renter has a story. Some don't end so well. Renters end up paying for repairs; they end up losing their deposits. Some even end up in small claims court. To be sure, landlords have their own horror stories about tenants. But there are some expert tips for would-be renters that could prove beneficial in the long run.

General categories to inspect before renting
  • Find out about pest control. How often is the unit serviced? Who is responsible for an infestation? Is pest control included in the lease? Many times landlords say they are not responsible for an infestation caused by the renter.
  • Discover if there is a service plan. Some landlords have vendors who repair major appliances, such as the refrigerator, air conditioner or water heater. Others rely on handymen.
  • Do your research. Find out if there is any legal encumbrance on the property and whether it has been in foreclosure. What is the occupancy certificate of the unit? If a two-unit home suddenly becomes three, be wary.
  • Be vigilant in your walk-through. Note all imperfections. Ask about the previous residents and whether the unit has been renovated. Check the water pressure, the hot water, the stove, the toilet, the air conditioner and all light fixtures. In colder climates, check on the heating and inquire about how recently the windows have been insulated. Ask if there has been a problem with mold.
  • Ask about incidentals, such as parking for yourself and guests. In areas prone to natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods or tornadoes, ask who is responsible for storm preparation and damage.

More renters than ever

A primer for renters is needed more than ever. After the housing crisis sent millions of homes into foreclosure, U.S. Census figures show the number of renters has increased to 33.6 percent from 31.6 percent in four years.

Three million households have become renters since the real estate bubble burst, according to Census data.

Many of these tenants haven't rented for years or even decades. And times have changed for the better for the renter, says Janet Portman, an attorney and co-author of "Renters' Rights: The Basics." All but two states (Arkansas and Colorado) have passed laws requiring landlords to provide "a fit and habitable place to live." As a result, tenants in those states can withhold rent or deduct repairs from the rent.

"If you had a water heater that didn't work or a leak in the roof in 1990, you couldn't do that," Portman says.

She says many people who become born-again renters aren't aware they have such rights. "You might discover your state has joined the modern world," Portman says.


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