real estate

Renters beware: What to look for before renting

Renters' rights vary, dictated by local and state laws.

Christian Basick, sales manager for the downtown Miami office of EWM Realtors, says with the housing crisis casting a shadow over all residential property, a good first step is to make sure there are no liens on the property being rented.

Nothing is worse than moving into a new place only to have a bank foreclose upon it. He says professional agents such as himself can navigate those waters.

Also, renters should double-check their credit history. He has seen renters turned down because they had a short sale on their record as they tried to move from being a homeowner to a renter.

Basick says you want to know where the owner lives. Is the owner local, or does he or she live in Venezuela? If the landlord does live out of town, what do you do about repairs? If possible, how repairs are handled should be written into the lease, he says.

"A lot of places have contracts that if anything breaks, the tenant has to pay for the first $100," he says. "Sometimes that comes as a surprise."

Take your time and ask questions

Joseph Costello, a lawyer with Costello & Costello in New York City who specializes in landlord-tenant disputes, says renters often overlook red flags.

"A lot of people, they look at the neighborhood before considering an apartment," he says. "They think, if the neighborhood's good, then so is the apartment."

Renters also fail to see potential problems when looking for a new place because of the pressure to find a new place to live. If a lease is up, it can be easy to overlook shortcomings or fail to ask the right questions.

"It's getting to the end of month, they are being rushed out of their old apartment, and they will take anything," Costello says.

He says the most common problem for renters is that landlords misrepresent the services they will pay for, such as hot water, electricity, cable television or Internet connectivity. All need to be discussed before signing a lease.

New York City and other major metropolitan areas with old buildings can present special problems to renters. In the Brooklyn neighborhood, you have to be permitted to rent a basement apartment, but many landlords don't want to go through the red tape, he says.

Costello says renters should check the building's certificate of occupancy. Landlords are known to partition off a basement, add a bath and stove, and rent it out. Renters learn something is amiss when they go searching for the thermostat and learn it's in the upstairs apartment where the landlord lives.

"The tenant later finds out he is paying for the owner's heat and electricity on the first floor," Costello says.

In New York, the problem isn't so much raccoons in the attic but cockroaches, mice and, more recently, bedbugs, especially in multifamily buildings, he says.

Basick and Costello say to use common sense, and don't be hurried into signing a lease. And if there is one golden rule to follow, Costello says, it's to not be afraid to ask questions.

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