10 Ways to Protect Yourself As a Renter

Before signing the lease, make sure these items are in order.

#1: Know your rights as an American.
Federal law provides protections for renters, and you should familiarize yourself with the major acts designed to protect tenants. Federally, the Fair Housing Act passed in the 1960s prohibits discrimination by landlords and lenders on the basis of race or color, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, gender, marital status, age or disability. The Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, created in 1972, outlines landlord-tenant law practices in a format then modified by individual states. More recently, the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act was passed in 2009. Under this law, when a property you rent enters foreclosure, you still have rights. These include 90-day notice before an eviction due to foreclosure and the right to complete the lease, unless the new owner of the property will use it as a primary residence, in which case you may be asked to vacate in less than 90 days.

#2: Know tenants' rights in your state.
Tenants and landlords' rights and regulations vary by state. Familiarize yourself with state rules on leases, treatment of deposits (which in some states must be placed in an interest-bearing checking account and returned to you with interest), the eviction process, etc. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers a list of state housing agencies that detail landlord-tenant law. In addition, the Landlord Protection Agency offers a list of state laws and guidelines. (While LPA is focused on educating landlords on how to deal with tenants, the laws posted here apply to both renters and landlords.)

#3: Investigate buildings and properties.
Landlords and management companies are as varied as the tenants who inhabit their properties. If you're considering renting from a larger community or management company, hit social media for reviews. Also, check apartment rating sites such as Apartment Ratings and Apartment Reviews. Read neighborhood blogs, whether intended for renters or owners — especially if you're considering renting in a condo building that was originally intended for owners but was converted to rentals. These buildings may "go condo" again as part of the developer's strategy, so if you're planning to stay awhile, keep that in mind. Take a look at foreclosures in an area, too, using tools like ZIP code searches from providers such as RealtyTrac.

#4: Get a lease -- and read it.
Whether you're entering a long-term rental agreement or just subletting for a few months, you need a lease. It will explain how the landlord is to behave and how you are to behave, and the consequences of either party not living up to expectations. Leases will spell out rules on deposit (how much, how long it will be held after move-out, whether it must be placed in an interest-bearing account or not); landlord access to the property (how much notice, etc.); fees or eviction procedures if you pay rent late or fail to pay; and more. They may also spell out policies on roommates, subletting, ending the lease early, going month-to-month and more.

While most landlords and renters begin their relationship with the best of intentions, circumstances can change and leases help provide a guideline for how to navigate them. When in doubt, ask questions. Also, keep in mind that leases are negotiable: You want to pay a lower pet fee, spread your deposit out over a few months, or go month-to-month at the six-month mark instead of the 12-month mark? It never hurts to ask.

#5: Expect a background check.
Landlords routinely conduct background checks, calling prior landlords, confirming your income or employment, reviewing your credit report or other forms of payment history and verifying whether you have any legal infractions in your background. Check your own credit and background before you begin looking to rent a home. You want to check before your landlord does so that you know in advance about any red flags that appear on your record and can prepare for a conversation with the landlord or property manager rather than stammer on the spot. Keep in mind that some background check services don't always get it right: If you have a common name (i.e., John Smith) or same-named person living in the area (perhaps a relative), occasionally information crosses wires.

Separately, if your credit is poor, but your outlook is brightening -- say you were out of work for a time and ran up credit cards, but now have a new job and have been in it for a few months — a landlord may be forgiving when told the reason for the poor scores. Check your background using services like Intelius or PeopleSmart and run your credit report (free, once a year) at AnnualCreditReport.com.

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