10 Ways to Protect Yourself As a Renter

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

#6: Keep records and receipts.
Regardless of how much you like your landlord, it's wise to keep records and receipts related to your lease and any home maintenance spending you do, as well as copies of email or written correspondence between you and a landlord or management company. If your landlord becomes unresponsive and you're suspicious as to why, use mail requiring a signature, such as certified mail. Some less-scrupulous landlords deliberately don't cash checks as a means to begin the eviction process and then raise the rent upon your move-out, claiming they never received your funds and thus you're not behaving as a tenant. Signature-stamped mail or hand-delivered mail can help prevent that.

Separately, when requesting that a landlord perform maintenance on your home, use email or a handwritten note with a recorded date, and keep a copy; if the landlord doesn't respond or deal with the repair in a timely manner, and you choose to handle it, save your receipts and negotiate for repayment. In some states, it may be legal to withhold the cost of repairs from a next rent check, but verify this locally before trying it with your landlord.

#7: Use renters insurance.
Most landlords will have insurance on their buildings, but what that covers may not extend to your home or its contents in the event of problems like fire, burglary or natural disaster. And if you have a guest who hurts himself or herself at your home, or a pet that bites, you might be liable for others' medical coverage if they choose to sue. To protect yourself, use renters insurance; some landlords require that you have renters insurance, which minimizes the risk of landlord-tenant disputes in the event of problems in your home. Renters insurance is relatively inexpensive — typically $15 to $30 per month, depending on the policy type, provider and level of coverage — and generally covers theft and damage from fire, windstorms and hail, and internally generated water damage (such as that resulting from sprinkler system activation).

You can also buy policies that cover a business you run from home, that offer a living allowance should you need to move out while your place is under repair, and so forth. Some varieties of renters insurance cover personal property inside your home as well as property that might be with you outside the home (like a laptop normally stored at home that you leave in a car trunk, for instance). Shop around at portals such as Renters Insurance, ask your auto insurer if it offers policies or hit any of the major national insurers for more information.

#8: Communicate.
Communicating with landlords is vital. If you've got an emergency, let them know pronto. If you're running behind on rent or having a financial issue, ask for a creative work-around rather than sitting there silently, letting your landlord think you don't respect the terms of your lease. For instance, if you're having a tough financial time, maybe the landlord can use your deposit for this month's rent, and you replenish the deposit soon after. Or if you're stuck out of town on the day you'd normally hand over a rent check, rather than run late with it call the office, explain the situation and ask how to proceed. You could pay online or by phone, Western Union or PayPal, or your landlord may be willing to wait a day.

#9: Use your camera.
When you take possession of your rental and also when you move out of it, take photos noting your rental's condition. These images can be useful if you wind up in any kind of disagreement or dispute concerning maintenance, damage or insurance coverage. If your phone or camera has a time-stamp feature, use it to verify when the images were recorded. It's not being paranoid — it's using common sense.

#10: Know where to complain.
If you feel that your landlord or management company is mistreating you, you have a variety of places to complain. For discrimination, including rejection of a rental application on potentially discriminatory grounds, contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division via email at fairhousing@usdoj.gov. You can complain to state agencies about neglected maintenance, disputes around deposits and payments and unfair evictions.

Jane Hodges is the author of Rent vs. Own: A Real Estate Reality Check for Navigating Booms, Busts, and Bad Advice.

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