The residential rental market is huge and covers the spectrum of real estate from modest to luxury. For prospective tenants who may find themselves in the market for the first time, I have put together these tips:
1. Make Yourself Attractive to a Landlord.
Before you begin your search, go to annualcreditreport.com and obtain a free copy of your credit report. Look for errors and be prepared to explain past inabilities to pay as agreed, if any exist. If your credit report reflects past credit challenges, acknowledge what happened and move on to your current situation.
Also, ask for letters of recommendation from your employer and past landlords. Finally, fill out a personal financial statement (free at any bank or credit union) and be prepared to explain it to a landlord.
2. Read The Lease Agreement.
The vast majority of misunderstandings or disputes between landlords and tenants are already covered in the written lease agreement. Follow it exactly, and make sure all the landlord’s commitments are in writing.
Pay special attention to the part dealing with your security deposit. Find out exactly what you have to do to get a full refund. Insist on a written move-in inspection form and check it for accuracy. You will become financially responsible for any damage not noted on it. My advice is to take lots of photos of the property before you move in, and make sure they are time-dated. Do not sign any document or rental agreement unless and until you understand it completely.
3. Know That You Must Pay the Rent.
An attorney once distilled the essence of a lengthy lease document in a single phrase: “If you don’t pay, you don’t stay.” Georgia law requires that the tenant pay rent.
4. Know That the Landlord Must Make Repairs.
Georgia law requires your landlord to make repairs “in a timely manner” after being notified. “Timely” is not defined. Your lease agreement typically spells out what constitutes notification. Your landlord may not transfer to another party (for example, you) the obligation to make repairs. Even if you agree in writing that you will be responsible, it would be unenforceable; the landlord would still be responsible for repairs.
5. Keep It Safe.
Your landlord is required to install a working smoke detector on each habitable level of your dwelling. You need a routine in which you test all these devices monthly. If your rental includes any non-electric systems, consider a carbon-dioxide detector. Finally, never replace burnt-out fuses with improperly sized fuses.
5. Purchase Renters Insurance.
In the unlikely event of a fire, storm, flood or theft, the landlord’s insurance will not cover your belongings. In addition, if you or a guest were to cause an accident or create an unsafe condition that resulted in harm to another person or property, you might be liable for the costs.
Start with your car insurance company and get a quote. Then shop and compare to find the right renters insurance policy for you.
6. Keep Lines of Communication Open.
Far too often, tenants think they can get action by threatening their landlord with legal action, only to find out that is extremely expensive and extremely slow. In the meantime, you’ll likely regret the frontal attack and wish you had stuck with gentle persistence.
John Adams is a broker, investor, and author. He answers real estate questions every Sunday at 3 p.m. on WGKA-am(920). He welcomes your comments at Money99.com, where you will find an expanded version of this column.