As renters, we often fixate on our rights and our landlords' obligations to us. But do we ever give our responsibilities a second thought?
Believe it or not we do have responsibilities. Whether by law or lease obligation, we have to fulfill our part of the bargain. Our responsibilities are fairly simple, but not insignificant. And landlords will act swiftly if we don't fulfill them.
Here is a list of typical tenant obligations, which can vary from region to region and landlord to landlord, depending on state and local laws as well as lease verbiage. Whether or not you are legally bound by one of these obligations, it's a good idea to follow these guidelines because they are primarily based on good common sense.
"It's based upon a fairly subjective standard imposed by the norms of the community and/or the individual landlord," says Richard Rusdorf, a Certified Property Manager from Phoenix, AZ and co-author of The Landlord's Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Small Residential Properties (Read Estate Education Company: 1998). "I remember initiating eviction proceedings against a tenant who never threw out much of anything. Upon an inspection one day, we almost couldn't get into the unit because of all the trash."
Landlords look for filth or unsafe conditions that might be a health hazard, Rusdorf explains. Landlords are particularly worried about rodent or insect infestations that will affect other tenants in the building.
This broad category covers plumbing, electricity, air conditioning, heat, and appliances. It comes down to common sense. Would you flush a dirty diaper down the drain in a house? Common sense should tell you that this would hurt the plumbing. Any object that doesn't belong in the sewer will invoke the ire of your landlord when it turns up in a clogged drain.
If you feel that you've been wrongly accused of violating one of your responsibilities, get professional legal advice because the laws can vary widely in various regions. If your area has any local tenants or legal assistance groups, you might be able to obtain free or low cost legal help.
Do Unto Others . . .
Some folks walk a fine line between satisfying and ignoring responsibilities. Perhaps it's an issue of an individual's free will. A renter who is very messy might clean just enough so the landlord won't object. Another renter might get away with playing loud music simply because neighbors don't tattle. These folks don't think about how their neighbors might be affected.
Unfortunately, these renters are the ones that give apartment living a bad name. When renters in an apartment community comply with some basic, common sense guidelines, everyone benefits.
There are two good reasons why you should think twice about making improvements or alterations on your rental unit. First, your landlord might not be as enthusiastic about your plan as you are and may even keep your security deposit to return the property to its original state. Second, you might not be able to take some of the things you buy with you to your next apartment.
Tenants often don't realize what a headache improvements and alterations are for landlords. Most landlords can recount many horror stories about tenants who invested many hours of toil on, say, redecorating a bathroom with lavender tiles or painting every wall orange. Most of these tenants probably didn't read their leases or rental agreements, which probably contained clauses that specifically prohibited any alterations or improvements. And I'll bet they were pretty angry when they didn't get one cent of their security deposits back. If only they'd asked first, they would have saved themselves a lot of time and money.
If you just can't wait to get your hands on some power tools or the arrival of your Martha Stewart catalog starts you salivating like Pavlov's dog, here are some things you should carefully consider:
Did you know that if you attach your bookcase to the wall for safety reasons, the bookcase becomes a "fixture" in legal terms? When it comes time to move, this bookcase, or any other fixtures you've attached to the building or the property, is no longer yours to take with you. By law, fixtures are your landlord's property. Many landlords don't want your bookcase and probably won't squabble over it as long as you don't leave gaping holes in your walls. But you never know what a landlord will do when the law is on his or her side.
Remember fixtures are anything you attach to the property. Say you decide to invest in a nice new dishwasher. You'd probably like to take it with you when you leave, right? Well, better negotiate that with your landlord before you make the investment. Or, you could avoid the problem and buy a portable dishwasher that doesn't require permanent installation. Simply connecting a portable dishwasher to a faucet (or for that matter, plugging in a free-standing appliance) does not make it a fixture.
Many landlords will accommodate your need for a particular fixture that doesn't damage the property. For example, a landlord may agree to let you install and then remove blinds, as long as you fill in the holes that you made and perhaps even touch up the paint. Even if your lease doesn't have a clause prohibiting alterations or improvements, it's a good idea to get your landlord's permission in writing. The agreement should clearly state that you will be allowed to remove the fixture and what the landlord expects you to do to return the property to its original state.
Beautifying Your Home
If you're planning on staying in your apartment for a long time, you might just want to spruce it up-paint the walls, strip the paint off the hardwood floors, or put down new linoleum in the kitchen. While these kinds of improvements don't involve installing fixtures that you hope to take with you, you'll still want to talk to your landlord and even sign an agreement. You might also want to keep all of your receipts in case you do end up in court.
The golden rule to remember is to not make any improvements the landlord doesn't want, especially if you ever want to see your security deposit again. And even if you don't care about your security deposit, keep in mind the landlord could sue you in small claims court for thousands of dollars to "fix" any improvements that he thinks are detriments.
However, your landlord might like your improvement idea. If your landlord thinks your work will enhance the apartment, you could try to get some financial support for it. Perhaps your landlord will foot the bill or at least buy some paint. Some landlords prefer to do the work themselves to ensure that it is done to their high standards. In this case, you might pay for the paint or supplies, and the landlord might cover the labor costs.
And if your landlord flat out denies your improvement request? Well, perhaps it's time to apply your passion to something that won't get you evicted, like woodworking or Feng Shui classes at your local Adult school.
Is Renters' Insurance Really Necessary?
You and your landlord share a common goal: You both want to ensure the protection of your interests. Obtaining a security deposit from you -- usually ranging from $100 to a full month's rent, and averaging $250 -- is how your landlord obtains a degree of insurance from you. The deposit covers your landlord should you cause any damage to your apartment while you are a tenant. Your landlord, in turn, may keep the deposit if you fail to pay your rent or you leave before the end of your lease. However, if, as a tenant, you keep your end of the bargain -- following the terms of your lease and leaving your apartment in good condition when you leave -- the deposit is refundable. So how do you protect your own interests as a tenant? Renters' insurance. If you're an apartment-dweller, you're probably accustomed to brochures dangling from your door that advertise various renters' insurance policies. And if you're like many renters, you probably disregard them. But you may want to consider taking out insurance. Before you say, "But I'm not going to cause any damage to my apartment," remember that renters don't always cause damage themselves. Mother nature, or other tenants with little regard for your property, could prove to be the source of your problems later.
According to Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, policies typically provide coverage for the following renters' pitfalls:
This list doesn't begin to elaborate on the multitude of other possibilities for disaster: An electrical surge fries your computer, television, and/or stereo; while visiting your neighbor, you tip over his barbecue and start a fire; or you accidentally cause injury to someone away from your apartment; and the list goes on and on. And of course, as we've all discovered, we can never discount such crazy-sounding possibilities -- because they can and do happen if and only if we're not prepared (or covered) for them.
Note that renters' insurance policies may differ according to the insurance company in question, as well as the laws in your state. An insurance representative will be able to determine what type of policy best meets your needs. If you've thrown away all of those brochures dangling from your door handle, the Internet is a good place to do your homework -- specifically apartment-search sites. Links to renters' insurance information will fill you in on the details, and you may apply online.
- Damage to personal property from fire or wind
- Personal liability in the event you are sued over accidental injury to others who are in your apartment
- Accidental damage to property of others in your care
- Living expenses if you are forced to live elsewhere while your apartment is being repaired