By Kristen Sherman, Esq.
We understand that for most readers, few things are more important than finding safe, stable, and affordable housing. This article is the first in a multi-part series on looking for housing and renters’ rights. Part one discusses practical issues relating to searching for a home or apartment and negotiating a lease. Part Two will provide an overview of renters’ legal rights under applicable state and federal law.
The largest issue for renters is often affordability. As a general rule of thumb, renters should aim to spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Unfortunately, affordable housing in Rhode Island is scarce, and it may be difficult to find an apartment you can afford. Rhode Island Housing, located at 44 Washington Street in Providence, can provide information on rental assistance programs. You may qualify for public housing or Section 8 rental vouchers. There may be waiting lists for these programs, however, and you may find it necessary to rent an apartment without financial assistance.
Once you have selected an apartment and are ready to move in, inspect the property and make a detailed checklist of the apartment’s condition. This checklist should cover both the interior and the exterior of the apartment. Walk through the apartment and take notes on the condition of every area and feature, taking care to note anything that is damaged or moldy. If you have access to a camera, take pictures of the apartment in its current condition. If you discover problems, prepare a list and have the landlord sign it so that he or she does not later try to charge you for damage that was already present. The lease should be specific as to whether the items of damage are going to be left “as is” or whether the landlord must make repairs.
Before you sign a lease, make certain that you understand what you are renting. Leases are legally enforceable contracts. Read the document in its entirety and make sure you understand the terms and conditions of the lease. For example, read carefully to determine what services (cable, internet, heat, hot water) are either included in the rent or available. Ask the landlord for an estimate of these monthly costs or interview one or more of the other tenants. Talking to existing tenants about their experiences with the landlord and the building is a good way to avoid a bad rental situation. Also, inquire as to the availability of other services such as snow removal, trash pickup, building maintenance and upkeep of outdoor common areas. If you can help with some of these services, you may be able to ask for a reduced rent.
Make certain that you understand your options for terminating the lease. Look carefully at the lease provisions relating to the amount of advance notice required to terminate the lease and the refund of any security deposit. The landlord should be required to refund your deposit within a certain period of time. Be wary of other hidden fees or charges that a landlord may try to assess upon termination such as cleaning fees.
Another question to ask is whether you are allowed to sublet the apartment to another tenant if for some reason you cannot stay there for the entire lease period. Most landlords will allow you to sublet. If the lease agreement does not specifically allow you to sublet, ask the landlord if he or she can include this provision in the lease. Unless you can get another tenant to take your place, the landlord may claim that you owe lost rent for the remaining term under the lease.
We hope this information will assist you in searching for a suitable place to live. Next month’s article will provide an overview of renters’ rights under state and federal law.