10 tenant tenets

[Top tips for a pleasant renting experience]

If you’ve never lived on your own before, or you plan to trade the security of the dorms for the rental life, you’ll soon hear horror stories from students who have endured everything from moldy walls to missing-in-action landlords to the roommate from hell. On the other side of things, some students take as much care of their apartments as a rock band does of a hotel room. Hey, we all have our reputations.

To help avoid these problems with a little knowledge aforethought, we talked to two experts on rental rules: Dan Herbert, a former Chico mayor and current city councilmember who works for Sheraton Real Estate Management, and Cheryl Sperling, director of the housing law program at the Community Legal Information Center at Chico State.

We came up with 10 tips for being a good renter—and knowing your rights in case you’re being good but someone else is not.

1. Know what you’re getting into. Before you sign the lease, read the darn thing. You don’t want to find out you’ve promised your first-born child if the stove drip pans turn up missing. Do you want to rent from a large local company or some guy who lives in L.A. and hasn’t seen the property since Chico State was a teachers’ college? Both have their pros and cons. Nowadays, Sperling points out, some complexes are doing individual room leases. This can be good, if you don’t want to worry about someone else trashing the place or bailing on the rent. But it also means you lose the right to pick your roommates.

Also, be advised there is no rent control in Chico, and if you’re renting month-to-month your rent can be raised with just one or two months’ notice.

2. Do a pre-move-in inspection. That means go along with your property manager and take note of anything that’s not as it should be, such as holes in the wall or burns on the carpet. Make sure it gets written down on a special form and you get a copy of it right away. “Point out everything you think is relevant,” Sperling says, “and take pictures.” Normal wear and tear—depreciation—is expected on things like carpets and paint and you shouldn’t have to pay the full replacement cost. Herbert says, “The best move in should be the best move out.”

3. Meet the neighbors. Finding a good fit in terms of atmosphere is as important as finding the right rental. Ask around and see what different apartment complexes and neighborhoods are like. “Places have different reputations,” Sperling says. “You might even want to drop by on a Friday night.” If you’re the original party animal, you might not like dull neighbors. But if you crave quiet study time, certain places may not be for you. To protect your property and liability in case you’re sued, you might want to consider buying renter’s insurance, which runs between $8 and $20 a month.

4. Follow the rules. If you use the wall for a dartboard, expect to pay for it later. If your complex forbids late-night guests, live with it or live somewhere else. You can be evicted with only three days’ notice if you’re found to have someone living there who’s not on the lease, turn up with a forbidden pet you won’t get rid of or don’t pay the rent.

5. Get it in writing. If you have a dispute with your landlord, put it in a letter. If you request repairs and they aren’t made, keep track of when you asked to create a timeline. Students, Sperling says, sometimes “get the runaround.” The more organized and informed you are, the less chance of that. Also, if you follow certain notification rules, you can withhold rent if a place is truly uninhabitable—no water, for example.

6. Don’t break your lease. “A lease is a business contract,” Herbert says. That said, it can be possible to break one’s lease. “Usually the way to go is find someone to take over your lease,” Sperling says.

7. Know your rights. For example, did you know a new law took effect in January 2003 requiring property managers to do a “pre-walk-through” if a tenant requests it? That means you can clean up and have them come in and tell you what would count against your deposit if it they did the final inspection right then.

There are other laws that protect renters. For example, a property owner has to give 24 hours’ notice before entering, unless it’s an emergency. And repairs should be made within a reasonable amount of time.

8. Clean, clean, clean. The aforementioned security deposit has a reputation for disappearing into a black hole. Students can be to blame for leaving rooms in sloppy shape, but not always: In the 1990s, a since-sold Chico property management company settled a class action suit over the withholding of deposits from renters.

“We want them to get it back as much as they do,” says Herbert. That’s because it costs the companies time and money to clean up after you and fix things that were broken while you where there. “That’s not where we desire to make our money.”

“Some people leave the property in great shape and others you’d be appalled. We’ve seen motorcycles disassembled in the living room,” says Herbert, adding that areas that are commonly overlooked in the cleaning process include refrigerators, ovens (pull them out and clean behind), window tracks, mini blinds and high-up places. “It should feel like it’s new,” he says. Also, be sure to return all your keys.

The landlord has 21 days to get your deposit back to you, along with an itemized list of any deductions.

9. Don’t leave it to your roommates. “Take the move-out process very seriously and have all roommates participate,” Herbert says. We can’t tell you how many times Johnny the Party Monkey has gone home for the summer leaving everyone else to deal with his beer cans and Twinkie crumbs. Then his roommates suck it up and get to scrubbing or say goodbye to several hundred dollars.

10. If all else fails, call Mommy and Daddy. If you are truly getting jerked around by your landlords, a call to the folks, sadly and truly, just might do the trick. And you might consider bringing them along on the inspection or walk-through. “A lot of the time, if a parent goes with you, parents are more intimidating,” Sperling says.

Trading card - Leslie Deniz, Chico State Police Chief