Look before you sign
Chico’s most prominent housing lawyer shares do’s and don’ts of renting
When Andy Holcombe’s college-aged daughter was looking for a place of her own this winter, it only made sense that he would keep an eye on things. Holcombe is a lawyer who has been involved with housing issues since 1978, the past 11 years in his own practice. He’s a Chico city councilman and in November began a two-year term as mayor.
A friend of his knew about a house that was about to hit the rental market, and Holcombe was a friend of the landlord.
“She had a great experience,” Holcombe said of his Kate’s rental foray, “but she got lucky.”
Not everyone has the inside track to a great home or apartment—in fact, most people don’t. That leaves them vulnerable in a market that, for the present anyway, favors the property owner.
“If you don’t say yes, there may be 10 people behind you,” he observed. “It’s the reality, even in downturns of the rental market.”
So what’s a renter to do?
“My first advice is be patient and don’t grab at the first thing you see,” Holcombe said. “What I find is many student renters are so desperate to get housing that if they see something that ‘looks good,’ they’re so enthusiastic to find something that they rush in without due diligence.”
In other words, cover your … ahem.
The optimal time for a housing hunt is early in the year—through March. Landlords start learning what units will become available in June, and early birds get the best nests. (Likewise, if you’ve found the perfect pad and plan to stay put, renew early.)
At each property, look things over with a discerning eye. “Many problems stem from the landlord and tenant not doing a thorough inspection before move-in, and then they have problems on the other end [i.e. move-out] on who’s responsible for repairs.”
During the “sales” phase, the renter has some room for negotiation to get matters remedied, though not as much as in communities where the supply-and-demand curve doesn’t give what Holcombe deems “disproportionate bargaining power” to the suppliers.
“It’s pretty much a take-it-or-leave-it situation,” he said, “so if you’re going to take it, you need to know what you’re getting into—which leads back to a thorough inspection.”
It also leads to another pre-lease inspection: checking out your roommate(s).
“Often people rent with friends they’ve had for a year but haven’t lived with,” Holcombe noted. “Almost all leases in California have ‘joint and several liability,’ which means each tenant can be liable for the whole rent. That often means the responsible tenant not causing problems may be left holding the bag for an irresponsible tenant who’s causing problems.”
Once you’ve moved in, don’t think your days of talking to the owner or property manager are over. If something breaks, let the landlord know quickly. If you get no response or action, send what Holcombe calls a “self-serving confirming letter”—a recap of your previous oral complaints that also serves as a written record.
Some tenants hesitate to bring up problems—“the fear of retaliation is real,” Holcombe warned, “and that gets back to my gut reaction that it’s not a level playing field.” But that’s part of what he calls “preventative maintenance” for rental residents.
Tread cautiously should you consider withholding rent over unresolved repairs, because that can lead to eviction proceedings. “My advice in that situation is if the tenant has the cash flow available, pay for the needed repair on top of the rent and negotiate a rent credit. That way if you [sue and] lose, you just don’t get reimbursed extra money but you don’t put your tenancy at risk. It’s a safer remedy,” he said, noting that not everyone (i.e. cash-strapped students) has the means to do this.
“Common sense,” Holcombe concluded, “goes a long way toward problem avoidance.”