Application Fees and Background Checks
Some landlords will require you to submit to a background check prior to starting a tenancy. Landlords can legally require background checks including past criminal history and credit history but must obtain your written authorization first. Landlords can legally charge a non-refundable application fee and background check fee.
Landlords can use the information they find in background checks to refuse to rent to you, such as past criminal history or poor credit. However, landlords generally cannot refuse to rent to you for discriminatory reasons, such as race, religion, or sexual orientation.
When you rent a house, an apartment, or a room, you have rights and responsibilities. Some of those rights and responsibilities are based in state and local laws, but most specific responsibilities will be found in your written lease agreement. It is important to remember that your rights and your landlord’s responsibilities under state law cannot be waived in a lease. Even if you say you agree to waive your rights and sign a lease that states that you waive your rights, that waiver is not enforceable if there is a violation of state law. This includes your rights to be free from discrimination, your right to decent housing and repairs, and your rights to proper notice in the event that the landlord wants to evict you.
A written lease can either create a periodic tenancy (for example, month-to-month) or for a specific length of time (“set term”), often one year or more. If you do not have a written lease or a new written term lease is not signed when your set term expires, then the default is a month-to-month tenancy. A periodic tenancy will renew automatically at start of each term (such as the first of the month) unless one party gives proper notice that they want to terminate the lease.
You should always carefully review all terms of the lease before signing. Make sure you get a copy that is signed by both you and the landlord.
Deposits and Move-In Fees
Many landlords require additional fees or deposits prior to a tenant moving in. You should pay careful attention to the language used to describe these costs. A fee, such as a non-refundable pet or cleaning fee, will not be returned to you at the end of your tenancy. A deposit, such as a damage deposit or security deposit, must be refunded when you move out unless the landlord states in writing, within 14 days of when you move out, that the deposit is being withheld and specifies the damage which the deposit is covering. A security or damage deposit cannot be withheld for normal wear-and-tear to a rental unit.
If the landlord requires you to pay first and last month’s rent when you move-in, you should make sure that you get a receipt, and that your lease agreement specifies how that last month’s rent will be applied. Some landlords will apply the pre-paid last month’s rent to the final month of tenancy when you give proper notice that you will move out. Other landlords prefer to hold that last month’s rent until you have moved out and then refund that amount to you. This helps protect the landlord if you fail to pay rent and either leave without paying or are evicted. Last month’s rent cannot be used for anything other than rent without your permission. A landlord may not legally keep the last month’s rent to cover the cost of repairs, damage, or maintenance of a rental unit.
If the landlord refuses to return your security or damage deposit and does not specify in writing, within 14 days from when you move out, what damage to the unit your deposit is covering, you can sue your landlord in small claims court for twice the amount of the security deposit.
Moving In/Starting a Tenancy
It is always a good idea to do a walk-through (and take pictures) with the landlord before you move in. It’s a good idea to have a witness do the walk-through with you as well. Have a checklist to record all defects or problems in the space before you move in (spots on the rug, scratches on the floor, etc.). Make sure you and the landlord both sign the walk-through checklist and each get a copy.
Get a copy of the signed lease, and a receipt for all fees, deposits, and rent paid.