A Guide to Surviving the Rental Experience (or Renting for Dummies)

On three separate occasions in the last month, I’ve had conversations with friends about the pitfalls of renting a living space. Since it seems to be such a hot topic within my circle of buddies, I figure there must be many more enquiring minds or newbie renters that could do with a little advice on the issue. Then I started thinking how much knowledge I’ve accumulated on the subjects of tenant law, roommate disputes, lease agreements, house hunting, and moving in general. I’m up on game, to say the least.

I sort of consider myself a connoisseur of Stockton’s rental units. If there was a degree program for Professional Renter, I’d have at least a Master’s. I’ve lived in plenty rental homes as a tenant, a sub-leasing tenant, and a temporary couch surfer. I’ve lived in apartments, houses, duplexes, triplexes, attics, bedrooms, closets, and condos. Some where tiny spaces, others were expansive abodes. In some cases the monthly rent was a steal and other times it was inflated. I’ve rented from property management companies, from private owners, from friends, from tenants willing to break their own lease to rent to me, and from corporate controlled apartment complexes. I’ve had nearly every possible combination of living arrangements; from my current solo existence to an out of control tweeker pad with god knows how many other people during my lost years, from living with my sibling to living with a significant other, and I’ve moved in with complete strangers, casual acquaintances, and best friends. My roommates have been a mixed bag of characters: a crazy middle-aged karate instructor/Gulf War veteran (AKA Karate Rock) that rented me a room, the newly outed super-flaming gay guy that shared a couple of residences with me, the irritable lesbian with a vicious bark and no bite in my first apartment, and the raging alcoholic boyfriend with a penchant for destroying furniture and fixtures during drunken fits. I’ve lived with first time renters, under-aged high school students, hippy retirees, clandestine lovers, and quasi-relatives. I’ve been burned by roomies, neighbors, and landlords enough to have learned some painful lessons, but I’ve also benefited from living with some of my former roommates. Yes, mine is quite an extensive renter “resume” because I’ve never renewed a lease agreement (or even wanted to). Anyhow, here are a few pieces of advice from me to you, as an expert.

  • Whenever you have a roommate, you should draft up a Roommate Contract & Agreement. ANY ROOMMATE. Even if it’s your boyfriend, even if it’s your best friend from childhood, even if the person is “hella cool” and you guys “get along really well”, even if you are the one moving into the home they already live in. Even if you never have to use the contract against your roomie in a court of law, the document serves a very valid purpose. All the headaches that come with communal living are put on the table up front, so miscommunication and the accompanying conflicts are greatly reduced. I’m not advocating the use of a contract to enforce a fascist dictatorship of your home; it’s just a mutually agreed upon Way of Doing Things. If nothing else, writing up the contract with your co-tenants puts everybody on the same page as far as how y’all want to live. You’d be surprised how many of the things you see as common courtesy or essential upkeep are entirely foreign to others! It’s better to be up on game about your roommates pet peeves or annoyances up front, rather than discovering he/she is a neat freak or nark months down the road when he/she flips the fuck out and/or flushes your stash. Such a document should include the terms of paying rent (how much, when, repercussions for late rent or bounced checks, etc.), the expected length of the living arrangement, what utilities exist & who’s responsible for them, and ABOVE ALL the agreement must clarify what happens when it comes to moving out. The last part is crucial! How long should their notice be? Do they forfeit their security deposit if they bounce out on you early? Are their certain activities or behaviors that could lead to a roommate’s eviction? Optional sections of the agreement can divvy up housework, stipulate the rules about guests, address noise curfews or studying/sleeping schedules, and establish a smoking policy. Trust me, a Roommate Contract is totally necessary.
  • Familiarize yourself with your rights as a tenant and the responsibilities of your landlord. Remember that there are laws to protect you from oppressive or shitty landlords & living conditions, just as there are laws to protect their investment from you.
  • The amount of your security deposit cannot exceed the monthly rent, unless an additional pet deposit is required. When you move in, a landlord can charge you a security deposit OR last months rent – not both! If the landlord intends on keeping any of your deposit when you move out, you can request a detailed accounting of what they are keeping it for. They are required to present you with receipts (or copies) and detailed time sheets or fee statements if they employ someone to make repairs, if you request it. If the landlord fails to give you this documentation within 30 days of your request, they forfeit their right to the deposit money & it must be returned to you in full according to California state law.
  • Any correspondence with your landlord should be written whenever possible & you need to retain a copy for your records. If you need repairs made, you can call them BUT also send a dated letter. If you have a complaint, you can talk to them BUT also send a dated letter. Trust me.
  • When looking for a place, put the time and effort in to evaluate your options whenever possible. A little searching can pay off big time and a hasty move can land you in a shitty over-priced place that you despise.
  • Plenty of corny kitchen decorations and Lifetime movies have told us that home is where the heart is. This is true, but let’s not forget it is also where all your worldly possessions are too! Keep that in mind when picking a neighborhood, a roommate, or a lock for your bedroom door. If you have a lot of pricey shit, get renter’s insurance. If your thrift store / hand-me-down chic like me, just remember to lock your doors/windows and be mindful of the company you keep inside your castle.
  • Get to know your neighbors. It is terribly annoying when neighbors routinely call the cops on you for being loud or having a party or because they’re fucking crazy, so open up a dialogue ASAP. Besides, it’s nice to have someone looking out for you in da ‘hood.

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