Know your renter's rights: 8 tips for tenants

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When Evette Plata moved out of her Florida rental home, she was determined to recoup her $1,175 security deposit. She called the rental office and got their move-out instructions. She hired her cousin’s cleaning company and says she “Chloroxed everything,” so the house was “spotless.” Her husband even filled in every nail hole in the walls.

The rental company’s inspector told her the house looked fine, Evette says, but her landlords decided to keep her security deposit anyway. “When I got the letter, I was astounded,” she said.

Unfortunately, like many tenants, Evette didn’t obtain written documentation during the move-out inspection and never thought to take “before” and “after” photos of the house’s condition. She told ABC News she just didn’t expect to have trouble getting the money back: “I’m an honest person,” she said.

Complaints from renters about problems with security deposits, poor maintenance and rushed evictions are all too common nationwide.

Tenants’ rights vary from state to state and city to city, with some places like Boston and New York City offering broad protections for consumers, so it’s good to know what your specific rights are in your community.

But regardless of where you live, here are eight steps you can take to protect yourself as a renter:

1. Check out your landlord. Before signing a lease, look up the rental company’s complaint record with BBB.org or other online complaint sources. And remember, federal law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or familial status such as having young children or being pregnant.

2. Read the entire lease carefully before you sign. This seems obvious, yet many renters fail to do it. You don’t want to find out later that your lease includes excessive late fees or a ban on your pet. Make sure you understand exactly what the lease states about returning your security deposit when you move out.

3. Document any existing damages to the property when you move in on paper and in photos, and provide copies of them to your landlord. When you move out, make sure you thoroughly clean the place and take photos again. Attend the landlord’s exit inspection and get his or her findings in writing.

4. Know when your landlord has the right to access to your rental home (and when he or she does not).

5. Speak up about maintenance issues and document your attempts to get them fixed. You have the right to habitable housing. And consult local laws; depending on where you live, you may be able to withhold part of your rent until the problem is fixed, or pay for the repair and deduct it from your rent, or just move out with no penalties.

6. Buy renter’s insurance. Everyone should have it.

7. Know your state and local laws regarding evictions. Landlords can’t just suddenly lock you out without serving you legal notice first. Depending on why they’re terminating your lease, you will have a set period of days to pay up or comply with the rules (unless you’re deemed a serial offender, in which case you may get an unconditional quit notice with no chance to pay late rent). And if the landlord wants to terminate the lease without cause, they must give you more time to move out (usually 30 or 60 days, depending on the state).

8. Give your landlord the required notice listed in your lease (30 days in most states) if you’re planning to move out. Send them a letter by certified mail, return receipt requested and keep copies of everything.

Even after doing all those things, says Aimee Inglis of Tenants Together, a tenants’ rights organization in California, renters need to stay strong and be willing to go to small claims court if necessary.

Some landlords “are relying on tenants to not push back and not to ask for their deposit back,” Inglis said. “And a lot of people won’t do it.”

Do you have a consumer problem? Contact The ABC News Fixer and submit your problem online. Letters are edited for length and clarity.

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