Tips for Renters

Finding a good, affordable rental unit requires a lot of effort and legwork. This brochure is intended to demystify the process of renting a place to live. Although it is not a comprehensive guide to rental issues, this brochure provides essential information about finding and living in a rental unit for the first time. There is no secret or magic way to find a place to rent that will make the process easy. But armed with information about your rights, you can be an aware consumer in what is a very tough rental market.

The Austin Tenants’ Council (ATC) has individual brochures on almost every topic included here. If you have any other questions, pick up some of these brochures or call our telephone counseling line to speak with a counselor. You can contact ATC at 512-474-1961.

Note: The Austin Tenants’ Council gives information and advice on landlord-tenant issues, but does not assist individuals in finding rental units. We do produce a free Guide to Affordable Housing in the Greater Austin Area.

Before Beginning to Look
Before beginning to search for a place to live, you must decide if you will live alone or with roommates, how much rent you can afford, and the general areas of town that are acceptable.

Choosing a Roommate
Many tenants do not realize the importance of careful roommate selection. Just because someone seems like a nice person on a social level, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will make a good roommate. A good roommate must be trustworthy. When two or more people sign a lease, they assume important personal and financial responsibilities to the landlord and to each other.

Roommate conflicts can make living together an intolerable situation. Nothing is worse than having to deal with the daily grind of life only to return home to a constant, raging battle. Roommate conflicts arise for many reasons, but primarily they come either from misunderstandings or poor roommate selection.

Everyone has expectations about how a household should run and how people should conduct themselves. From person to person, these expectations are often very different. Therefore, it is important that roommates have compatible lifestyles. Lifestyle issues such as how noisy or quiet roommates are expected to be, sleeping schedules, cleanliness, drinking, smoking, parties, overnight guests, pets, etc. can create intense conflict. Frequently, roommates begin as friends and leave as adversaries because they simply are not compatible. Careful consideration and clear expectations are essential before deciding to live with someone.

Before agreeing to live with a roommate, decide how to deal with the household issues. Someone will have to pay rent and utility bills and then divide them among the other roommates. What constitutes an equitable split in the bills should be decided before the lease is signed. If one roommate wants cable and the other doesn’t watch TV, splitting the bill in half may not be reasonable. Housekeeping habits are sources of conflict if not clarified in the beginning. Common areas such as a living room or common bathroom will need to be cleaned. For some roommates, cleaning once a week is essential, and for others, two weeks or more will pass before they will even notice a problem.

A roommate contract which specifically describes the rights and responsibilities of all roommates can be invaluable in clarifying these issues. Rental contracts are generally only between the tenant(s) and the landlord. Most leases do not address roommates’ responsibilities to each other. A roommate contract can define rights and responsibilities so that disputes are less likely to occur and easier to settle when they do. Furthermore, this kind of contract can define the financial responsibilities roommates have to each other.

When roommates sign a lease together, they are jointly and individually liable for the lease. In other words, if one roommate breaks the lease, all tenants are in breach of the lease. If the total rent is not paid in full by the due date, the landlord only cares that the rent was not paid in full and can evict all tenants. If a lease is broken, it will likely be reported on all tenants’ rental and credit records and the landlord can pursue any one or all of the tenants for the debts. Remember, roommate problems are not the landlord’s problem and do not provide the right to get out of a lease.

If problems occur between roommates during the lease term and one stops paying rent or moves out, a roommate contract will help the remaining tenants hold the other accountable. The Austin Tenants’ Council provides a free Renting Together Contract

Choosing an Affordable Rent
After determining how many roommates there will be, consider how much rent each person can afford. Generally, 30 percent of a person’s income is considered an affordable housing cost. Other expenses such as utility bills, phone bills, and cable TV bills should be included in calculating what can be afforded. There are many up-front costs when renting such as security deposits, pet deposits, utility deposits, and installation charges. Except in an “all bills paid” unit, these items are extra.

Ensuring that all roommates can afford to pay the rent and other expenses is the best way to avoid problems. Careful preparation and assessment of financial resources will prevent any roommates from getting in over his head and jeopardizing the other roommates’ credit and rental histories.

Location
One of the biggest mistakes tenants make is moving to an area of town that they do not like. This dissatisfaction may result from being too far from bus routes, shopping areas, family, work, or school; but most often, it is because of crime. Crime is usually not a landlord’s responsibility nor will it give a legal reason to break a lease once it is signed. Only if a landlord specifically misrepresents the neighborhood, and it can be proven, will the tenant have any chance of terminating the lease because of crime. Be wary of what the people trying to rent the unit have to say about the area. There are several other, better ways to find out about crime.

Checking the crime records is a straightforward way to determine the safety of a neighborhood. The Austin Police Department records the incidence of crime by sectors throughout the city and has the latest crime statistics available. Outside of Austin, other local law enforcement agencies may be able to provide similar information.

One of the easiest and best ways to find out about crime is to ask people in the neighborhood. They are a tremendous resource because they actually live there. If crime is a problem, they will probably provide you with more than enough information about it. Another useful technique is visiting the area at night. Seeing the neighborhood at night may give a completely different perspective on the safety of a neighborhood than being there in the middle of the day.

Other possible needs to consider: storage, on-site laundry facilities, security gates, security guards, adequate nighttime lighting, pets, and parking. Courtesy patrols are not the same as security guards. A courtesy patrol will typically secure the owner’s property but not the tenant’s.

Applying for and Renting a Unit
With roommates, the amount of rent, and the area of town determined, a tenant has the background information necessary to begin looking for available rental units.

One of the most important things a tenant should remember is that the landlord and leasing agent are salespeople selling a product. They work for the owner, and their job is to rent all of the empty units. Many landlords are very nice, at least until the lease is signed. Most people in the rental housing industry are reputable, but there are plenty who are not. Tenants should always use caution in trusting what they are told. Being an aware consumer is extremely important in finding a good rental unit.

Three common resources for finding a rental unit are newspaper ads, apartment guide booklets, and locator services. Rental units are also advertised on bulletin boards and by word of mouth. In areas where there is a high demand for housing such as near college campuses, many landlords advertise by simply putting a sign in the yard of the rental unit. Visiting the neighborhood can also be effective if one particular area of town is desirable. When demand is high, landlords receive more than enough interest from people passing by.

A tenant can do several things to determine whether he wants to rent from a particular owner or management company. The tenant can ask the current occupants about any problems they might have had with the landlord, such as not making repairs. A tenant can also contact the Better Business Bureau or the Texas Attorney General’s Office to see if any complaints have been filed. Keep in mind, though, that just because one tenant had a problem with a landlord does not mean that everyone will.

Applications and Deposits
Proper preparation and planning is important before applying for a rental unit because application fees and deposits are usually nonrefundable. Tenants should be certain that they want to live in a unit BEFORE applying for it or putting any money down.

When giving prospective tenants a rental application, the landlord must also provide a written “tenant selection policy.” The policy should state the grounds for which the rental application may be denied, including things such as the applicant’s criminal history; previous rental history; current income; credit history; or failure to provide accurate or complete information on the application form. By receiving the policy before applying or putting any money down, the applicant can decide whether he/she will qualify to live in that particular rental unit.

An application fee is often required as a fixed cost to compensate the landlord for checking credit reports and processing the application. Typically application fees are $25 to $35 per person, but there is no limit on what a landlord can charge for an application fee. Thus, applying for a rental unit can quickly become expensive if it costs two roommates $50 every time they apply.

An application deposit is also often required at the time the application is processed. The deposit is put down by the prospective tenant as assurance to the landlord that the unit will be taken if the application is approved since the landlord will take it off the market.

Many applications state that if a prospective tenant turns down the rental unit after submitting an application, the deposit will be forfeited. Typically there is no grace period to back out of the application once it is signed. If the landlord states that a tenant can cancel the application and get the deposit back, it should be included in writing in the application agreement.

Even if an application agreement is not signed, the landlord may have grounds to keep some or all of a deposit based on losses the landlord suffered. If a tenant has entered into a lease with a landlord and paid a security deposit or prepaid rent and does not move into the unit, the tenant is entitled to a full refund only if the tenant finds a replacement tenant satisfactory to the landlord who moves in by the date the lease was to begin. On the other hand, if the landlord secures the replacement tenant, the landlord may deduct from the security deposit or rent prepayment any amount agreed to in the lease as a lease cancellation fee or the landlord can deduct actual expenses incurred including an amount for the landlord’s time in finding a replacement tenant. Money should never be put down on a rental unit unless the tenant finds the unit acceptable.

A tenant should never apply for a rental unit until the actual unit has been seen. A tenant should never accept being shown a model apartment. A model apartment is just that — a model. No one lives in the unit, and it is usually in considerably better shape than the other units. Relying on seeing a model apartment is the same as buying a used car based on being shown an example of what the dealer’s used cars are like. If a landlord will not show the actual apartment, there is probably a very good reason — it’s a dump!

Tenants also need to make certain that all information about the rental unit is indicated on the application. This is important since it may be difficult to change the terms of the proposed lease once the application is signed and the deposit has been received. Otherwise, the landlord may approve the application based on terms that are unacceptable to the tenant. If the tenant then refuses to sign the lease, the landlord may keep the application deposit. As with all written agreements, the tenant should insist that the landlord provides a copy as soon as it is signed.

The application should include:

Management should disclose in writing somewhere on the application how long it will take to process the application. Section 92.352 of the Texas Property Code states that if the landlord does not notify the tenant within seven days after accepting an application or application deposit, the application is considered rejected. Notice from the landlord can either be by telephone to the applicant, co-applicant, or a person living with the applicant or co-applicant or the notice can be made by mail if postmarked on or before the seventh day after the application is submitted. If the landlord has rejected an application the deposit should be refunded immediately.

Credit History and/or a Co-Signer
To approve the application, a landlord may require more from a prospective tenant who does not have a good rental or credit history. The landlord may require an extra deposit, advance payment of the last month’s rent, or a co-signer on the lease. Generally a co-signer needs to be someone who has good credit and a good rental history. Both the co-signer and the tenant should be aware that the co-signer, or guarantor, is liable for the terms of the lease if the tenant does not live up to them. In other words, if a parent co-signs for a child who breaks a lease, the debt will be reported on the parent’s credit record as well as the child’s, and either one or both can be sued for damages due under the lease agreement. In any case, the guarantor is liable only for the original lease term unless otherwise specified in the signed lease or in a subsequent written agreement. According to Sections 92.021(c) and (d) of the Texas Property Code, a guarantor may be held liable for the renewal of the lease only if the original lease states that the guarantor will be liable under renewal and the renewal of the lease involves the same parties as the original lease and does not increase the guarantor’s potential financial obligation for rent.

Other issues to ask about before putting down a deposit: Are any utilities included in the rent? Do the units come with A/C, central heat, and/or ceiling fans? Are the appliances electric or gas? What are the average utility bills in the summer and the winter? Are there complex rules? Are there regulations for the parking lot? How long is the lease term? How and when must the rent be paid? How much are late fees?

Signing a Lease
After being approved for a rental unit, the tenant’s next step is to sign a lease. There are two very important things to realize before this step is taken. The first is that a lease becomes a legally binding document as soon as it is signed; there is no grace period during which the contract may be cancelled. The second is that a written lease should be considered the entire agreement between tenant and landlord. Therefore, it is essential to read the lease very carefully BEFORE you sign it. If there is anything unclear in the lease, just ask the landlord or leasing agent. They have an obligation to explain it. If any changes are made, the landlord and tenant(s) should initial all changes on all copies of the lease.

The lease should be checked for accuracy, making sure that the correct unit number, rent and security deposit amounts, and starting and ending dates are included. Everyone who will be living in the unit should be listed on the lease. Most leases allow only the persons listed on the lease to live in that unit. If the tenant has pets, they should be listed on the lease even if they are going to be kept outside. Most leases require written approval for pets of any kind to be kept anywhere in the rental unit, even in the yard.

Until the actual unit has been viewed, a tenant should never sign a lease. Most leases state that the unit is accepted “as is,” so if cleaning or repairs need to be done before the tenant moves in, they must be included in writing in the lease before it is signed as well as the date by which they will be completed.

A landlord may promise many things, but those oral promises will generally not be enforceable unless they are in writing. Most lease agreements include a statement that the owner’s representatives have not made oral agreements and that they cannot make oral agreements that are binding on the owner. By signing the lease, a tenant agrees with this statement so the only agreement is the written lease contract. Therefore, all agreements must be in writing and signed by all parties. If someone will not put an oral agreement in writing, he usually has no intention of keeping that promise.

Once the lease is in effect, the terms cannot be changed without the consent of all parties. This means that the landlord cannot raise the rent during the lease term, unless the lease includes a provision allowing it. Likewise, the tenant cannot move out and is almost always liable for the terms of the lease until it is terminated.

As always, a copy of the lease and any other agreements should be obtained as soon as they are signed. A written agreement is of no use if there is no record of it.

Common lease clauses to be aware (or beware) of:

  1. Landlord’s lien: allows a landlord to enter tenant’s rental unit and seize certain “nonessential” items as collateral if tenant is overdue on the rent.
  2. Landlord’s entry: allows a landlord to enter the tenant’s rental unit, usually for any legitimate business reason or emergency. Some leases require prior notice to tenant, most do not.
  3. Re-letting fee: allows a landlord to charge the tenant a fee for moving out prior to the end of the lease term — often 85 percent of one month’s rent.
  4. Above all, special attention should be paid to lease provisions which are underlined or in bold print.

Other things to find out before signing the lease agreement: Who is responsible for yard maintenance? Is the tenant responsible for any maintenance charges? Who is responsible for pest control? How long can guests stay? What is the owner’s name, address, and phone number?

Moving In
To ensure the return of the security deposit at the end of the lease, it is critical to make a thorough inventory of the condition of the rental unit as soon as the unit is occupied. If a move-in inventory checklist is provided, it should be filled in completely listing anything that is not in perfect condition. If the landlord does not provide such a form, the tenant should inventory the condition of the property anyway. Any documentation of the condition of the unit is sufficient, including pictures and/or videotape.

The inventory should be completed immediately after moving in. Remember that it’s better to write too much than too little. A witness should also be present at the time of a move-in inventory. The witness and tenants should all sign and date the inventory. The tenant should keep a copy and give the original to the landlord.

Paying Rent
It should be clear from the start how, when, and where the rent must be paid. Some landlords allow the rent to be mailed, others expect it to be delivered in-person or put in a drop box. It is best to pay rent by personal check because it is the easiest to track if there is a dispute over whether payment was made. If a money order is used, one from the post office or a bank is often easier to track than other types. However, the company selling the money order cannot research it unless the purchaser has the stub with the money order number. Generally, though, money orders are difficult to track because the process can be time consuming.

Using a traveler’s check is a method of payment rarely considered by tenants, yet it provides the easiest way, other than a personal check, to replace the check and stop payment. Most large banks will issue traveler’s checks for a small fee even if the purchaser does not have an account at the bank. The only drawback to traveler’s checks is that they are sold in predetermined amounts such as $150, $300, $500, etc. Traveler’s checks are accepted almost as readily as cash so any extra checks can be used for most other purposes.

Whichever method of payment is used — cash, check, or money order — it is essential to have proof that the landlord received payment. Any written proof will suffice. If the landlord will not give the tenant a receipt, then the tenant should ask for the landlord’s signature on the money order stub or on a handwritten note that the tenant has written up. The receipt should indicate how much money was paid, what the payment was for, and the date it was paid. A money order stub or a copy of a check is not proof that the landlord received payment. If it is impossible to get a receipt, having a witness present at the time of payment is the next best thing.

When payment is made with cash, the Texas Property Code, Section 92.011, requires a landlord to provide a written rent receipt to the tenant. Cash should NEVER be given to a landlord without a written receipt being provided IMMEDIATELY and cash should NEVER be put into a drop slot. If an employee of a landlord steals a cash payment made in a drop slot, the tenant will have no proof payment was ever made and most of the landlord’s employees know this.

Many tenants pay rent by mail and usually there is no problem with this method of delivery. However, if the landlord claims the payment was not received, the only way to prove that the payment was mailed or that the landlord received it is to send it certified mail, return receipt requested through the U.S. Post Office or by some other delivery service that requires a signature upon receipt. The cost for a certified letter is $5.54 and may be worthwhile for assurance of being able to prove when the payment was mailed and when it was received.

Repairs and Modifications
Generally, it will be the landlord’s responsibility to make repairs to the rental unit. The exception is when the lease specifically states the tenant is responsible for maintenance, usually not to include repairs that affect health or safety. A tenant may also want to consider purchasing renter’s insurance in case there is any damage to the tenant’s or landlord’s property that is not covered under the lease.

Repairs
Many landlords respond to a tenant’s request for repair quickly after the tenant simply stops by the office or calls on the telephone. Often these types of oral requests are all that is necessary. However, if a landlord refuses to make repairs, a tenant will have no recourse unless he can prove what was requested and when. In fact, most leases state that all requests for repair must be in writing. Therefore, repair requests should be in writing and either sent certified mail, return receipt requested or hand-delivered with a witness.

The Texas Property Code requires the landlord to repair any problems that are a threat to the health or safety of an ordinary tenant. If a tenant requests a repair, the landlord must respond within a reasonable amount of time, which is normally seven days. The tenant should request a written explanation from the landlord if there will be any delay in making the repair. The tenant may also inform the landlord of the tenant’s intention to exercise the remedies provided in Subchapter B of Chapter 92 of the Texas Property Code, if the repairs are not made in a reasonable time.

The tenant is required to send only one seven-day notice to the landlord requesting health or safety repairs, as long as that notice is sent by certified or registered mail, return receipt requested.

Although not required by the Texas Property Code, the landlord is liable under the lease to repair other problems, unless the lease specifically says otherwise. These would be repairs that do not affect the health or safety of an ordinary tenant. For instance, if there is a dishwasher in the unit, the tenant can expect it to function properly unless the landlord specifically notified the tenant prior to signing the lease that it does not work or will not be repaired during the lease term.

When faced with repairs that do not affect health or safety, a tenant should make a written request for repair giving the landlord 10 days to make the repairs. Unfortunately, there are no specific remedies afforded to the tenant by the Texas Property Code so the tenant would have to take some type of civil action (i.e. sue) against the landlord for breach of the lease contract. Therefore, negotiation and repeated requests may be the most effective ways to counter a stubborn landlord.

Other conditions that the tenant encounters in the rental unit, such as old carpet or the walls needing to be painted are generally conditions that the tenant accepts “as is” and the landlord does not have to change them.

Because repair problems can vary widely, this discussion has been too brief to explain all the complexities of repair issues. Contact the Austin Tenants’ Council for more in-depth information on enforcing repair rights. See also ATC’s brochure, Repairs: The Tenant’s Rights and the Landlord’s Duty.

Modifying the Rental Unit
Physical modification of a rental property such as adding a ceiling fan or removing carpeting is generally not allowed without prior written approval from the landlord. A tenant can be liable to the landlord for damages by making any such changes to the property. Furthermore, physical modifications become part of the landlord’s property. New fixtures, plant shrubs, or other improvements cannot be taken when the tenant leaves unless the landlord gives written approval or the property is returned to its original condition. In general, consult the landlord and get a specific written agreement prior to making any changes to the rental unit.

There is one circumstance where the landlord is required by law to allow modification of the rental property. If physical modifications are necessary because of a tenant’s disability, the landlord may have to allow the tenant to make the modifications, although usually at the tenant’s expense.

People with disabilities also have the right to ask the landlord to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services if necessary for them to use the housing. For example, an apartment complex with a “no pets” policy must allow a visually impaired tenant to keep a guide dog.

If the landlord refuses a request for reasonable modification or reasonable accommodation, contact the Austin Tenants’ Council’s Fair Housing Program at 512-474-7007 for assistance.

Moving Out
Giving Notice
Most lease agreements in Texas require written notice prior to the tenant moving out. This notice can be either from the tenant or the landlord. Even if the tenant does not want to leave, the landlord has the right to give notice to the tenant to move at the end of the lease. Just as a tenant does not need a reason when terminating a lease, a landlord does not need a reason either. This means a landlord has the right to renew or not to renew a lease contract. There are times when a landlord is prohibited from terminating a lease contract. The landlord may not retaliate against a tenant for requesting repairs by giving them a termination notice nor can the landlord discriminate against a tenant under the fair housing law.

A tenant should be aware of several things before moving out. First, most lease contracts contain a provision that the lease will automatically renew itself on a month-to-month basis until a 30-day notice is given. Meaning, unless either the tenant or landlord gives a termination notice, the lease will continue to renew itself on a monthly basis. When a tenant is under a monthly lease contract, all of the provisions in the original lease remain in force. Make sure to check your lease to see if written notice is required. Verbal notice may not be sufficient.

Secondly, not all lease contracts renew themselves on a month-to-month basis and the tenant may be expected to move at the end of the lease term if a new lease is not signed.

Finally, a written lease may include restrictions on when the lease can be terminated. Some leases only allow for termination of the lease at the end of a calendar month. Thus, if 30-day notice is given on December 15, the lease will not terminate until January 31. In this scenario, the tenant would be expected to pay rent for the full month of January, regardless of when the tenant actually moves out. Read the lease carefully to ensure that proper notice is given.

When giving written notice, it should include the rental address, the date the lease ends, the intended move-out date, and a forwarding address for the purpose of receiving a security deposit. The letter should be delivered in the presence of a witness or sent certified mail, return receipt requested. As with all written documentation, KEEP A COPY OF THE LETTER.

Security Deposit Refund
A security deposit is given to a landlord to secure performance under the lease. In other words, the security deposit is given so the landlord can recover any monies due under the lease such as costs for physical damages to the property or lost rent if the tenant breaks the lease. However, the landlord may not keep any part of the security deposit for physical damages that are the result of normal wear and tear.

A landlord has 30 days after the tenant moves out to mail the security deposit. If the landlord is going to keep any part of the deposit, an itemized list of deductions with a written description of the damages must also be sent to the tenant by the 30th day. A tenant needs to do three things to ensure the return of the security deposit.

1. Give proper move-out notice as described in the previous section. If a tenant doesn’t give a 30-day notice to vacate and the lease includes a provision that is either underlined or in bold print which requires the tenant to give 30-day notice as a condition for the refund of the security deposit, the landlord can keep the deposit. Failing to give a 30-day notice prior to moving out usually results in the tenant owing rent for the following month or other monies under the lease which often amount to more than the deposit. Even if there is nothing in the lease saying the tenant will forfeit the deposit, these additional costs will be deducted and the tenant may even end up owing the landlord money.

2. Give written notice of a forwarding address. The Texas Property Code requires the tenant to give written notice of forwarding address or the landlord does not have to mail the security deposit or itemized list of deductions within 30 days. If a tenant fails to turn in a forwarding address to the landlord, the tenant does not forfeit the right to the return of the security deposit or to the itemized list of deductions. The tenant will be entitled to these within 30 days after providing written notice of forwarding address to the landlord.

3. Do an extensive move-out inventory. A form provided by the landlord can be used or a tenant can simply make a written list of the condition of property at the time of move-out. A witness should be present and management should be invited to participate. If management does not appear, the tenant and witness should do the move-out inventory, documenting what is in good, clean condition and what is damaged. The more detail, the better.

Photographs and videotape are additional ways to document the condition of the property, but a written list should always be done. If management is present and states that the property is in good condition, the tenant should ask that it be put in writing. With a good move-in and a good move-out inventory, the tenant should have sufficient proof to settle any dispute over the return of the security deposit. The Austin Tenants’ Council can provide more information if a tenant has problems recovering the security deposit. See also ATC’s brochure, Security Deposit.

Tips for Renters

The information in this brochure is a summary of the subject and other pertinent matters. It should not be considered conclusive or a substitute for legal advice. Unique facts can render broad statements inapplicable. Anyone needing legal assistance should contact an attorney.

Austin Tenants’ Council • 1640-B East 2nd Street • Austin, TX 78702 • 512.474.7006