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Focus on Finance: 9 legal tips every renter should know

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Column by Mwesa Mapoma

Question: My daughter is about to rent her first apartment. What advice can you give her before signing the lease?

Answer: These tips were developed to help you understand general rights and obligations as a renter. Your rights and obligations most often are determined by the terms of your lease and laws that vary greatly among states and provinces. Speak with an experienced attorney who will review the lease document before you sign it and explain your rights and obligations.

1. Understand the terms of your lease before you sign. One common mistake renters make is signing a lease without fully understanding their rights and responsibilities. Have an attorney review your lease and discuss it with you before you sign.

2. Purchase renters insurance. In the event of a disaster, your landlord’s insurance may only cover the property the landlord owns. Renters insurance generally is affordable and offers protection not only for your personal belongings, but also against many personal injury claims that occur on or near your rental property.

3. Your landlord may be responsible for making repairs in a timely fashion and for keeping the premises safe and in compliance with health and other codes. However, the landlord’s responsibility varies depending on the terms of the lease and state or provincial laws.

4. In most cases, a landlord must give you notice before entering your home. However, this may be subject to change depending upon the language of your lease or the local laws that apply to it.

5. Never stop paying rent to settle a dispute with your landlord. If you believe you have a claim against your landlord, you may not be entitled to withhold your rent. Even if you have a legitimate claim against your landlord, the landlord may still be entitled to evict you if you do not pay your rent.

6. Under most circumstances, your landlord cannot take your property, change your locks or turn off your utilities merely because you failed to pay rent. However, the landlord may be able to file eviction proceedings against you in court.

7. Do not break a lease without understanding your rights and responsibilities. In some rare instances, tenants can break a lease without notice, but laws vary and it is important to understand the proper procedure for breaking your lease. If you need to get out of your lease before it expires, talk to an attorney first.

8. Generally, the landlord’s cost for repairing normal wear and tear cannot be deducted from your security deposit. Before moving into and out of a rental property, take detailed pictures of each room. Before and after pictures may be helpful if the landlord claims damages you did not cause.

9. Your landlord must return your deposit in a reasonable amount of time. Specific time frames may vary.

Mwesa Mapoma is an independent associate of LegalShield.