Apartment Life

Self-Employed Renters Often Face Obstacles

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By Sara Gebhardt
Saturday, August 20, 2005

Q I fear I am in a pickle. A few months ago, I left my normal, stable, full-time job. After a break, I decided that I wanted to go out on my own and do my own thing. So far, it is working. But the excitement of the new entrepreneurial adventure was quashed when I started looking for a new apartment. It seems landlords don't want to hear about my new gig -- they want stable income. I have savings to cover my living expenses for a year while I build my business, but they say they require self-employment tax forms for all self-employed applicants. These are documents that I don't have yet, as I just started.

So what's a girl to do when she has a new start-up business and wants to rent an apartment? -- Alexandria

AEntrepreneurial ventures do not come without sacrifice, as you already know. When it comes to finding an apartment, you face a difficult, though not insurmountable, problem. Clearly, a landlord would choose someone with a steady income over someone without one, so you should prepare yourself for that as you look for an apartment.

That doesn't mean you need to compromise on the service or amenities you are looking for and just go ahead and rent whatever becomes available to you. It means you may need to bring out some extra tools to convince a prospective landlord that you're not a risky tenant.

So, without any proof of income from self-employment, prove through bank account statements that you have rent money for the next year. If you really want to live in a certain place, offer to pay as much of the rent for the next year as you feel comfortable -- definitely offer up more than three months in advance or triple the security deposit. A landlord who is paid six months' rent upfront will know you are serious about handling your affairs.

Such a landlord may still pick someone with a more traditional job over you, so on top of using advance money to help your cause, you could find someone to co-sign the lease. That way a landlord will know that someone else will pay the rent if you don't.

Obviously, if you have good references from past landlords and proof of any contract work you will be doing or any income you will be receiving, no matter how sporadic, show that information to a landlord as well.

Prepare yourself to simply walk away from landlords who will not rent to an entrepreneur no matter what concessions you are willing to make. In the end, if you make a good case and are persistent in your search, you will land a good place to live, even if it is not your first choice.

I have several issues with my apartment complex. The first and worst issue is the neighbors upstairs. They are extremely noisy, but I could probably live with that if it were just people noise and mostly limited to daytime hours. However, they have a large dog that barks for hours on end -- sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning -- and is clearly audible in my apartment even over the air-conditioning fan and ambient noise. This too, I could probably live with; I bought a white-noise machine.

However, after months of living with these people above me, I started to notice a foul smell on my balcony. It's a wooden plank balcony, as is theirs. Well, imagine my disgust when I came home one day to discover a shower of liquid raining down from the balcony above -- when I went out to investigate, I found they'd locked their dog outside on the balcony and it had urinated everywhere -- and dripped through the planks to soak my balcony. I immediately went upstairs to tell them (politely) that it was unacceptable and put in writing a complaint to that effect to my landlord. However, I have noticed the smell is stronger on some days, and I suspect that this is continuing.

The straw that broke the camel's back is that the apartment complex was bought by new owners last month and is being turned into condominiums. Who knows if they'll even care about this problem? (It doesn't seem like the current landlords do.) They are honoring old leases, and mine's not up until April. I just want to get away from the disgusting, unsanitary situation. Do I have any legal rights to break my lease? -- Arlington

Between ambient noise, dog noise, people noise and white noise, I guess there's a lot going on in your world. But I suppose you are less interested in the noise problem at this point than you are in the foul smell on your balcony. That seems legitimate.

Before you assume that your new landlords do not care about this problem, bring it to their attention. Ask them to talk to the dog owners about where and how they keep their dog and to clean your balcony well enough to get rid of the stench. That way, you will be able to document if the dog still relieves itself on the balcony.

Because dog urine on your balcony really verges on the unhealthy, the new landlords should take steps to solve this problem. Give them a reasonable amount of time to deal with the dog owners. If they don't resolve it, then you can try to break your lease on the basis that your landlord is not providing a habitable place for you to live, although it might be iffy because your indoor quarters are fit for living.

Still, your lease probably promises clean and safe premises, so refer to it. Generally, you must abide by the lease you signed, meaning you are stuck in it until its termination date unless you prove negligence on the part of your landlord or you pay the early termination fee.

Military Aid

If you're a member of the military who has a residential lease in Virginia, you might have an easier time getting out of your lease now. Earlier this year, the Virginia legislature amended its code to assist certain military tenants who are bound by rental agreements.

As a result of military deployments, the Virginia legislature determined that an emergency situation exists and changed its code to prohibit landlords from charging any liquidated damages to military personnel who receive orders, no matter how long (or short) a time they have lived at the property. Furthermore, the code is applicable to members of the National Guard in addition to the Virginia Army National Guard and the armed forces of the United States.

The amended Code of Virginia permits qualified military tenants to terminate a rental agreement early if the military tenant has received permanent change-of-station orders to depart 35 miles or more from the location of the rental property; has received temporary orders to go 35 miles or more for more than three months; is discharged or released from active duty with the armed forces of the United States or from full-time duty or technician status with the National Guard; or is ordered to report to government-supplied quarters, resulting in the loss of the basic rent allowance.

Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail ataptlife@gmail.comor by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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