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Try to Keep Rent to Under a Third Of Your Gross Income, Experts Advise

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Edited questions from Apartment Life, Sara Gebhardt's online discussion about rental issues.

Q: Greenbelt: As a recent grad with massive student loan debt, what percentage of my income should be spent on rent? I'm willing to forgo paying for a car and car insurance.

A: Many financial planners and housing experts advise people to spend no more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent. That doesn't count utilities. This is a general guideline. As best you can, especially with massive debt, you should save your money on rent and work on paying off your debt. I know that many people in the D.C. area scoff at this guideline because it is nearly impossible to follow, but don't blame me. I'm just a messenger.

King of Prussia, Pa.: Are there things renters should beware of when signing the lease?

My biggest piece of advice is the one many people decide to ignore: Read your lease before signing it.

You should be fully aware that it is a legal document that will govern the next six or 12 months. In reading carefully, look for lease-termination clauses and any fees your prospective landlord has failed to mention.

Silver Spring: I just signed a lease on a great condo, and I can't wait to move in. My only concern is that the owner hasn't put up any window coverings, and I really don't consider a first-floor garden style condo with bare windows "ready to move in." (I don't have an exhibitionist streak.) I asked the agent about this and it sounds as if the owner is expecting me to deal with it myself after I move in. There is nothing about it in the lease. I've never rented from an owner before, so I'm not sure if this is generally the responsibility of the owner or if I'm really supposed to deal with measuring, buying and installing blinds myself.

This seems easily negotiable. Some owners who rent out condos really do not know what they're doing, and in this case you should nicely lay down the law and insist that he install blinds. It is generally the responsibility of the owner to make sure the property is safe, and arguably, not having blinds on a ground-floor unit is violating this responsibility. If the landlord refuses to do something as simple as installing blinds, you should not live there. It's a sign of worse things to come. Trust me.

Rockville: Yikes! I love my apartment but I just got a notice saying my rent is going up 6 percent when I renew. Is this standard in the region right now? Is there anything I can do to bring it down a little?

A 6 percent increase is not uncommon. In fact, it is probably a low end of the increases renters around the region are facing. You can try to negotiate a longer-lease term with your landlord as a way to soften the increase.

Sara Gebhardt's Apartment Life column appears biweekly in this section, and her Web chat appears monthly on http://www.washingtonpost.com. The next chat is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sept. 2.

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