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First Time Renting? What to Know

By Maggie Koerth-Baker
Associated Press
Saturday, March 17, 2007

Overflowing toilets, gorgonlike roommates, landlords from you-know-where: To many people, they're an inescapable part of the rental experience. But that doesn't have to be the case.

Every year, millions of young Americans leave the loving embrace of their parents' home or student housing for an apartment of their own, and it takes only a little education to keep this rite of passage from turning into a hazing.

Here are 10 things that experts say you should know (and that experienced renters say they learned the hard way).

· Location Matters. Visit potential neighborhoods a few times, at different times of day, before settling down.

"It might look fine on a Wednesday afternoon, but factors like noise, parking and security can change at night or on weekends," said Peggy Luers, coordinator of off-campus housing services at California State University at Sacramento.

Luers's office, and others like it at universities around the country, are great places for first-time renters to find legal information, advice, even apartment listings. These offices also have insider information you won't get from friends or family -- for example, that neighborhoods near college campuses might not be the best places to rent.

· The landlord is not your buddy. Your landlord might be perfectly nice, but your relationship is about business, not friendship.

"First-time renters tend to be somewhat naive," Boysen said. "You need a dose of cynicism."

That means checking into your potential landlord's reputation before you sign a lease. You can do that online through Web sites such as http://www.apartmentratings.com.

Even if the landlord passes this test, Boysen cautions that you still shouldn't let your guard down. Get everything in writing, even something as simple as an assurance of when a problem will be fixed, and keep copies of all documentation and correspondence between you and the landlord.

· Don't skim the lease."First-time renters often forget that this is a binding legal document," Luers said, "while longtime renters might assume they're all the same, and they aren't."

If you have questions about something in your lease, make sure you get a good answer. If repairs are needed before you move in, have that written into the contract. And never let anyone pressure you into signing with just a once-over.

· You're in charge of your own safety. Stephanie Petersen thought she was moving into a quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

"But after I'd lived there for six months, the gas station at the end of the block was robbed and the robber lived in my complex," said Petersen, a 25-year-old guest services supervisor from Crosby, Minn. "A few months later, there was a murder about a mile north -- same story." After a shooting two floors above her apartment, Petersen tried to get out of her lease early, but the landlord refused.

Luers recommends reviewing crime statistics before you sign a lease; many cities have Web sites with such information. But Luers cautions that crime shouldn't be the only safety concern. New renters also need to know where smoke alarms and fire extinguishers are, how to maintain them and what to do in case of emergency.

· Roommates aren't perfect. Before you sign a lease together, compare expectations: How will you split chores and bills? How much privacy do you want? A little communication upfront will help you get along later.

Also: Remember that when you sign a lease, you could be responsible for the whole bill if roommates flake out on their share.

· Insurance is cheap. Costing as little as $12 a month, renters insurance could save you thousands. If your belongings are stolen or destroyed in a fire, your landlord usually isn't responsible for replacing them. Insurance can cover those situations, as well as theft from other places, such as the trunk of your car.

Renters insurance also can cover liability claims against you -- if your dog bites someone, for instance, or if a guest falls in your apartment.

"No one thinks about this stuff until it happens," said Robert Bland, chairman and founder of http://Insure.com, a consumer information service. "But if they don't have [insurance], they're going to have a rude awakening."

· Go shopping. Remember to factor household costs into your budget. Some of the basics you'll need to buy: cleaning supplies, small appliances, pots and pans, and such easily forgotten items as light bulbs, shower curtains and a plunger. "You definitely don't want to be without that when you really need it," Boysen said.

Depending on how you go about it, setting up your apartment can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand. Connie Kratzer, a family resource management specialist with the New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics, advises first-time renters to go with secondhand items from friends and relatives whenever possible.

Another great way to save money: "Get a friend to throw a 'first apartment' shower and have guests bring cleaning supplies and other small items," she said.

Whatever you do, resist the urge to snag a couch off the street corner.

"We've had a bedbug situation in Minneapolis," Boysen said. "They are extremely difficult and expensive to get rid of. I tell people to never take anything upholstered if you don't know where it's coming from."

· Rent is just one cost. Utilities are another expense that first-timers often forget to work into their budgets.

Kratzer says you should expect to spend about 31 to 35 percent of your income on the combined cost of rent and utilities.

Before you sign a lease, contact the utility companies to find out how much the bills were last year for the apartment and how much you'll have to pay in setup fees and deposits. If utilities are included in your rent, find out how much control you'll have over their use. What sounds like a good deal might not be so hot if you hit a cold snap before the landlord turns on your radiator.

· Be nosy -- even pushy. Spend time examining utility closets and appliances during your initial tour.

If something breaks, keep calling until it's fixed. Some landlords may not respond unless you call them frequently. And what may seem like a minor problem, say, a leaking water heater and some mold, could lead to something major, such as rotting wood.

· You have rights."If you're renting for the first time, you probably don't realize how many rights you have under state laws," Boysen said.

For instance, landlords and staff can't enter your apartment at will. In general, remember that while you're paying rent, the apartment is your private home first and the landlord's property second.

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