MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - I get more complaints about rental properties and landlord-tenant disputes than any other consumer issue.
After I investigated a landlord who duped two consumers into leasing the same place at the same time, I worked with the housing attorneys of the Fair Housing Center at Memphis Area Legal Services to write a Bill of Renters' Rights. They include what you should expect--and how you should prepare--when you rent an apartment or home:
1. INSPECT PROPERTY/GET EXPECTED LIVING CONDITIONS IN WRITING BEFORE SIGNING THE LEASE. You must be allowed to inspect the property before you sign anything. If the landlord will not let you inspect it, walk away. Get all required repairs, changes or replacements in writing -- in the lease -- and if those conditions are not met after signing the lease, the landlord is in breach of contract.
2. DO NOT PAY A DEPOSIT BEFORE SIGNING THE LEASE. There is no legal reason for a landlord to request a deposit before signing a lease or rental agreement.
3. INSIST ON RECEIPTS FOR ANY CASH TRANSACTIONS. If you are required to pay a deposit after signing the agreement, request a receipt if you pay cash. Keep good records of any payments, fees or charges.
4. RENT REQUIRES A PHYSICAL ADDRESS. The landlord must provide a physical address for the payment of rent. That gives the tenant the option of paying by mail or in person. The landlord can come to the residence to collect rent, but only after providing a physical address for sending payment and only with the tenant's consent.
5. DO NOT AGREE TO AUTOMATIC WITHDRAWAL/ONLINE BILL PAYMENT. Since a landlord is likely a temporary creditor, it is not a good idea for the landlord to have access to your account information.
6. NO LEASE-PURCHASES! Nearly every lease-to-purchase agreement comes with a non-refundable deposit, typically in the thousands of dollars. Also, nearly every one of these arrangements includes a clause that if the tenant misses just one payment, the tenant automatically loses the option to purchase the property.
7. A LEASE IS A BINDING CONTRACT BETWEEN THE TENANT AND LANDLORD.
8. A LANDLORD CANNOT LEGALLY CHANGE LOCKS TO FORCE OUT A TENANT. The landlord must sue the tenant in order to secure a writ of possession and evict the tenant.
9. IF LANDLORD WINS JUDGMENT, TENANT HAS 10 DAYS TO REMOVE BELONGINGS BEFORE THE WRIT IS ISSUED.
10. REQUEST REPAIRS IN WRITING. That establishes a record. Keep a copy.
11. DO NOT WITHHOLD RENT BECAUSE THE LANDLORD HAS NOT MADE REPAIRS. That will give the landlord cause to evict a tenant. Tennessee law does allow tenants to withhold rent when denied essentials like electricity and water, but the withheld funds must be deposited into an escrow account.
12. IF THE LANDLORD DOES NOT COMPLETE REPAIRS, REPORT IT TO YOUR CITY'S OR COUNTY'S CODE ENFORCEMENT AGENCY.
13. RENT CANNOT BE INCREASED DURING A LEASE PERIOD. The landlord can adjust rent once the lease has expired.
14. EARLY TERMINATION OF LEASE MAY REQUIRE YOU TO PAY TERMINATION FEES AND/OR REMAINING RENT DUE.