My tenant clients – like most my clients – come to me too late in the game. Often, they have done things during the tenancy, or failed to do other things, which make my defending them almost impossible.

On the other hand, I recognize that few people have money trees, and no one likes to go to a lawyer until they feel they have no choice.

So this article represents my attempt to give some of the advice I would give if the tenant did come to me at the beginning of the term.

Never rely on oral communications with the landlord (or his/her property management company). I know that’s the way we all do it in normal life. But oral promises get denied a lot in court. If you have a significant oral conversation with the landlord, memorialize it afterwards with an email.

If the landlord gives you a move-in inspection list, pay careful attention and be detailed in filling it out. If there is a dispute at the end of the term, this will be critical since it will be compared with the move-out inspection list. And take photos of all the problems you note. If the landlord does not give you a move-in list, do not ask for one. He is required to provide it to you, and if he does not, he will have a harder time charging you for alleged damage at the end of the lease.

Problems going to the habitability of the house (like roofs, plumbing, AC and heat) are the landlord’s responsibility. But when they arise, be sure to give the landlord written notice. Although the law does not require you to do so, I have had clients penalized in court for not doing so because the judge decides on his own that notice should have been given.

If the problem continues and the landlord does not take care of it, and you want out and have another place to go, there is a specific notice you have to give. It must be written and it must identify the problem and it must say that the problem must be fixed in five days or the lease is terminated. If the landlord does not fix it in that time, you are not responsible for any further rent or penalties and you get your deposit back (though the landlord may fight it).

Check out the neighborhood before you rent. You are not going to be able to hold the landlord responsible if it turns out to be a bad one.

Also, before signing the lease, read it. I know the usual lease is an intimidating document, but it will serve you later to know what it says. Look especially at some of the following clauses: Who is responsible for utilities, yard maintenance, pool upkeep? If there are big trees, are you responsible if they die? What are the provisions for subleasing? You cannot just move someone in because you want to. And never allow a drug user to move in. What deposits are refundable and which are non-refundable? If they are not marked non-refundable, they are refundable. What are the provisions regarding pets and pet damage? Landlords like to blame things on pets.

This is not a complete list of important points for tenants moving in. But these are some of the issues which frequently cross my desk.

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