Chapter One - Ready to Rent?

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions! The big decision to move has within it many small choices. Wise choices add up to a rewarding experience and a good rental history, which is so important when the time comes to buy a house. Unwise decisions can lead to financial distress, court action, and poor references, which seriously limits housing choices in the future.

If you are thinking about renting, this chapter will help you think about it realistically.

Rent-wise people will think about these things before they go shopping for a rental property:

  • How much can I afford?
  • What type of rental do I need?
  • Can I qualify?
  • What about roommates?
  • What neighborhood will suit me best?
  • How do I find a rental?
  • What is discrimination?

AFFORDABILITY

Many people, especially first-time renters, get into financial trouble when they don't plan for expenses. The following items are up-front cash expenses for first-time renters:

Application Fee: Most landlords require an application fee to cover the cost of a credit and background check. These fees can range anywhere from $50 to an amount equal to the first month’s rent if you are approved to move in and may be applied toward your security deposit.

Security/ Damage Deposit: $250 and up. Landlords often ask for a refundable deposit equal to one month's rent to cover any expenses the landlord may encounter, such as delinquent rent or extra cleaning. Normal wear and tear is covered, but any unexpected damages will be paid for through the security deposit.

Rent for First Month: The entire amount is due when you sign the lease and move in. Your rent should equal about one week's pay (before taxes), or about one-quarter of your gross monthly income. Many landlords use this formula when deciding if you can comfortably afford a unit.

Pet Fee/deposit: If you plan on having a pet in your apartment, you need to tell the landlord upfront. Pet fees and deposits may be included in the security deposit and are therefore refundable if no damage is done to the unit. In other cases, it may be an additional one-time fee, which could be up to a couple hundred dollars or may be added on to rent each month, which would not be refundable.

Utility Deposits: If you've rented before, deposits will transfer to your new address with just a phone call to the utility companies. First-time renters will need cash on hand to start service. If you have good credit, a deposit for electricity and gas service may not be required.

Electricity: For new service, the deposit fee is based on your credit. All applicants go through a soft credit check to determine if there will be a deposit. You can pay by check, money order, or credit card. Give the utility at least 24 hours’ notice to turn on your service or pay for same day connection which usually costs $29 or more.

To set up a new account, call EPB at 423-648-1372, click here, or visit one of the offices and fill out an application. Applicants will need to provide their driver's license number, social security number, and the name and phone number of the employer. The applicant then goes through a credit assessment to see if a $200 deposit is required. If you have good credit, a deposit is not required. EPB charges $29 for a same-day connection if the call is received before 4:30 p.m., $64 for same-day service if the call is made between 4:30 and 6 p.m., and $17 for a next-day connection. Power can be connected Monday through Friday, or $64 Saturday and Sunday. EPB offices are located at:

  • 830 Eastgate Loop, Chattanooga:
    • Hours: Mon. - Fri. 8:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.
    • Drive-thru: Mon. - Fri. 7:30 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
  • 2124 Northpoint Blvd., Hixson:
    • Hours: Mon.- Fri. 8:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.
    • Drive-thru: Mon.- Fri.7:30 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
  • 10 W. M.L. King Blvd., Chattanooga, Main Office:
    • Hours: Mon. - Fri. 7:30 a.m. - 6 p.m.

Water: Fees vary. Some landlords include water use in the rent. If you are responsible for paying the water bill, there is a $15 turn-on fee that is not transferable from other addresses. 

To set up a new water account with Tennessee American Water, call 866-736-6420 with the address and a date to turn water on or click here and go to My H2O Online to set up your service. A water representative will set up the appointment if you call, or you can schedule when you want your service turned on or off online. New accounts incur a $15 activation fee. More information is available here.

Some residents in rural areas of the county receive their water utility from a variety of smaller providers:

  • Eastside Utility District 423-892-289
  • Hixson Utility District 423-877-3513
  • North West Utility District 423-332-2427
  • Savannah Valley Utility District 423-344-8440
  • Waldens Ridge Utility District 423-886-2683

Gas: Some rentals have natural gas appliances and heat. In cases of poor credit, a deposit is required which equals the two (2) highest bills at the address in the last year. This can run from $50 to $500. For best service, give a week's notice.

To start service, call Chattanooga Gas at 866-643-4168. Applicants go through a soft credit check to see if a deposit is needed on the account. After 12 consecutive on-time payments, gas users may apply to have their deposit refunded, or credited to their account. If service is canceled before 12 months, Chattanooga Gas applies the deposit to the final bill and refunds the balance. A $15 service charge is also applied to the first bill for new accounts. Chattanooga Gas technicians turn on gas Monday through Friday and ask for three days' advance notice, but next-day service may be available depending on technicians' schedules. The call center is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and technicians are available to turn on gas between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Phone: No deposit will be required if your credit is good. People with no credit or poor credit must pay a deposit from $75 to $110 which is returned after a year of timely payments.

Internet:  The Chattanooga area offers several options for Internet service, which is provided locally from the traditional telephone, cable TV and electricity providers.

  • EPB - For packages starting at download speeds of 100 Mbps for $57.99 a month, and up to 1,000 Mbps for $69.99 a month, contact 423-648-1372 or click here.
  • Comcast - For 12-month introductory offers that start at $19.99 for 10 Mbps, contact 1-800-934-6489 or click here.
  • AT&T U-verse - To learn about Internet offerings starting at $30 a month for 12 months, click here or contact the Highway 153 AT&T store at 423-870-0766 or the Gunbarrel Road AT&T store at 423-899-2305.
  • Charter - For 12-month introductory offers that start at $29.99 a month, call 866-770-1837 or click here.

Additional expenses you may encounter: late fees if rent is late, parking fees, trash and/or recycling pick up (if available), etc.

Budget experts say that rent plus monthly utilities should take no more than one-third of your gross monthly income. Lower-income families frequently spend 50% of their income for housing costs. If you have unpaid bills from another address, the utility companies will work with you to make special arrangements to continue service, but don't abuse the privilege. If utilities are cut off for more than a few days, you may get evicted. Those trying to get service under a phony name can be prosecuted for fraud.

The table below will help you calculate what you can afford.

CHOOSE A PLACE THAT FITS YOUR LIFESTYLE

Rental costs, qualifications, and how well a landlord follows codes and laws will vary depending on the condition of the property, the neighborhood, and the professionalism of the landlord.

If you rent an apartment, duplex, or house from a property management company—rather than from the owner—expect tougher qualifying standards and stricter enforcement of the lease.

The table on the following pages offers a comparison of housing types that is based on general practices; there are always exceptions.

 

WHAT ABOUT ROOMMATES?

Renting with a friend or family member can save you money, however you need to make sure the other person is dependable.

Potential roommates should frankly discuss:

  1. Rental Histories
  2. AC & Heat Levels
  3. Parties/Company
  4. Financial Status
  5. Housekeeping Habits
  6. Use of TV, Music, Phone
  7. Job Stability
  8. Overnight Guests
  9. Security Needs
  10. Drinking/Smoking
  11. Privacy Needs
  12. Food/Fridge
  13. Pets
  14. Grades & Study Habits
  15. Criminal Background

Housekeeping and eating habits should be discussed in detail because differences cause disagreements and discomfort. Talk about cooking smells, cleaning the fridge, dirty dishes, allergies, whether you like windows open, scrubbing the tub, garbage, and of course, pets. You may even want to put agreements in writing.

Select a roommate based on stability and reliability.  Signing a binding legal contract with someone is serious business. Roommates who don't deliver their share of the rent on time will cause stress and problems with the landlord. If a roommate moves out before the lease is up, the landlord may seek rent from the remaining tenant, even though all parties who signed the lease are responsible. (Also see Chapter 3)

 

CAN YOU QUALIFY?

Rental requirements usually include: that the tenant is age 18 or over; the tenant has cash for a deposit and first month’s rent; is employed and earns a minimum amount of money; disclose criminal history; has decent credit; has landlord references and no past evictions. (Also see the end of Chapter 1 under "Discrimination", “Your Landlord can legally expect you to”).

Landlords seek people who are dependable and who are able to fulfill the three most important obligations of a tenant: to pay rent on time, every time; to take care of the unit and yard; and to have peaceful relationships with their neighbors.

 

FINDING A PLACE TO LIVE IN A COMPETITIVE MARKET

Finding a decent and affordable rental unit can be a frustrating and time-consuming affair, especially since so many landlords are rejecting people with poor credit or poor references. Rental rates have been rising rapidly, and competition for rentals in the middle price range is fierce. In order to find a good rental unit, you must hunt for it just like you were looking for a job!

Dress well, speak clearly, know what the landlord wants, know what you want, get your information together, and show them you will be a great tenant.

WHERE TO LOOK

Why Look Around? People get stuck in particular neighborhoods out of habit. Be open to change. Expand your search.  Driving around gives you a better perspective on rental rates. Don't automatically eliminate certain neighborhoods. If you take time to really look, you'll probably be happier with your choice and stay longer. If you love the place but don’t trust the landlord, keep looking.

Questions to Ask Your Landlord and What He/ She May Ask:

 

APPLICATION AND CREDIT CHECK

The landlord may conduct an interview. Questions may be quick and personal. They will try to determine whether you're hiding anything and whether you appear to be a serious, reliable renter.

You'll improve your chances if you:

  • Dress like you were looking for a job
  • Be on time
  • Have all dates & former addresses at hand
  • Have landlord and employer phone numbers
  • Use a check or money order for application fee
  • Turn in a tidy, complete, and truthful application
  • Take time to negotiate for what you want
  • Take time to inspect the unit . . . carefully
  • Take time to read the lease . . . carefully

Almost all landlords will check your credit report, but standards vary widely, depending on the price of the unit. Some landlords may turn you down for recent late payments, while others just check for bankruptcy or an eviction judgment.

Refusal because of a bankruptcy or "no credit": Those who have filed bankruptcy in the last several years will not be able to rent in most complexes, despite a good job and income. Now that credit checks are common, the tenant should prepare ways to overcome the landlord's doubts. Some will listen if you present proof that the financial failure was due to overwhelming medical bills. For either a bankruptcy or too little credit, you might offer three (3) month's rent in advance or a credit-worthy co-signer (but ask that this person's liability be removed after a year of timely payments, and get this in writing). If an applicant is rejected based on a poor credit report, the apartment manager must notify the applicant of the name of the credit agency and of his/her right to obtain a free copy of the report.

Children: Many landlords prefer not to rent to families with children because of damage and noise. However, they cannot refuse to rent to you because you have children (see Discrimination section on page 19).

 

DEPOSIT/FEE TO "HOLD" AN APARTMENT

Occasionally a tenant may want to hold a unit for a few days while comparison shopping. You can ask the landlord to stop advertising and showing the place, and pay earnest money to guarantee that your option to rent remains open while you decide. If and when you sign the lease, this deposit may be applied to the first month's rent. If, however, you decide to rent elsewhere, this deposit becomes a fee for holding the apartment, and is not returned.  


RENT TO OWN DEALS

Sometimes advertised as Lease/Purchase Agreements, these come-ons appeal to tenants who believe there's an easy way to buy a house even if their credit is bad. Many times these offers are scams. The tenant pays higher rent for the option to buy the place a year or two later, if he or she comes up with a whopping down payment. The owner knows the tenant won't be able to save the $5,000 or more needed to exercise the option. He or she may have worked the same deal—with the same house—over and over again. This scam is prevalent in lower-income neighborhoods, and renters with credit problems are typical victims.

Tenant Tip: If you are thinking about a rent-to-own contract, see a real estate attorney before you sign anything. The Chattanooga Lawyers Information Provider Service is a good place to start. Call 423-756-3222 or go click here. If you presently have a lease-purchase contract, talk to the Division of Consumer Affairs in Nashville by calling (615) 741-4737. The Consumer Protection Act covers this type of scam. A significant number of consumers have not been made aware of total costs, ownership transfer terms, or other important disclosures in rent to own contracts. 

 

WAITING LISTS

If your heart is set on one location and no units are available, discuss timeframes with the landlord and determine exactly how many applicants are in front of you. You may decide to pay the application fee, have the landlord check out your references, and if approved, be placed on the waiting list. Be sure the landlord can reach you anytime a unit becomes available. If the landlord repeatedly refuses to return your calls, or if you see vacancy ads for the same place, refer to the Discrimination section at the end of Chapter 1.

 

DISCRIMINATION: WHAT IT IS . . . AND ISN'T!

The word "discrimination" is commonly misunderstood. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, it unlawful to discriminate in housing based on these factors: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (families with children under 18 or who are expecting a child), and disability (physical or mental). These are considered the "protected classes" under the federal law.  Under state law, there is a broader set of protected classes. 

Even though people with criminal records are not a “protected class” under the Fair Housing Act, recent guidance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) tells landlords and that turning down tenants based on their criminal records—even if the landlord has no intention to discriminate—may violate the Fair Housing Act because such a policy would likely have a disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic applicants. However, this does not mean landlords are completely barred from considering criminal records—but they have to prove that their policy legitimately serves to protect safety or property. Landlords should have a policy that takes into consideration what the crime was and when it happened, as well as other factors, to reduce the discriminatory impact.

Some tenants feel discriminated against when the landlord won't allow smokers, unmarried couples, or when a landlord refuses to rent to a tenant based on bankruptcy. None of these categories are protected by the Fair Housing Act, and a landlord may therefore set his or her own policy as long as it is applied equally to every applicant.

Landlords are not discriminating when they require you to meet the following standards, as long as the standards are applied to everyone, and they are not used to screen out people in the protected classes.

Your Landlord Can Legally Expect You To:

  • Be employed and earn a certain amount of money (usually 3 or 4 times the rent per month).
  • Have good references from past landlords regarding rent payment and damage.
  • Have a good credit report showing no bankruptcies or evictions.
  • Limit the number of people per bedroom required by local housing codes.  (2 persons per bedroom is used as a guide, but may not be mandatory depending on the size of the bedroom and the age of the people).
  • Be 18 or older, or have a credit-worthy co-signer.
  • Not have a criminal history of offenses that threaten the safety or health of others.

Landlords May Be Discriminating If They:

  • Advertise with wording that puts limits on anyone based on their race, color, sex, mental or physical disability, religion, nationality, or because there are children in the family (or pregnancy).
  • Have different standards for applicants based on their race, color, sex, mental or physical disability, religion, nationality, or because there are children in the family (or pregnancy).
  • Refuse to talk or deal with an applicant after advertising a vacancy.
  • Deny that a unit is available for rent when it really is.
  • Provide fewer services, or impose more restrictive rules, or less favorable rental terms or conditions to a tenant based on their race, color, sex, mental or physical disability, religion, nationality, or because there are children in the family (or pregnancy).
  • Set different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental of dwelling.
  • Use delaying tactics, burdensome procedures or manipulate waiting lists to unfairly affect opportunity.
  • Show you apartments or homes only in certain neighborhoods or steer home-seekers to or from certain rentals because of children, race, handicap, or other protected class.
  • Refuse to let a disabled tenant make reasonable modifications to the unit (at tenant's expense) when those changes are necessary for full enjoyment of the premises (Where reasonable, a landlord may permit changes only if you agree to restore the property to its original condition when you move.)
  • Refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services which could afford a disabled person equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling.
  • Harass a tenant based on gender; or commit acts intended to "coerce or intimidate" one of the protected classes (including women); or "create on-going interference" with a tenant's peaceful enjoyment of the premises.
  • Refuse to rent based on the number or ages of children (although the landlord may restrict family size according to local housing code).
  • Refuse to rent solely based on a criminal record (The only exception is if a conviction was for manufacturing or distributing drugs.)

Exceptions

Landlords are exempt from some provisions in the Fair Housing Act in some situations.  For example: a landlord can be more restrictive when the landlord owns and manages three single-family houses or less; when the dwelling has four independent units or less and the owner lives on the premises; when rental units are operated by religious organizations or by private clubs such as sororities; when the building is designed specifically for elderly persons.

These exemptions are limited by state law.  The most important thing to remember is if you feel you have been treated differently, you should contact a fair housing advocate such as City of Chattanooga Office of Multicultural Affairs at (423) 643-6706 to determine if you have been discriminated against. 

What Renters Can Do

If you feel that a landlord broke one of the provisions of the Fair Housing Act you may want to file a discrimination complaint and have it investigated. If the landlord can easily show that you failed to meet qualifying standards, you might not have a case; however, if his or her "pattern and practices" are truly discriminatory, things probably won't change without pressure from you and the courts.

  • Keep documentation including dated ads, copies of applications and correspondence, a diary of calls and conversations (especially with regard to reason for refusal).
  • Have a witnesses present at conversations, copy vacancy signs, record missed appointments, etc.
  • Have a friend inquire about the apartment to see if it's still available. "Testing" is legal, even though the tester must often assume another identity and pretend to be house-hunting.

 

Contact the City of Chattanooga Office of Multicultural Affairs at (423) 643-6706 to learn how to file a complaint with them, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (within a year), or the Tennessee Human Rights Commission (within 180 days); or consult a private civil rights attorney. The sooner you file, the easier it will be to track the facts of the case.