Chapter Three - Tenant Information & Obligations
A GOOD TENANT KEEPS PROMISES!
Do you always pay rent on time?
Do you and the kids take good care of your house and yard?
Do you respect your neighbor's rights?
If you rent a place—any place—you are legally bound (1) to pay rent on time, (2) to not damage the landlord's property, and (3) to not disturb the people who live around you. These three promises constitute your essential obligations under any rental agreement – whether verbal or in writing.
If you break any of these promises, your landlord will begin to if he/she has the right to evict you. Remember, a landlord looks at things from a completely different point of view than you do. He/she puts up with the hassles of being a landlord for one reason only: to make money from his/her investment.
If the landlord has to fix your dishwasher every few months, it costs money. If he or she has to clean the parking lot because of your leaking car, it costs money. If another tenant moves because your children are overly disruptive, it costs money. If the landlord has to chase you down to get the rent payment you become a liability and a problem tenant. To the landlord, time is money. A good tenant tries to understand the landlord's point of view, and honors the promises of the contract without argument or excuses.
Your Renter File
A Wise Tenant Keeps Copies: To a landlord, renting is "strictly business". The wise renter is also serious. Handle every aspect of renting—from the very beginning to the very end—in a business-like fashion.
When disputes arise, there's no substitute for good documentation. Any agreements and important communication between landlord and tenant should be in writing with a copy for your file.
What's typically found in a Renter File?
- This document (after you've read it).
- A copy of your signed lease.
- Receipt for your security deposit.
- Renter's insurance policy, which is up to you to obtain and pay for (make sure you check your lease agreement – you may be required to have this).
- Rent receipts or canceled checks.
- Rules & Regulations: Don't put this away until you go over everything with the kids and post a copy in their room. The rules are an enforceable part of your agreement.
- List of damages and conditions existing when you moved in (signed by the landlord).
- Copies of requests for repairs.
- Estimates and receipts for repairs you make.
- Memos, warnings and other communication from management.
- Any Addendum to the lease (Security Deposit Addendum, Drug and Crime Free Housing Addendum, etc.).
- Signed agreements between you and the landlord, even on small matters such as permission to paint or put up wallpaper, or to share a particular expense, like mini-blinds. If you trade labor for rent, put it in writing and include timeframes.
- Utility bills that show drastic or unexplainable change.
- Notes on conversations/complaints with housing agencies.
- Diary of events concerning an on-going problem such as harassment, noisy neighbors, discriminatory treatment, drug dealing in neighborhood, etc. Video and audio tapes will help support your case should it end up in court.
- Written notice (30 days – or more if required by your lease) that you intend to leave the unit when your lease is up.
- Request for return of your deposit to your NEW address.
- Report on final inspection for damage (signed).
- Recommendation from previous landlords.
Paying rent on time is the tenant's most important obligation in any rental agreement. Don't treat it casually because you'll hurt your reputation as a good tenant. That reputation will follow you for a long time, especially when you decide to buy a house. Always pay by check or money order and save proof of payments. Some rental companies have the ability to set up automatic payments online. Make sure to ask, as this will ensure you pay on time, every time.
Ask yourself the following questions:
If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you are not ready to rent a property.
When a personal emergency arises and there's no rent money, do not expect the landlord to "understand" or give you a break. The landlord is not your friend or family. If loss of a job, health, a spouse, or roommate means you can't pay rent this month, the landlord has the legal right to start eviction as soon as the grace period passes. Keep at least one month of rent in a separate savings account. It is wise to save at least three months of gross income for emergencies.
A landlord may agree to delay receiving rent, but communication is essential. If the parties agree to an extension, put it in writing and keep a copy for yourself so you both know where you stand and live up to it.
If you’re paying rent, you will generally need to pay utilities. Sometimes utilities are included in the rent so pay attention to your lease agreement. A lot of rentals have the utilities turned on so that prospective tenants can see the place with the lights and make sure the toilet works. However, the landlord may put a clause in the lease that requires the tenant to have the utilities put in the tenant’s name after the lease is signed. The tenant is legally bound to do this. A landlord has the right to cancel utility service to rented premises if the rental agreement requires the tenant to obtain utility services within 5 days of moving into the premise.
Relationships With Other Tenants
In addition to paying rent on time, tenants are obliged to behave in a way that doesn't disturb other tenants. Chief complaints are about messy or noisy neighbors, unsupervised children, and pets. Implied in every lease agreement is the landlord's guarantee of "quiet enjoyment" to all his tenants. Therefore, when he/she gets complaints about loud parties or troublesome children, he/she may issue a 14-day warning notice to correct the situation or you may be evicted.
- Drugs/Fighting: Recently, apartment complexes and public housing developments have added a "drug and crime free addendum" to their leases. This gives landlords broad power to terminate a lease immediately (3 to 5 days) with reasonable evidence of criminal activity by tenants or their guests. Criminal activity can include threats or acts of violence as well as drug use or sale.
- Children: Children are the main cause of complaints and disputes with neighbors. Teach children to be respectful of property and of other tenants' rights to "quiet enjoyment." Parents can be evicted because of children who are violent, vandalize, or steal. Once evicted, it is difficult to find another landlord willing to rent to you.
- Noise: Local noise-control law is hard to enforce because it requires police to measure noise decibel levels. If someone is fighting, screaming, or playing loud music between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., report it to police as a disturbance of the peace (misdemeanor), especially if the noise can be heard by many people. Other noise might be declared a nuisance by the Court if it is very loud and continuous; examples are machinery, dogs, motorcycles and trucks. Gather evidence with a tape recorder, video camera, or your phone. Write down the times of occurrence. Find witnesses willing to go to court with you.
- Making Complaints: Many complaints arise simply because of age or lifestyle differences. Tolerance is essential, especially in an apartment complex. If close living keeps you on edge, consider renting a duplex or house. If another tenant regularly abuses your peace of mind, don't wait until you're furious to talk with them! Calmly ask for the specific consideration most important to you, for example, “Can you turn your music off by 10 p.m.?" as opposed to a general indictment of "You're too noisy!"
- Disputes with Neighbors: Try not to drag the landlord into personal disputes with neighbors. It is unfair to try to make your landlord choose sides. However, if you can prove another tenant is continuously interfering with your right to enjoy your rental, and you've tried to work it out with them yourself, then make a written complaint (be very specific) to management and keep a copy. This documentation should be a letter to the landlord giving him 14 days to correct the specific problem. If it is not corrected within 14 days, you may have a right to terminate your lease and move. If a pattern of disruptive behavior is documented over a period of time, the landlord may legally terminate the offender's lease or you may sue the landlord for breaching the contract.
Care of the Property
It is your duty not to damage the property and to report maintenance problems. In any lease agreement, you have promised not to recklessly or negligently ruin the landlord's property. The law calls it "committing waste." If your family or friends knock holes in windows or screens, burn carpet or counter-tops, tear up shrubbery, damage locks or appliances, or negligently stop up toilets or drains, you are responsible for having repairs made or paying the cost. You also have a duty to report problems to management as soon as you notice them.
Tenant Tip: Never withhold rent because of a maintenance problem. It is illegal and may result in an eviction. Report important maintenance problems right away. Call the landlord, and then put the request in writing, and save a dated copy in your file. This is particularly important when water is leaking or an electrical appliance or wiring is acting strangely. Do this whether or not you are behind in rent or are having some other dispute with the landlord. It is your legal responsibility to watch out for safety and health hazards. You will not have to pay for this type of system failure unless you worsen the situation by letting it go unreported.
Typical Maintenance Problems
- Frozen Pipes and Water Leaks: The Water Company advises that pipes that aren't buried at least 18 inches underground may crack in sub-freezing temperatures. And just because the pipes didn't burst the first time it falls below 20 degrees doesn't mean you'll be safe the next time. The frost line depth drops more each time temperatures fall into the teens. The tenant may be held liable for burst pipes if he or she is negligent in taking proper precautions, particularly if they were warned by the landlord. Protecting the pipes is simple: let a small stream of water (the size of a pencil lead) trickle from the faucet located highest in your home overnight. Running water will not freeze. The landlord should make sure that pipes are insulated, and that drafty cracks in the basement are plugged. Outside faucets should be turned off and drained, and wrapped with newspaper or other insulating material.
- High Water Bills: When a tenant suddenly receives a huge water bill, the Water Company says "95% of the time, it's the commode." Water bills can mount up very quickly. Flush your toilet several times in a row to see if it "hangs up" occasionally because of a worn overflow valve, or listen to see if the toilet continues to run after the bowl has refilled. Sometimes reduced water pressure is your first clue that water may be leaking. Immediately report any water leaks to the landlord in writing and be sure to date the note and make a copy. He/she will get right on it if he/she's providing the water, but if the bill is in your name, he/she may not be as quick. Water leaking in places like under the sink, or from a washing machine can physically damage the property. If you do not report these leaks quickly, you may be held responsible for the cost of repairs.
- The Water Company holds the tenant responsible for all bills when the service is in his or her name. The Water Company’s policy is standard for everyone: they will only adjust one time in any 12-month period. For an adjustment, the Water Company requires:
- The leak must be hidden – undetectable by sight or sound
- The leak must be repaired, and the landlord must sign a statement stating when the work was done.
With this evidence, the water company will reduce excess water and sewer charges.
- Septic Tank Problems: Call the Hamilton County Environmental Health Dept. at (423) 209-8110 if you experience sewage back-up or stinking seepage in the yard. Be aware that the Environmental Health Dept. will only inspect the outside of the residence. If you are experiencing problems inside, contact your landlord. Whether inside or out, report any problems to the landlord and allow the landlord 48 hours to inspect the premises and a reasonable time to correct the problem before filing a complaint. Septic tank repairs are expensive and time-consuming, so talk with your landlord about how long the repair is going to take. Be sure that you, as a tenant, do not cause a septic or clogged drain or toilet problem. If you are on a septic tank, do not flush items such as Q-tips, sanitary products, toys, or other items that can clog the toilet. Do not pour grease or food down your kitchen drain. If the backup is caused by your actions, you may be responsible for paying the bill.
- Cosmetic Improvements: Landlords are not required to redecorate, as long as conditions don't threaten health or safety. Your carpet may get shabby and your walls may need paint, but you do not have a right to demand new countertops, linoleum or replacement of other items that aren’t in perfect condition but still work. If rent hasn't been raised in a few years, you may want to carpet or paint at your own expense. Make sure to get permission first. If rent goes up regularly but your unit is going down, your landlord may be taking advantage of you and it might be time to find a new place to live. Be willing to spend your rental dollars elsewhere. Some long-term renters are "taken for granted.". . . especially the elderly and disabled. Landlords know they can't easily move, and thus may let the unit deteriorate to a depressing condition.
- Heat and Air: Landlords in the City of Chattanooga are only required to provide a way to connect a heat source. If heating is supplied, occupied rooms must heat to 68 degrees (when measured three (3) feet off the floor). If the unit came with an air conditioner, the landlord must keep it (and any other appliances that he furnishes) in good working order. If heat costs are high because of air leaks and poor insulation, you cannot force the landlord to make improvements. If your energy bills are high, contact Empower Chattanooga at www.empowerchattanooga.org or by calling 423-648-0963. Empower Chattanooga is a program by green|spaces Chattanooga and offers free energy efficiency workshops.
Rent Raises and Late Fees
Late Fees: By law you have a 5-day "grace period" after the due date to pay rent. On the 6th day your landlord can decline your rent payment and evict you for defaulting on the contract. Late charges can't exceed 10% of the monthly rent and are due immediately. 
Rent Raise: Most leases "lock in" the rental amount for the duration of the contract. However, some leases contain an "escalation clause" that allows for rent raises if 30 days’ notice is given in writing. Rent cannot be raised during the term of the lease without this specific clause. In the future, avoid leases with this provision.
If your lease states that rent will be raised if taxes, utilities, or insurance premiums go up, the percent of your raise should not be more than the percent of available space that you occupy. For example, if management wants to charge you for 10% of the insurance/tax increase, then your unit should equal 10% of the total complex. If you only occupy 2% of the space, the landlord may be seeking a "windfall." You may be able to fight this provision in court, especially with a class action suit.
Refusal of Rent: Tenants are often confused when landlords refuse to accept late rent. The landlord may have already filed suit to collect back rent, and acceptance of rent may interfere with the process of eviction that is underway. Landlords may also refuse partial payments of rent. In addition, acceptance of partial rent does not waive a landlord’s right to evict. Document these attempts to pay and show dates to the judge at your eviction hearing. If you can document your attempts to pay rent, you may avoid paying late fees and attorney’s fees. Show that you still have the money in your checking account and can pay it on court day.
Be cautious about moving in with your significant other. (See also Roommates in Chapter One).
- If you invite a significant other to move in, make sure it's approved by the landlord in writing. Otherwise, the "unauthorized occupant" could be cause for your eviction.
- Be cautious about moving into your significant other’s apartment unless he/she adds you to the lease. Otherwise, if the relationship ends, you could be forced to leave. Neither the landlord nor the law can help you.
- If you want to move in with someone, the landlord has the right to hold you to the same qualifying standards as other tenants, and to check your credit, etc. He/she may refuse to add you to the lease or to let you move in, especially if the existing lease prohibits it.
- Occasionally a landlord may refuse to rent to a couple because they are unmarried. Court cases have shown that this is not considered "discrimination" under the Fair Housing Act.
Tenant Tip: Every roommate should sign the lease. This will ensure equal responsibility for rent, costs of damage or early termination, and equal rights to possession and notice. "Equal responsibility" means all parties could be sued for the entire rent or damage. It does not mean that each roommate pays an equal share. "Equal rights" means that all who sign the lease can live there, no matter who pays the rent. The landlord will not play referee when roommates argue about who pays what share.
If your possessions are lost or damaged because of theft, lightning, fire, water, or other accident, the landlord's insurance policy will not cover your loss. If your guest falls down the stairs of your rental house, you could be held liable for injuries.
Surprisingly, many renters are uninsured and vulnerable. Theft can happen anywhere at any time. Just add up the cost of the items in one room: clothes, computer, stereo, TV, jewelry, bicycle, and furniture. You may be surprised at how much you have invested. Protect yourself with a renter's policy, and keep an updated inventory of serial numbers, purchase dates, receipts and photos of expensive items. Keep these papers with a friend or online in a password-protected “cloud,” such as Google Drive or Dropbox.
Some leases may require you to carry renter's insurance.
A typical policy pays up to $10,000 on the contents of your rental, and $100,000 in liability for medical costs in case of an accident. You can choose an "actual cash value" policy (original price minus depreciation), or "replacement coverage" which costs about 15% more. Deductibles can start as low as $100, but the higher the deductible, the lower your premium.
At $75 to $150 a year, renter's insurance is a good deal and a very good idea. Search online or ask a friend or family member for an insurance agent.
Tenant Tip: Call your auto insurer first. If you buy renter's insurance from the same company, you may get a discount.
You may need additional coverage for valuables such as furs, jewelry, antiques, guns, or computers, but it won't cost much more. Damage from flooding may or may not be covered. All roommates should be on one policy.