Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News

Q: My roommates and I are buying a lot of things for our house, and we’re splitting the costs. We want to get renters’ insurance, but don’t want to buy individual policies. Do you think we can purchase just one policy — and will it cover our individual property, too? –Marie R.

A: You’re wise to be thinking of one policy. You’ll be dealing with just one premium and one deductible. Here’s how a joint policy will work:

  • Loss to a roommate’s personal property. Suppose your bike is stolen, but nothing else. The insurance company will write a check for the value of the bike, payable to all three of you (minus the deductible), and it will be up to you and your roommates to make sure the check goes to you.

  • Loss to jointly owned property. Suppose there’s a burglary and the stereo and television that all of you own are taken, along with some personal property belonging to each of you. Again, you will receive one check made out to all of you, and will have to do the math to make sure that the proceeds are divided according to who owned what, and in what measure.

Q: The rental market is really tight in our area, and I’ve been having a hard time getting a place. Landlords are asking for more than just a lot of rent — the one I talked to today wants a security deposit that she knows is higher than the legal limit (one month’s rent). I’m tempted to go along, but I’m worried. What are the risks? –Sam P.

A: It’s never a good idea to do business with someone who is consciously breaking the law. By going along, you’re sending a signal to this landlord that she may be successful in getting you to give up other important tenant protections later, such as your right to repairs. Rather than extort more money from applicants, this landlord should use the occasion of a hot market to be especially picky and choose the best — not necessarily the wealthiest — applicant. That’s someone with good references from prior landlords and employers, sufficient income to pay the rent, and a credit report that shows no overwhelming debt. A landlord who passes up the chance to find a good tenant (which translates to no damage, low turnover and steady rent payments) and goes instead for quick cash via an inflated security deposit is one to avoid if at all possible.

Q: I’m having a hassle with my landlord over parking. When I moved in, I was assigned a space that’s near my apartment. Yesterday, management reassigned a bunch of spaces, including mine, and now I’m quite far away and there’s no covered walkway between my space and my apartment. Aren’t I entitled to keep the space I was given at first? –Jenny L.

A: Whether you’re entitled to keep that space depends on what you were told when you were shown the property before you signed the lease and what your lease says. When you toured the property, did the leasing agent tell you that you’d get that particular spot? If you were told explicitly that you’d have that space (“And here’s where you will park, very convenient to your apartment!”), or if the agent indicated that you’d park in a spot with specific characteristics (“This apartment comes with adjacent parking, with access to your apartment via a covered breezeway”), the law is on your side. Your argument is that when management promises a specific feature in an attempt to get your business, it must follow through, especially if it knows that this feature is an important factor in your decision to rent. On the other hand, if you were simply told that you’d get an assigned space, you have less ammunition, simply because as far as you knew, “an assigned space” was the extent of the deal you were getting.

You’ll also want to check your lease to see if there’s a clause on parking. Look for language that promises a spot, but makes no representation that it will be in a specific location; and check for text that says that management may reassign parking spaces at its discretion. If you see such language, but also were orally promised that particular place, you may have a problem, particularly if there’s another landlord-friendly clause in the lease — one that says that the lease overrides any prior promises or representations made by the landlord. If a judge upholds that last clause, you may find that the rosy selling pitch you got when you visited was just that — empty words.

Let’s hope that, having recalled the specifics of your pre-leasing tour and having checked your lease for disadvantageous clauses or language, you conclude that you’re in a good position to expect management not to change your parking space. How will you enforce your rights? Whatever you do, don’t withhold rent (in states that give tenants this remedy, it’s available only for big problems that involve health or safety), or park in the original space before the issue is resolved. If a businesslike meeting with management won’t do the trick, consider going to mediation, which is a non-court process whereby a facilitator (the mediator) helps adversaries resolve their problem. If that doesn’t work, you could sue in small claims court, where you’ll argue that you are paying for something (that particular parking spot) that you aren’t getting, and deserve a rent reduction. The reduction is the difference between the value of your rental with the original, convenient parking, minus its value with the new, inconvenient parking. Think carefully before you take this step, however: It won’t endear you to management, and if you ask for special favors in the future or intend to renew your lease, you may encounter a cold “no” when those times come.

Copyright 2008 Janet Portman

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