Before You Sign

Before you even sign a lease or give a landlord any money for fees or deposits do a thorough inspection of the premises you plan to lease, and find out about your credit rating. (Despite the myths, there is no law that allows you out of a lease if you change your mind in three days.) There are also things you should do after you have signed the lease, but before you move in.

Check the inside

NEVER sign a lease or even put a deposit down on an apartment or house until you have seen the exact place you will be renting. Some apartment complexes will show you a model apartment. Often, the apartment you actually get will not be as nice as the model. When you inspect the place you may rent, look it over carefully. Make sure the place does not smell bad. This could signal mildew caused by roof or plumbing leaks. Make sure the stove works. Check the refrigerator. Turn on the dishwasher. Check the garbage disposal. Turn on the water faucets and make sure the hot water works. Flush the toilet. Test the heating and air conditioning units. Open all of the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen and bathroom. Look for signs of insects or rodents. Look carefully at the carpet. Check around the windows. Are there any signs of leaks or water damage? Does the house or apartment have working smoke detectors? Test all of the lights.

Carry a pen and paper with you. Make a list of anything that is damaged or that needs repair. Take a copy of your list to the landlord, and ask to have all the items repaired. Be sure to keep a copy of this list yourself. If the landlord promises to fix the items, get the promise in writing (or better yet, refuse to sign the lease or give a deposit until the items are repaired to your satisfaction). Finally, it is wise to check out the landlord before you agree to rent or put down a deposit. If the city has a tenant association, better business bureau, or consumer protection agency, call and find out if other people have complained about the landlord, complex or management company. Ask if the landlord owns any other rental properties. If so, check into those too.

Check the outside

Look over the outside of the building. Are the stairs, outside walls, roof, sidewalks, and grounds around it in good shape? Do the buildings need to be painted? Do the apartments have enough parking spaces? If there is a laundry room for all of the residents, look it over. Inspect the swimming pool. Find out what the neighbors are like and what they say about the landlord. Ask whether they have ever had something that needed to be repaired by the landlord. Was it fixed quickly? Have they ever had any disputes with the landlord? Do they have roaches? Has anyone in the area had any problem with vandalism, burglaries, rape, muggings, or other crimes? What is the area like at night? Are the grounds well lit? You should consider asking the landlord to provide crime statistics, or ask the local police department.

Even the Texas Apartment Association (TAA) says:

When you visit a place you're considering, check to see that it has the security devices required by Texas law. All apartments, rent houses, condos and townhomes offered for rent must have these devices, provided at the owner's expense:

* a keyless deadbolt or keyless bolting device on all exterior doors
* a peephole or clear glass pane in all exterior doors
* a keyed deadbolt or door handle lock on a main entry door
* a pin lock on each sliding glass door
* either a door handle latch or a security bar on each sliding glass door
* a window latch on each window

If you are concerned about crime at the property or in the area, ask management and check with the local police department for any information it can provide about reported crimes or incidents. The law requires rental agents and managers to answer all questions truthfully.

Remember, no one can guarantee that any neighborhood, apartment or home will be safe from crime. Crime occurs everywhere. You should always take sensible precautions to protect yourself, your family and your property.

Check out your credit record

Before you even go looking for a place it is good to know where you stand. There are three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, Transunion). It is always best to try and clear up any problems or mistakes on your record before you fill out a rental application. The official website that enables you to obtain a free copy of your credit report from each of these agencies (one per year) is here.  Many landlords check credit ratings with one or more of these companies in addition to using tenant screening services (e.g., Tenant Tracker) that look at criminal and eviction records.

After you have signed the lease

Once you are sure you are renting the unit you should document any damage already present so you will not be liable for it when you leave. Write down all of the things you think are wrong with the unit. KEEP A COPY FOR YOURSELF. For example, look for holes in the wall, stains or dirt in the carpet, dirty appliance, scratches on floors, and mildew/stains in bathroom. If you are concerned that the landlord will hold you liable for damage that was already in the unit, take pictures or videotape, and do a walk through of the rental unit with the landlord or another witness. Of course, it might be better to rent a unit that does not have significant damage in the beginning.

When you move into your new home make sure that all the repairs your landlord promised have been completed. If some of the repairs have not been made, you should contact your landlord immediately. If the landlord fails to make the repairs he promised before you signed the lease, he may be liable for violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act and breaking the contract.

Your landlord has a duty to test all smoke detectors to verify that they are in working order when you move in. See Smoke Detector. But you should test these yourself. The landlord also has the duty to re-key the locks between tenants. See Security Issues. You should also confirm that the locks were changed with the landlord.