You asked for answers to renting questions. Nokomis Johns kindly volunteered.
She's the senior tenant/landlord counselor for Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit that has a hot line just for questions in this arena. A BNI employee for more than seven years, her mission is getting "more people informed on the correct laws and procedures before they get into a bad situation."
BNI counselors often provide information about tenant/landlord laws, but they're not attorneys -- and of course the answers to the questions below aren't legal advice. They're designed to point you in the right direction.
Take it away, Nokomis:
Question: What is considered "normal wear and tear" in a rental agreement? I am thinking about what a landlord can deduct from a security deposit and what he cannot deduct.
Answer: Normal wear and tear are things that result from coming and going. They are things that cannot be prevented. For example, the carpet wears down as you walk on it, or after a while the paint starts to crack and peel. These types of things cannot be prevented and the landlord cannot charge you for replacing the carpet or repainting due to ordinary wear and tear. If you do not agree with what is deducted from your security deposit, you can sue the landlord.
Q: I'm really concerned about rising rental costs. Are there rent consumer advocates to help us fight for our rights? For instance, it would be useful for consumers to determine if the rent is fairly priced for the area and amenities. When there's a rent increase, is the amount fair?
A: To determine fair market rent, you will want to contact HUD or use their National Housing Locator System. Or contact the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
There are a several types of rental housing advocacy agencies. You may want to do an internet search to determine what exists in your county and the state.
Q: What resources are available for mom-and-pop landlords to check out potential tenants before renting to them?
A: You may want to check the Better Business Bureau website for companies that do tenant background checks. You want to check rental history as well as criminal and credit history. Verify employment and check personal and professional references. Be sure to ask in your application if the person is a member of the military.
Q: If the landlord refuses to return my security deposit and offers no reason (or no valid reason), what can I do?
A: The landlord has 45 days to return the security deposit or an itemized list of damages and costs incurred. If they fail to return the security deposit or list within 45 days, the tenant can sue for up to three times the security deposit amount.
Q: What recourse do tenants have if they’re ordered to move out before the lease is up even though payments have been made on time and they’re not breaking the contract in any other way? What about cases where the landlord or property manager is making false claims about the renter – for instance, "you’re letting your pet run amok”?
A: Don’t leave. If your landlord gives you a written notice to leave in the middle of your lease, you can dispute it by not leaving. The landlord has to go through a court process to evict. If you can prove the notice is not valid, you may be successful in getting the case dismissed. (There are some exceptions for Baltimore City residents if the landlord plans to move himself or family into the property. Contact the BNI tenant/landlord hot line for more information. If you are a tenant in a foreclosed property, seek out an attorney for legal advice.)
Q: In Baltimore County, does a renter have any obligation to notify the county when the property they rent has not been registered under the new law? If the county finds out a landlord has not registered their property, what is the risk to the renter? Can that end up voiding the lease and forcing the renter to find a new residence?
A: The tenant has no legal obligation to notify the county if the landlord is not registered. If the county finds out the landlord has not registered the property, the landlord will be cited and fined until he does register. If the landlord continues to ignore the citations, there is a possibility that at some point the county will shut down the property and remove all occupants.
Q: What’s the most common complaint you hear from renters and landlords, and what advice do you give?
A: Our most common problem is nonpayment of the rent. The first thing we stress is no one can be evicted without a court procedure. Then we explain the court procedure and in some cases help them understand the court form. We do this so our callers are informed about the law. We cannot give any legal advice.
Q: What steps could renters and landlords take to promote a more harmonious relationship?
A: I’ll give a few suggestions:
1. Use a written lease. You want everything spelled out in writing so that it's clear what the landlord’s responsibilities are and what the tenant’s responsibilities are. Are utilities included? Is there a deductible for repairs? Are there shared meters? Does the lease renew? What is proper notice to end the tenancy?
2. Read your lease! I cannot stress this enough. Read it before you sign it and then read it again ... and again. If you do not understand something, ask a question. If you are not satisfied with the answer, you have a choice not to sign.
3. Get all verbal promises in writing! Otherwise, do not expect them to hold up in court.
4. Electronic communication may or may not hold up in court. We recommend certified letters to communicate.
5. Tenants should get a receipt from the landlord for their payments. Money-order stubs are not good enough, and personal checks do not give proof of receipt until they are cashed. Never pay in cash without a receipt.
6. Landlords should do thorough background checks on their tenants. If you decide to rent to a person with a credit, criminal or rental-history blemish, know that it is not a quick procedure to remove a tenant in the state. Some counties take four to six weeks, while other counties can take two to three months for eviction.
7. Keep the relationship strictly business. It may be a friend or relative, but they should still sign a lease and have clear terms and conditions.
8. Know the laws before you rent. You can visit BNI’s website to download our free introductory packets for tenants and landlords. You may even want to consider ordering our Guide to Local, State, and Federal Laws Governing Tenant-Landlord Relations. It has the laws written in layman’s terms. We also sell leases and rental applications.
If you have other questions, she suggests calling the Baltimore Neighborhoods' tenant/landlord hot line, which is available free of charge from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. That number is 410-243-6007 or 1-800-487-6007. You can also submit a question online if you get a busy signal. Go to bni-maryland.org and click on "Have a Question? Ask a Specialist."
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