Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Feb 06 2009, 10:16pm

Every few weeks I try to answer questions from you, the readers

Every few weeks I try to answer questions from you, the readers. The question below about renter's rights is particularly appropriate right now because people who were once homeowners are once again becoming renters due to the wave of foreclosures. If home ownership was a goal of yours, don't despair. If it's important to you, you will once again own a home. In the meantime, think of it as a vacation! One of my favorite childhood memories is the year my family moved to a rental house. No urges to decorate extensively. We couldn't remodel. And if something broke we just made a phone call. We focused more on being together in the house rather than on the house itself.

I transferred 200 miles to a new area and trusted a real estate company to put me in a good rental house. It was trashed. They never fixed things. They never cleaned it. I had no water for 3 days and unusable water for my first month. County code violations were never fixed because the owner paid only two months into her mortgage. I never got a copy of my lease and no lawyer will help me because of that. Despite all my requests, they never sent it. The non-agent lied to us about everything. For one year I have been trying to have someone from this transaction be responsible!
~NC, Florida

There are lousy landlords out there and also terrible tenants. Both have rights. Keep in mind, landlord/tenant law is typically set at the county or state level, so it's impossible to list every possible variation here. However, I can fill you in on the key issues and how they are typically handled. Renters are some of the people I have heard from most in my years as a consumer reporter. Most are angry. Some cry. I can see why. After all, shelter is one of our most basic human needs.

Your rights begin even before you move in. Many states have laws limiting how much rental application fees can cost. In one state the cap is $25, and landlords can only use that fee to pay for a credit check. Most states also limit the size of the security deposit. Often it's not allowed to exceed the cost of one or two months rent. Not all places require the landlord and tenant to enter into a lease, but it's a good idea, because it defines the rights and responsibilities of both sides. For those who are reading this column pre-emptively, DO NOT MOVE IN without a written lease.

When it's time to move in, you have additional rights. All states require that rental apartments and houses be safe, sanitary and free of pests. Some specify that the unit must be in the same condition on moving day, as it was when you first looked at it. More progressive states require landlords to paint apartments at least once every five years so that the paint is never cracked or chipped. This is an anti-lead precaution. No matter where you live, you should expect at least working windows and sound floors plus functioning electrical outlets, appliances, taps and toilets.

While you rent a place, your landlord has to do certain things to maintain it. The core requirements are working electricity, hot and cold plumbing, functional appliances and trash service. Fire codes require the landlord to install smoke detectors. It may be up to you to provide fresh batteries. You are entitled to a functional heating system. Depending on the climate, the landlord may also have to provide air conditioning. Some states and counties require the landlord to hire an exterminator to eliminate insect or rodent problems.

If your landlord doesn't maintain your building properly, you may not have to pay your rent. Tread carefully, though! To withhold rent properly and remain in the right, you have to follow the precise law in your area. For example, in some states you have to give your landlord written notice and plenty of time to correct the problem. After that, you're allowed to pay your rent into a special bank account at the courthouse instead of paying the landlord. A judge then decides whether to give you your money back, give it to your landlord or use it to pay for repairs. A few states allow you to withhold rent and pay for repairs yourself, but again, you have to jump through legal hoops first. Unfortunately, there are still jurisdictions that don't give tenants any legal means of holding back rent from slumlords who let their buildings decay.

To avoid violating your lease and giving your landlord an excuse not to do his part, you have certain responsibilities. You're supposed to obey housing and health codes. You're not allowed to deliberately damage the place or disturb the peace. In some areas, minor plumbing repairs are your responsibility. Of course, you also have to pay your rent. Many states are amazingly tolerant of "squatters," and make life rough for landlords who want to evict them. But bear in mind, at least one state allows landlords to begin eviction proceedings if your rent payment is just three days past due.

So what happens if you need to move out before your lease is up? Some states regulate this, others say you must simply obey the rules outlined in the lease itself. In stricter states you may be liable for unpaid rent, advertising expenses, and any court costs. Generous states allow you to leave early if you can prove you are doing so for reasons beyond your control, like a company transfer. If you just want to move out early, pushover states allow you to sublet your apartment for the remainder of your lease.

You even have rights after you move out. You have a right to be present for the walk-through. And every jurisdiction I know of sets a deadline for the landlord to either return your security deposit or inform you the money will be used to make repairs. The cut-off is usually 15, 30 or 45 days. Often, the landlord must provide an itemized list of the damage.

Do your homework:
1. Ask current tenants whether they are satisfied.
2. Find out whether there's a dollar limit on application fees and security deposits in your state.
3. When you look at a rental apartment or house, check for holes or cracks in the floor and walls. Look for signs of pests. Test the outlets, appliances, hot water, heat and air conditioning, smoke detectors and windows.
4. Read and understand your lease before you sign it, and don't leave the rental office without a signed copy for your records.
5. Find out where your security deposit will be held and whether the account bears interest.
6. If you still have trouble with a landlord, carefully research the rights allowed you by your state before taking action.
7. When you give notice, do so in writing and hand deliver or send the letter by certified mail.
8. Count the number of days after you move out, so you'll know when your landlord must return your security deposit.
9. If you have a landlord tenant dispute as this person does, it's the perfect case for small claims court. Some jurisdictions even have a section called "landlord/tenant court."

How to complain:
The government agencies that handle landlord/tenant disputes vary widely from one place to another. It could be the department of housing, department of licensing and regulation, rent control board, landlord/tenant court or your county or state consumer protection office.