Back when tenant life seemed simple, parking was easy and lead paint was an unknown danger, landlord-tenant law was pretty basic.
But today, as rents take an increasingly hefty bite from income and leases become more detailed, some cities have crafted new laws to help renters know and understand their rights.
Beverly Hills, for instance, recently enacted a new tenant rights law, according to Bart Swanson, code enforcement manager for the city. The law is designed, he said, "to let tenants know upfront what their statutory rights are before legally obligating themselves."
Beverly Hills landlords are now required to provide a packet of written information to prospective tenants at least 24 hours before signing a lease or rental agreement.
The packet covers a variety of material, including rent-control allowances, parking restrictions in the area, lease termination details, occupancy requirements and a summary of a tenant's basic rights under California law. The information provided is fairly wide-ranging, covering subtenant law and remedies for tenants whose requests for repairs go unheeded.
After the landlord provides the package of details to the prospective tenant, both have to sign a form acknowledging that the information was properly provided at least 24 hours before the execution of the lease or rental agreement.
Beverly Hills requires that the landlord provide the written notice in a choice of English, Spanish, Farsi or Korean. Forms can be downloaded at www.beverly hills.org or obtained at City Hall.
The landlord must keep documents for the duration of the lease or the law presumes that the tenant was left uninformed, leaving the landlord exposed to a possible $500 administrative penalty.
The law applies to all apartment-dwelling tenants whose base rent is more than $600 monthly.
What can other renters learn from this new law?
For starters, do your homework and become familiar with the laws that apply to the rental you are considering. Most states cover rental basics, especially regarding security deposit amounts, eviction standards and health code regulations. And most state consumer protection agencies can provide a copy of landlord/tenant law. In California, www.dca.ca.gov is an excellent resource.
Local areas sometimes have detailed rules and regulations that go beyond the general language used in state law. In San Francisco, for example, the housing code requires the landlord to "provide heat capable of maintaining a room temperature of 68 degree Fahrenheit at a point three feet above the floor, based on an exterior temperature of 35 degrees."
The code goes on to identify the hours the heat must be available. Most states merely require "adequate heat." To get a handle on local laws, check for a link or referral from the state site.
Find out if rent control is part of the picture. Many areas have rent-control rules or regulations that apply only to certain types of rentals. Most cities with rent control do not require the tenant to know or be told the law exists. Information on rent-control laws is readily available through a host of sources, however, including the local city hall.
Another lesson that can be learned from the Beverly Hills law is to know the neighborhood. Find out about street-parking conditions. Commercial buildings, which might attract cars, can make spaces hard to find unless the area is permitted for residents only or has limited hours of use. Take a look at the signs on the street closest to the place you are considering and see what restrictions apply.
If English is not your strongest language, ask if a translated version of the lease is available. Several states require contracts, including leases, be provided in the language in which the transaction was negotiated.
In California, civil code requires that any rental that is negotiated primarily in Spanish by a landlord also include a Spanish-language lease or rental agreement for the tenant. Before signing, the tenant has a legal right to consult with others as well.
Since few jurisdictions legally require a day to mull over the details, being prepared before you sign may save you considerable time and aggravation. Entering into a lease means agreeing to a legally binding contract. Knowing what kind of place you're getting into ahead of time is always a financially sound idea.
H. May Spitz is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Reader comments may be sent to email@example.com.