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RENTAL SAVVY

Tenants can turn to Web for answers

February 15, 2004|H. May Spitz | Special to The Times

Tenants don't just rent a product and take it home. The product is their home.

Questions crop up at every turn: Can the landlord charge a $100 bounced-check fee? Turn down a family with kids? Walk in unannounced?

Fortunately, several excellent websites exist that brim with housing and consumer information. One mega-linked resource, FirstGov for Consumers, is provided free by the federal government.

Its home page at www.consumer.gov lists many topics, ranging from home and community to disability information to the National Do Not Call Registry. Clicking on the word "about" will provide a complete list, with descriptions of 180 participating government agencies. Clicking on any agency will transport the user to that site.

A good place to check on consumer rights relating to housing is the Department of Housing and Urban Development's website. As a U.S. government agency, HUD provides free landlord-tenant information, either directly at www.hud.gov or by calling (202) 708-1112. Most local white pages also list HUD offices under "federal government."

According to its website, HUD's mission is to "increase homeownership, support community development and increase access to affordable housing free from discrimination." The home page has a selection of more than 65 subjects, including handy information for landlords, tenants and home buyers.

Clicking "tenants" on the home page opens a page that highlights tenant rights, responsibilities, services and opportunities. Links on topics run the gamut from first-time home buyers to renters' rights to homeless programs, plus dozens more.

Clicking "landlords" will introduce a page detailing housing programs and links to more landlord-tenant information.

Want to know basic landlord-tenant law for a particular state? The HUD site is a good place to start, since, according to the Legal Information Institute, landlord-tenant law is composed primarily of state statutory and common law.

Either input the state name on the HUD site or click "local information" for a complete listing of all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Featured in a mauve font, each state is easily found.

State laws usually address common concerns, such as when rent is due, late fees and grace periods. Security deposit rules, inspections and evictions are also often found in state laws.

Surfing onto Hawaii's site, for instance, www.state.hi.us/dcca reveals a link to that state's landlord-tenant handbook, which includes several common questions and answers.

Is there a grace period for paying rent? Are final move-out inspections required? Not in Hawaii on either count.

New York state's site is a bit more complicated and may take more patience navigating via the HUD site. For direct access, www.dhcr.state.ny.us will transport the consumer to the site of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Information ranging from affordable housing to housing training seminars is linked, along with dozens of housing-related topics.

Most state sites link to multiple resources, including local tenant consumer agencies. Everything from rent control to barking dogs is addressed locally, and phone numbers are usually provided for further questions and advice.

Mediation options are usually available too. Some site links are commercial and not government provided, so beware of any fees requested.

Thinking of moving? Keep in mind that landlord-tenant laws vary tremendously from state to state, city to city, even from one dwelling type to the next. Much like in the court system, the lowest level (city law) prevails unless challenged or overruled by a higher government level.

What does this all mean to the tenant consumer? Although information ranging from late-fee laws to mediation is available, note that most information sources, even statewide, are intended to be basic.

Most sites present explanations in plain English (Spanish is available through HUD), akin to the instruction manual for a new car. But trying to fix a complex problem alone, especially if it involves legal action, may cause more damage than repair.

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Reader comments may be sent to hmayspitz@aol.com.

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