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Intro to Renting: Rent Control, Fees, and Deposits

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Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a house or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to la@curbed.com.

4. RENTING

Although issues relating to buying a home get a lot more airtime, for a growing number of people, the prospect of purchasing is either undesirable or out of reach, as we've discussed earlier this week. In fact, a whopping 62% of LA residents are renters. If you're part of that multitude, or are angling to join it, here are a few basics.

*Rent Control
The number one rule of real estate, as we all know, is location, location, location. This is also the case with rent control, aka rent stabilization. Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood have it, but many SoCal cities, including Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena, Torrance, and Downey, do not. In cities where rent control is in effect, it covers all properties with two or more units built prior to 1978--single family homes and anything built after 1978 are excluded. Rent control laws limit the amount and the number of times a landlord can raise rents each year. The allowable increase percentage is based on the Consumer Price Index and can be between 3 and 8 percent, but can't be applied retroactively--if your landlord fails to tack on the annual increase, you're safe 'til the next year.

*Application Fees
It stinks, but as a standard practice, landlords and rental agencies require prospective tenants to cough up anywhere between $25 and $75 when applying for an apartment. Justification for this fee is usually something along the lines of "administrative costs" or to "cover the cost of background and credit checks," but in some cases, it's hard not to suspect what it's actually going to cover is the landlord's pockets. These fees are non-refundable, so if you have a low credit score, a criminal record, or other info that could negatively affect your chances of approval, you'll want to suss out the risk accordingly. Last but not least, bear in mind that multiple credit checks will bring your credit rating down, so only apply for apartments you actually want.

*Deposits
Deposits can take several forms--you may see them referred to as cleaning deposits, key deposits, pet deposits, and last month's rent. However, there is no such thing as a "non-refundable" security deposit. For an unfurnished unit, a deposit may be no more than two months' rent; for a furnished unit, the limit is three months' rent. The funds must be held in escrow, and pay you annual interest. Your landlord must refund your deposit within 21 days after you move out, and if any deductions have been made, he or she must provide you with a written explanation. Deductions may be taken to cover back rent, damage, or cleaning, but not for repairs due to "ordinary wear and tear." To protect yourself from future headaches and hopefully avoid small claims court, take plenty of pictures to document the state of the property at move-in time. You'll also want to note pre-existing damage on the landlord's move-in checklist. If the landlord doesn't have one, make your own list and send it to the landlord, signed and dated. And before signing a lease, get in writing any major repairs the landlord has promised to make.

There are countless excellent resources where you can find out your rights as a renter in great detail, but a few good places to start would be Los Angeles County's Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Tenant.net.

Coming up: our tried-and-true tips on scoring a sweet rental...
· Curbed University [Curbed LA]