Avoid renting hassles by knowing your rights

Steve Rushin

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Even an unfurnished apartment can come fully equipped with problems, but they can be solved by following some basic rules, said Milwaukee attorney Robert Smith.

The first rule for prospective tenants is to “know your rights.” Obtain a copy of the administrative rules governing the landlord-tenant relationship, a booklet detailing the rights of the renter, Smith said.

“It’s a good set of guidelines, all on the side of the tenant, setting forth 21 separate rules on what can and cannot be done by landlords and what must be included in a lease,” he said.

A copy of the rules can be obtained from the Milwaukee Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection at 438-4848.

Tenants must not only know their rights, but enforce them as well.

“Every landlord will tell you how great their particular place is,” said Smith, who has been a tenant eleven times. “If it’s good enough for them to tell you, it’s good enough to put on paper in the lease,” he said.

The standard lease is primarily a contract between landlord and tenant, Smith said.

“Remember, you can make a lease say anything you want. It is negotiable. If you want the assurance of having a particular parking space, if you want a cat, if you want a waterbed, you can have it put in the lease,” Smith said. “If the landlord says, ‘Sure you can park there,’ modify the contract to say that you are guaranteed parking there.

“Don’t be shy about bargaining,” he said.

Finally, the tenant should walk through the apartment with the landlord and make an inspection report. Write down any deficiencies. Does the unit need paint, carpet-cleaning or window repairs? These are important types of questions to ask, Smith said.

“Security deposits are by far the greatest abuse in renting,” and therefore such inspections are a must, he said.

Nevertheless, conflicts between landlords and tenants still abound. For any problems that arise after renting, there are landlord-tenant dispute resolution services sponsored by the Milwaukee Youth Lawyers Association at 332-9934.

This association also has a hotline that features practicing attorneys who can answer questions concerning rental problems. The hotline is operated every Wednesday between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. and can be reached by calling 271-4981.

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