Q: I’m applying for an apartment, and the application asks for all sorts of personal information — my Social Security number, bank account information and employment history. The landlord will also have my credit report. All of this information could easily be used to steal my identity. What recourse do I have to this risky situation? –Cindy A.
A: Careful landlords everywhere ask for this information, and there’s no law against it. From their point of view, they’re taking a big risk in handing over a very valuable item (their property) to a stranger. They want to make sure that you’re solvent, honest, and likely to get along with them and the neighbors.
But your fear is well-grounded — if your data gets into the wrong hands, you could have a problem. Though you can’t insist that the landlord evaluate your application without your personal information, you may take some comfort in knowing that landlords must safeguard this data once they receive it, according to the “Disposal Rule” of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (known as the FACT Act). Landlords must keep the information in a locked cabinet, dispose of the information when they no longer need it, establish a system for purging their files, and use an effective method (such as a shredder) to destroy the documents. Computer files should be destroyed with a utility that will “wipe” the data completely, by deleting the text and the directory.
Still worried? It’s true enough that all the safeguarding in the world won’t prevent the landlord himself from appropriating your identity. But resist the temptation to find a landlord who screens less thoroughly — this person is likely to take less care in other aspects of his business, too, and may prove to be a neglectful and unprofessional landlord. Instead, do your best to determine whether this owner runs a tight ship. Talk to current tenants about what it’s like to do business with this owner, and above all, look around — if other applicants’ credit reports are strewn about his desk in a dusty mess, look elsewhere.
Q: The lease my new landlord gave me requires me to buy renters’ insurance. I don’t have a lot of stuff, and I don’t want to pay to insure it. Besides, how is it the landlord’s business, whether I’m insured or not? –Paul G.
A: Many tenants mistakenly believe that their landlord’s property and liability insurance will cover them, too. Not so. You’ll need renters’ insurance if your belongings are damaged or stolen (even when off-site, to some extent), and you’ll really want it if your carelessness on the rental property causes injury to someone, as might happen if your guest slips on a wet spot on your kitchen floor. Renters’ insurance is a good idea for almost anyone, for the liability protection alone. It’s also inexpensive (no more than about $20 per month).
Landlords are increasingly insisting that tenants obtain renters’ insurance, though in some states, it’s not legal to do so. Landlords have a lot to gain when you carry insurance. Here’s how:
- Renters’ insurance protects the rent money. You may not think you have a lot of expensive belongings, but you’d be surprised at how quickly the replacement costs will mount up for even basic items. If they’re stolen in a burglary or damaged in a fire and you have to replace them, your ability to pay the rent may suffer. Landlords don’t want you in that position.
- Renters’ insurance protects the landlord’s own policy. Sometimes it’s not clear whose carelessness caused an injury. For example, was it your fault that your guest slipped on that wet floor, or your landlord’s fault in not promptly fixing the leak that you reported earlier? Maybe you’re both responsible — he should have repaired it, and in the meantime, you should have at least warned people about the danger. In situations like this, the lawyer for the injured person will typically sue both landlord and tenant — and let the evidence fall where it may. If a judge or jury decides you’re both at fault, the injured person might be able to collect everything from whatever side has the money. If you have no insurance and no assets to draw on, the landlord’s insurance carrier may end up paying all of it. The landlord would rather have two insurance companies share the hit than see his company pay everything, because the more claims on his policy, the more likely his premiums will go up.
Q: When I signed my lease, the landlord promised to paint the living room, and we added that note to the lease (and we initialed it). It’s been three months, and all I get is the runaround. How can I make this guy honor his word? –Joannie G.
A: You were very wise to “get it in writing.” But as you’ve discovered, that didn’t automatically guarantee the follow-through. Here’s what you can do to encourage your landlord to step up.
First, write a letter asking the landlord to take action, and enclose a copy of the lease page that includes the promise. If that gets no results, send another letter, advising the landlord that you will take the matter to small claims court if needed. In court, you’ll argue that the landlord’s promise was part of your lease contract, and that he has broken it. A judge will probably not order your landlord to paint, but she might give you money damages, which will be the value of the painted rental minus the value of the unpainted rental, times the number of months you’ve had to wait.
By the way, it’s a good thing you’ve got a lease, rather than a month-to-month rental agreement. When you’re month to month, the landlord can terminate with proper notice, typically 30 days — which your landlord might be tempted to do when you start talking about court. Although many states protect tenants from retaliatory terminations, even those states may not protect you in this situation. That’s because most anti-retaliatory protections cover tenants who exercise a specific tenant right (such as withholding the rent); complain to a health or building inspector; or organize a tenants’ union. A month-to-month tenant in your situation might be unpleasantly surprised to find that “insisting on my contractual rights” doesn’t get the same protection.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.