Tenants are unique consumers. They don’t just rent a product and take it home. The product is their home. Questions crop up at every turn, “Can my landlord charge a hundred-dollar bounce fee? Turn down a family with kids? Walk in unannounced?

Fortunately, several excellent Web sites exist, brimming with housing and consumer information from sea to shining sea. One mega- linked resource, FirstGov for Consumers, is provided free of charge by the Federal government. Found via www.consumer.gov, the home page covers a myriad of topics, ranging from “Home and Community” to “Disability Info.” to the “Do Not Call registry.” That’s just a sample, and clicking “about” will provide a complete list, with descriptions of 180 participating government agencies. Clicking on any agency will transport the user to that site.

Another good place for checking on consumer rights relating to housing is via The Department of Housing and Urban Development. As a U.S. government agency, HUD provides free landlord/tenant information at www.hud.gov or by calling (202) 708-1112. Most local white pages also list HUD offices under “Federal Government.”

HUD’s mission is to “increase home ownership, support community development and increase access to affordable housing free from discrimination,” its Web site explains.

Clicking on the HUD home page, a huge menu of choices is offered. Select from more than 65 subjects, including handy information for landlords, tenants and home buyers, and more. Clicking “tenants” on the home page will present a page highlighting tenant rights, responsibilities, services and opportunities. Links on topics run the gamut from “first-time home buyers” to “renter’s rights” to “homeless programs,” plus dozens more.

Clicking “landlords” will introduce a page detailing housing programs and links to more landlord/tenant information and handy details to make landlording easier.

Want to know basic landlord/tenant law for a particular state? It’s 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 home site, or click “local information” for a complete listing of all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Featured in handsome mauve font, each state is easily found at your fingertips. State laws usually address common concerns, such as when rent is due, late fees and possible grace periods. Security deposit rules, inspections and evictions are also commonly found in state laws.

Surfing onto Hawaii’s site, (www.state.hi.us/dcca), there’s a link to a landlord/tenant handbook, which includes several classic questions and answers. Is there a grace period for paying rent? Are final move-out inspections required? Not in the State of Hawaii on either count.

New York’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 main New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal site. Information ranging from “affordable housing” to “housing training seminars” is linked, plus dozens of housing-related topics. Down the left side, a list includes “rent administration,” which links to the agency responsible for regulating rents statewide for about 1.2 million privately owned rental units. Frequently asked questions and further links are also featured, including phone numbers for inquiries.

Most state sites link to dozens of resources, including local tenant consumer agencies. Everything from rent control to barking dogs are addressed locally, and handy 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 from a site.

Thinking of moving? Keep in mind that landlord/tenant laws vary tremendously from state to state, city to city, and dwelling to dwelling. Like in the court system, the lowest level (i.e.; city law) prevails unless challenged or overruled by a higher government level.

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

Most sites present plain English (Spanish is available via HUD) explanations, akin to the instruction manual for a new car. When landlord/tenant communication breaks down, and more serious repair is needed, properly applying the law and using the right tools may be more complicated, much like a mechanics guide to engine repair. Trying to fix a complex problem yourself, especially involving legal action, may cause more damage than repair.

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