Back when tenant life seemed simpler – rents were lower, parking was easier, and lead paint was still considered a great invention – landlord-tenant laws were pretty basic.

Today, rents are taking a larger bite from income, parking spaces are harder to come by, and lead paint has been banned. In response, some cities have crafted new laws to help tenant consumers know and understand their rights. The City of Beverly Hills, Calif., recently enacted some lustrous new tenant rights laws, which provide some bright ideas worth plugging into.

According to Bart Swanson, code enforcement manager for Beverly Hills, the new laws were designed “to let tenants know upfront what their statutory rights are before legally obligating themselves.”

The new law has several features, starting with requiring landlords to provide a packet of written information to the prospective tenant at least 24 hours before even signing a lease or rental agreement.

The required packet covers a variety of information, including rent-control allowances, parking restrictions in the area, lease termination details, home occupancy requirements and, above all, a summary of a tenant’s basic rights under California state law. The range of information provided is pretty impressive, spanning subtenant law to serious defect remedies for tenants whose repairs requests go unheeded.

After the landlord provides the package of written details to the prospective tenant, both have to sign a form acknowledging the information was properly provided at least 24 hours prior to the execution of the lease or rental agreement.

Going the extra mile, Beverly Hills requires that the landlord provide the written notice in a choice of English, Spanish, Farsi or Korean, which can be downloaded at www.beverlyhills.org or obtained in person at City Hall. Documents have to be kept by the landlord for the duration of the lease, or the law presumes the tenant was left uninformed, leaving the landlord exposed to a possible $500 administrative penalty. Currently, their law applies to all apartment dwelling tenants whose base rent is more than $600 monthly.

What can any tenant learn from the new law?

  • For starters, do your homework and know the law that applies to the rental you are considering. Most states cover rental basics, especially regarding security deposit amounts, eviction standards and health code regulations. Most state consumer protection agencies can provide a copy of landlord/tenant law.

  • Beyond the state level, local areas sometimes have incredibly detailed rules and regulations that go beyond the general language used for state law. How detailed? In San Francisco, the Housing Code requires the landlord to “provide heat capable of maintaining a room temperature of 68 degree Fahrenheit at a point 3 feet above the floor, based on an exterior temperature of 35 degrees.” The code goes on to identify the hours the heat must be available. Most states merely require “adequate heat.” To get a handle on local law, check for a link or referral from the state site.

  • Find out if rent control is part of the picture. Many areas have rent-control rules or regulations, which only apply to certain types and of rentals. Most cities with rent control do not require the tenant to even know or be told the law exists. Rent-control law is readily available through a host of sources, including the local city hall.

  • Another lesson from the Beverly Hills law is “know thine neighborhood.” For example, street parking conditions are especially frustrating, since overlapping districts can make finding a parking space difficult. Commercial neighbors, which might attract cars, can cause friction unless the area is permitted for residents only or has limited hours of usage. Take a look at the signs on the street closest to the place you are considering and see what restrictions apply.

  • If English is not one’s strong suit, ask if a translated version of the lease is available. Several states require contracts, including leases, be provided in the same language as the transaction was negotiated in. If that is not an option, consider bringing along a trusted friend who can read and explain the details.

Since few places legally require a day to mull over the details, being prepared before you say, “I’ll take the place,” may save you considerable time and aggravation. Signing a lease means agreeing to a legally binding contract. Knowing what kind of place you’re getting into ahead of time is always a financially sound idea.

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