Q: My son and his friend just graduated from college and are having a tough time getting an apartment. Though they both have good jobs and were excellent tenants while in school, they’re losing out to older applicants with better salaries, longer histories as tenants, and more established credit. Any suggestions on how they can improve their chances? –Harold D.

A: The landlords’ rule of thumb is to pick applicants who have track records as good tenants (that’s why they talk to prior landlords and ask about evictions and late-rent episodes). There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and it works — people are creatures of habit, after all. But the other factors are less telling. For example, a large salary is not reassuring if the applicant also has a high level of debt (when those debts come due, there may not be enough money left over to pay the rent). And don’t forget the personal angle — landlords want to rent to people who will get along with them and the neighbors, and can legitimately screen out those who appear demanding or insensitive to other people.

Your son and his pal need to do a little self-marketing, emphasizing the qualities that will make them good risks for any landlord. To every rental they visit, they should come with an application kit that they’ll give to the owner, consisting of the following:

  • a copy of their credit reports (landlords may still insist on ordering their own copies)

  • letters of recommendation from past landlords, with contact information and an invitation to contact the writer to confirm the contents of the letter, and

  • letters from their employers, on company letterhead, describing their jobs, dates of hire, and salaries

Applicants should consider writing a letter of introduction, too, in which they describe themselves and their commitment to being good tenants. Consider including some supporting evidence, such as college transcripts. Good grades and no “incompletes” spell maturity and follow-through, both qualities that landlords look for. Finally, think about whether you would be willing to be lease guarantors for your son — maybe having Mom and Dad in the background will be the assurance the landlord needs to give these kids the nod.

Q: I’m renting on a month-to-month basis, and have just learned that my company is transferring me to a far-away city. According to state law, I must give my landlord 30 days’ notice to terminate my tenancy, but my rental agreement says that I can deliver this notice only on the first of the month, when my rent is due. I want to give notice now, on the 10th, so that I’m responsible for rent only 10 days into the next month. By making me wait until the first of the month, my landlord has changed a 30-day notice period into a 50-day period, and made me responsible for 20 more days of rent. Is this legal? –Sara N.

A: The provision you describe is very common. One likes to think that the motivation behind it is a simple desire for predictability and perhaps an aversion to figuring out pro-rated rent. One can’t help but wonder, however, whether some landlords have realized that it often gives them a windfall in rent. In your case, for example, you may have to move well before the end of the next month, thereby freeing up your apartment for the next tenant. Your landlord will also have that entire month’s rent from you. Nice.

Suppose you decide to follow state law and give notice on the 10th. On the first of the month, you pay for 10 days’ rent and move before the 10th. In keeping with his lease provision, your landlord will probably deduct 20 days of pro-rated rent from your security deposit. To get that money back, you’ll need to go to small claims court and challenge this deduction as improper under your state’s security deposit law. Whether you’ll succeed depends on how protective your law and courts have been of tenants’ rights. In states where tenant rights are carefully guarded, you may have a good shot at convincing a judge that the rental provision varies a rule (30 days’ notice, delivered at any time) that legislators intended to be nonnegotiable. This would mean that a rental agreement like yours won’t be upheld by a court.

This is the type of issue that legal aid outfits find irresistible — it’s a widespread practice that affects a lot of people, who individually might not have the resources to fight back. In other words, it’s a natural for a class-action lawsuit. Call your local legal aid office and ask them if they have any suggestions or interest in your case.

Q: A couple months after we moved in, we had a plumbing problem in our single-family rental. A pipe began to leak in the bathroom wall, and we didn’t discover it until we noticed the damp plaster and a musty smell. The landlord will fix the leak and replace the wall, but I’m worried about the health effects of the mold that we smelled. Should I be concerned about toxic mold? –Paula M.

A: Calling all mold “toxic” is like calling all bees “killer bees.” We encounter molds constantly, and they rarely make us sick. That mold is probably as harmless as the dark stains commonly found on shower tiles and grout.

Public awareness of the few instances in which mold is dangerous is fueled by an active group of plaintiffs’ lawyers who see gold, not mold, on those pieces of Sheetrock. But to be on the safe side, raise your concerns with the landlord and ask whether the Sheetrock can be examined by a lab equipped to isolate and identify mold. Meanwhile, take comfort from your apparent lack of physical problems while the leak was ongoing and the mold growing — if you didn’t feel sick then, it’s unlikely you’ll develop problems after the fact.

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 janet@nolo.com.

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