Q: I’m in college and trying to rent an apartment with two other students. The landlord wants someone to cosign the lease, but my parents are hesitant. They’re afraid they’ll end up paying for my roommates’ mistakes. How can I convince them to help us out? –Larry R.
A: Your parents are justifiably concerned, because they won’t be agreeing to cover only your mistakes. As cosigners, they’re giving the landlord the right to look to them if, for example, one of your roommates damages the apartment and the security deposit can’t entirely cover the cost of repairs.
But there is a way to make sure that your parents end up paying only for your mistakes. Here’s what to do: First, ask your roommates’ parents (or other financially sound relatives or friends) to also agree to cosign the lease, so that each roommate has a cosigner behind him or her. Having multiple cosigners available may result in the landlord looking to the set whose child caused the problem, but you can’t count on it — many landlords won’t want to get involved in the details of who’s responsible for the mess. In practice, they’ll tap the cosigner who lives locally and is easy to reach (and sue, if necessary).
Unfortunately, not every landlord will be interested in accepting multiple cosigners, especially if they insist on screening the cosigner (which a careful landlord will do, to make sure that the person has good credit and enough disposable income to cover unpaid rent and damage at your apartment). From their point of view, why bother with multiple cosigners after they’ve found one solid volunteer? After all, they don’t care who pays for whose mistakes — they just want the money.
That’s why you need to take one more step. If the landlord will take only one cosigner (or if he’s accepted multiple cosigners but taps the set whose child was blameless), you’ll need an agreement among the cosigners that will result in the parents paying only for their own offspring’s mistakes. This would mean, for example, that if your parents are asked to pay for the rug that was ruined after your roommate’s party, your parents could look to that roommate’s parents to reimburse them. If those parents refused, the agreement would form the basis of a suit in small claims court, in which your parents would present evidence of who caused the damage, and ask the judge to enforce the agreement.
Q: I’ve decided to leave my current rental because it’s really badly run — the landlord won’t make basic repairs, and I’ve had to do them myself twice and deduct the cost from the rent. I don’t want any prospective landlord to talk to this guy, because I’m sure he’ll bad-mouth me and ruin my chances at getting a new place. How can I handle this? –Patricia B.
A: Take heart — you’re not in such a bad position after all. Here’s why: Most landlords will, in fact, check with an applicant’s current landlord to find out if this person is a good tenant (one who pays the rent on time and generally doesn’t cause trouble). When a prospective landlord calls your current one, don’t assume he’ll get a negative report. That’s because, unless the market is really soft or your landlord loves your repair-and-deduct capers, it’s in the current landlord’s interests to sing your praises, in hopes that you’ll get the new place and move. Knowing this, savvy landlords will call former landlords, who have no interest in giving false information.
When you find a rental to apply for, consider leveling with the landlord. Explain the situation and ask the landlord to call former landlords for a full picture of what kind of tenant you are. This is a bit risky — the new landlord will either be impressed with your honesty and willingness to forego what could be a glowing report from the current landlord or will reject you as someone who knows and exercises his rights. It’s a judgment call that will depend on your evaluation of the caginess of your current landlord, the chances of solid references from past landlords, and the willingness of the prospective landlord to see beyond “trouble” when you mention repair-and-deduct.
Q: The rental application I just filled out says that the landlord will run a “criminal background check” on all successful applicants. I have great credit, a solid job and good references, but I also have a very old conviction for drug use (I went to jail for a month, and then was on probation). Will this show up in a background check? Can the landlord legally ding me for it? –Mark S.
A: It’s impossible to say whether this conviction will show up. Background screening services depend on data that’s collected by a few large outfits who gather data from court records, prison records and elsewhere. Even recent convictions often don’t show up, because the conviction hasn’t made its way into the databases. In general, the older the conviction (especially if no state prison time was involved), the more likely that it won’t appear, but you can’t count on it.
If your conviction does show up on a screening report, the landlord cannot legally reject your application for that reason alone. Under federal fair-housing law, convictions for past drug use cannot form the basis for a rejection (this is not true of current use, or past convictions for possession for sale or manufacture of illegal drugs.) If the landlord does reject you on this basis, he should send you a letter informing you of this fact, and you can take steps to educate the landlord. Start by steering the landlord to the HUD Web site for information on the law, and if that doesn’t do the trick, consider filing a complaint with HUD yourself.
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.