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1 tenant guide version 2.0 An insider s guide to renting an apartment in Chicago. chicagoland apartments

2 Inside 1...When to Start Your Search 2...The Building Exterior 3...The Apartment 4...Building Amenities 5...Neighborhood Amenities 6...Requesting Concessions 7...Affordability, Credit Checking and Co-signing 8...Utilities 9...Pets and Smoking 10...Roommates 11...Signing the Lease 12...Security Deposits 13...Rights to Sublease 14...Landlord Obligations 15...Resolving Problems 16...Cars and Parking Stickers 17...Renter s Insurance Tenant Appendix...Tenant Checklist tenant guide 1

3 tenant guide 1...When To Start Your Search One of the most common questions we field at domu is: When should I start my search for a new apartment? The way we see it, the answer to that inquiry depends on two things: the law (which is static) and the market (which is fluid). Chicago law prohibits a landlord from requiring a tenant to renew a lease more than 90 days prior to its scheduled termination. It also allows the tenant to refuse the landlord access to the apartment for the purpose of exhibiting it to prospective renters more than 60 days before the expiration of the lease (unless the tenant consents). Finally, Chicago law requires a landlord to provide at least 30 days written notice of its intention either to terminate a month-to-month tenancy or not to renew an existing lease. In other words, even if the lease naturally expires on August 31, if the landlord fails to notify the tenant by August 1 of its intention not to renew that lease, the tenant may continue to occupy the apartment on a month-to-month basis. In practice, the landlord will typically send a letter setting (or, in most cases, hiking) the rent about three months before the lease expires and asking the tenant to commit within 30 days. At the end of that 30-day period, all bets are off, and the landlord will start showing the apartment to prospective renters. If a new renter signs a lease, the landlord will promptly notify the tenant to ensure that the tenant is apprised, at least 30 days prior to the termination of the existing lease, that the apartment will be rented to someone else for the ensuing term. Accordingly, tenants interested in moving should begin searching for new apartment between 60 and 90 days prior to the end of the existing lease term. 2...The Building Exterior Your inspection of a potential new apartment should start with a close look at the building exterior. Is there discoloration in the facade? If so, that may be evidence of water damage. Do the windows appear to be relatively new? Has the owner invested in painting and landscaping? Do the porches appear to be sturdy? Reliable landlords are attentive to details and take pride in their property, and this pride is often reflected on the outside as well as the inside. Before you walk in, take note of the building security. Is there a front gate? A doorman? Are there security cameras? Is there sufficient exterior lighting? When you come home, particularly at night, you want to be as confident as possible in your physical safety. If the building does not have a doorman, you should ask how visitors are admitted to the building. If guests can be buzzed in by tenants, you should find out how the intercom system works (in fact, you should do something to satisfy yourself that it works). If there s an unmanned gate out front, you need to find out who has keys and how frequently the lock (or code) is changed. It s also a good idea to know who owns the apartment you are interested in renting. At a high-rise condominium, the landlord is likely to be the owner of a single unit and potentially an investor who doesn t live in the area. In these instances, you should not expect the same level of responsiveness when something breaks as you would if you lived in an apartment building with its own engineering staff at your disposal. 2

4 3...The Apartment Once you enter the apartment you should carefully inspect it. In the kitchen, turn on all the appliances. Check the water faucet for temperature and pressure. Open the refrigerator and freezer. Open the cupboards above the counters and the cabinets beneath the sink and carefully inspect for evidence of water damage, rodents, or vermin. Check the ceilings for evidence of water damage, and check under the refrigerator or behind any radiators. In the bathroom, turn on the sink and the shower and check the water temperature and pressure. Check the tub and the sink for evidence of mold, moisture, or drainage problems and check for leaks in any cabinetry. Flush the toilet. Inquire about the location and capacities of any water heater and furnace serving the apartment. If both are within the unit, ask to see them. Inspect the furnace carefully and look for rusting or cracking that might produce a carbon monoxide leak. Check the apartment for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and check for fire extinguishers in the common areas. Satisfy yourself that there s a safe and quick means of egress the building in the event of a fire. Turn on every light and, if possible, bring a small electronic device (like a cell phone charger) to test the outlets. Look for lighting fixtures in the ceiling. Count the number and check the location of all three-pronged electrical outlets and telephone and/ or cable jacks. If you re a real pro, ask whether you have 24-hour access to circuit breakers. tenant guide Satisfy yourself that you have sufficient closet space for your bedroom, your front hall, and your bathroom supplies. If there are blinds, curtains, or drapes, check them to ensure they work. Open all windows and doors and check for functional locks, including a dead bolt on the front door. Ask whether the lock on the entry door was changed after the last tenant moved out or whether it will be changed if and when you move in. Illinois law requires the landlord to change the locks on the entry doors to most apartments at the conclusion of every tenancy, unless the lease expressly authorizes the tenant to change the lock himself. Be certain to ascertain the landlord s intentions in advance. Ask how recently the apartment was exterminated and how frequently the building is exterminated. Inquire whether any tenant has reported a bedbug infestation within the preceding year, as the landlord is not required to disclose this informtion. Inspect the trash room and open the trash chute. If there s something on the floor, move it gently with your foot to see if you scare any insects out of their hiding places. Finally, it s always a good idea to speak with other tenants in the building. This may require you to wait around outside and flag people down as they re coming or going, but it s certainly worth the effort. Inquire about such things as cleanliness, landlord responsiveness, and noise. 4...Building Amenities If you ride a bike, ask whether there s a bike room in the building. It s hard to feel cozy with a bike in your living room, and nothing kills a barbeque like a bike on your balcony. 3

5 tenant guide Check to see where mail gets delivered to the building. If there s no doorman, find out what happens to packages that are too big to fit in the mailbox. During holiday season, parcels left in common areas have a way of disappearing. If you intend to park at the building, ask to see the parking space. Ensure that it s easily accessible and inquire as to whether anyone ever has problems with unauthorized vehicles in their space. Many buildings with accessory parking have parking issues. If you have suitcases, boxes, or other closet-hogging items, you ll probably need storage space. Be sure to inquire whether there s a storage room in the building and ask to see it. If the building has a laundry room, pay it a visit. Find out how much it costs to do a load of laundry and whether there s a change machine on the premises. Check out the size of the equipment. If there are no laundry facilities in the building, find out how close you are to a laundromat. If the building has health and exercise facilities, a pool, or a business center, ask to see them. Not all gyms are created equal. If the equipment is nice enough, you may not need to join a health club. 5...Neighborhood Amenities If you re moving to a new neighborhood, check your proximity to all necessities and amenities. Find the nearest el station and investigate the local bus routes. Make sure you re not too far from a supermarket and a pharmacy. If you re an exercise nut, find a nearby health club. If ambient noise is your pet peeve, take a walk around the neighborhood -- at night if possible -- before signing a lease. Pay particular attention to the presence of late-night bars, el tracks, hospitals, and police and fire stations. 6...Requesting Concessions There s no law against negotiating. Before you commit to a year-long lease, try to swing the best possible deal. Don t be afraid to ask. Remember: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The best way to negotiate is to educate yourself first. Spend a day or two looking at all the apartments that potentially suit your fancy and ask the landlords to provide you with their best offers, including any rent concessions. (Rent concessions are often given, but not publicly advertised). At the end of what may be a long day, order your preferences, return to your first choice, and make a counter-offer. Be patient, and be ready to leave (or act as though you re ready to leave) if the landlord can t swing a deal with you. Among the concessions to request are free rent and/or free parking (for one or more months), a reduction in the security deposit (if you have excellent credit), a waiver of move-in or move-out fees, and the right to renew the lease at the end of the term without any increase in rent. Particularly at new construction high-rises, landlords need to fill vacancies quickly, so be aggressive and shrewd without being unfriendly or uncooperative. 4

6 7...Affordability, Credit Checking and Co-signing Most landlords observe the general rule that a tenant s monthly gross rent (which includes utilities) should not exceed 30% of his monthly gross income. Most landlords also require prospective tenants to submit to a credit check (typically at a cost of about $35.00). This is often described as an application fee. Tenants may also be the subject of an inquiry to past landlords or a database for evidence of past eviction proceedings. In addition they are often asked to produce an employer reference letter verifying their income. If you re concerned about your credit history, you may want to check your credit score first. (You may be able to reduce the application fee and preserve the confidentiality of your social security number by supplying a recent copy of your own credit report. A free copy is available once-annually at www. annualcreditreport.com.) Tenants should remain vigilant for credit-checking scams which have grown increasingly prevalent in recent years. Fraudsters posing as landlords on public bulletin boards (craigslist being the typical venue) post false advertisements for wondrous apartments with unrealistically low rents and then, communicating through throwaway addresses, request that the tenant submit to a credit check by following a link to an ostensibly reputable, but utterly bogus, credit checking website. The website requests the tenant s full name and social security number then sells the information to identity thieves. For that reason, tenants should refrain from supplying a social security number unless and until they have independently confirmed the identity of the landlord or management company. Meeting someone in person at a physical office is the ideal route and, in those cases where landlords use creditchecking websites, verifying the legitimacy of the website is critical. tenant guide If you have a poor credit history (or no credit history) or insufficient monthly income, the most common solution is to have someone who meets the requisite financial criteria co-sign the lease. By signing on the dotted line, a third-party binds himself to the legal obligations imposed on the tenant and serves as additional recourse for the landlord. In addition, a tenant may offer to increase the amount of the security deposit and/or pay several months rent in advance. (If the landlord agrees, then the tenant should attempt to regain some ground by negotiating a discount for early payment.) 8...Utilities Utilities include gas, electricity, internet, cable television, telephone, and water. Unless the lease provides otherwise, the tenant will be responsible for paying utilities, so always ask which utilities, if any, are included in the base rent. In vintage buildings with boilers and radiators, the cost of heat is likely included. In high-rise apartment buildings, landlords typically charge a flat fee for heating, air-conditioning, and natural gas based on the size of the unit. Virtually all landlords include the cost of water in the rent. In condominium buildings, the cost of internet and basic cable TV may be included in the owner s monthly assessments, which are typically excluded from the monthly rent. Play it safe. Ask the landlord to specify exactly which utilities are excluded in the base rent and to estimate the monthly expenses associated with those utilities. If you re 5

7 tenant guide really diligent, you can even contact the public utilities directly. Simply provide the address of the apartment, and the utility will approximate your monthly charges. Once you sign a lease, be sure to contact all the utilities and arrange for service at least a week in advance of your move-in date. 9...Pets and Smoking If you have a pet or have an interest in keeping a pet, you should bring this to the landlord s attention. Some buildings prohibit pets entirely. Some buildings allow pets only if they do not exceed a certain weight, but require an additional security deposit, typically in the amount of another month s rent. If you re a smoker, you need to inquire whether smoking is prohibited in the building. Landlords are increasingly prohibiting smoking due to the much-publicized dangers of second-hand smoke Roommates As far as Chicago law is concerned, there s no such thing as a roommate. Anyone who lives in an apartment is either a tenant or a subtenant. If you intend to live with other people, make sure that every one of them co-signs the lease. If yours is the only name on the agreement and you collect a proportionate share of the rent from one or more roommates, then, legally speaking, you become a landlord to one or more subtenants. As such, you are required to comply with an array of local laws and you potentially subject yourself to significant liability for any number of minor missteps. If you intend to live with someone, but don t intend to make that person pay rent (for example, a boyfriend or girlfriend), you should also be aware that most leases contain a provision precluding any guests to spend more than a week, or perhaps two, at the apartment without the consent of the landlord. As a result, allowing your brother to crash on your sofa for more than a couple nights can trigger a default under your lease Signing the Lease Before you sign, read the lease carefully. Don t just sign the lease two seconds after it s handed to you. Take it home for at least a night. Learn your rights and obligations. The lease may be printed in ticket stub font, but a standard form lease is typically comprehensible to laymen. If the lease contains a provision that contradicts your understanding with the landlord, ask to have that provision stricken. Do not rely on any oral promises. Make certain that all of the landlord s representations are expressed in writing and accept no excuse for their omission. If, during your initial tour of the apartment, there were items that needed to be fixed or cleaned, create an itemized punch-list and obtain the landlord s written commitment to fix the problems within a definite period of time. During your review, check the start and end dates. Determine when and where the rent is due and what the available payment options are. Check the late fee that may be assessed if rent is paid untimely. Read the disclosure forms, particularly the summary 6

8 of the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance. Ask for copies of any rules or regulations that specifically apply to your tenancy. (This is particularly important when renting an apartment from the owner of a condominium, as condominium associations typically have lengthy and unexpected rules.) Some associations impose exorbitant move-in (and move-out) fees in an effort to discourage owners from renting out their units. Be certain to inquire about any such fees before you sign on the dotted line. Finally, if you have any questions, find a lawyer friend and try to trade a dinner or bottle of wine (if you re old enough) for some wisdom and expertise Security Deposits A security deposit is money you will probably be required to pay up-front to protect the landlord against damage to the apartment or unpaid rent. The typical security deposit is one-month s rent, although some landlords may request more, and there is no law that limits the amount of security deposit that a landlord may require or hold. Some landlords even require the first month s rent, the last month s rent, and the security deposit to be paid simultaneously at the inception of the lease. This is less common, and tenants with good credit should think long and hard before committing to this. The Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (or CRLTO) requires a landlord to hold all security deposit funds in a federally-insured, interest-bearing, segregated account; to provide the tenant with a receipt; and to disclose the identity of the financial institution at which the funds are held. The CRLTO also requires the landlord to pay annual interest on the security deposit funds (at a rate determined by the City of Chicago), provided the funds are held longer than six months. Within 30 days of the conclusion of the tenancy, the landlord is required to supply a statement of the cost of repairing any damage at the apartment (ordinary wear and tear excepted) and to refund the balance of the security deposit (or the entire deposit) within 45 days. ely and, If the landlord commingles the security deposit, fails to pay annual interest, or fails to refund the balance of the deposit within 45 days after the termination of the lease, the tenant may recover an amount equal to double the security deposit, plus interest and reasonable attorneys fees. This punitive and draconian ordinance is legendary in Chicago, and more than a few landlords have been taken to the cleaners for failing to comply. tenant guide In fact, because the CRLTO imposes such harsh penalties, and because lawsuits based on technical violations are so common, many landlords have shifted away from secuirty deposits. It is now increasingly common for landlords to demand a non-refundable move-in fee. (This is separate from the move-in fee that high-rises sometimes impose on new tenants to compensate for loading dock and elevator usage or for repairs to anticipated nicks and dents.) A move-in fee assessed as an alternative to a security deposit can be steep, sometimes as much a half a month s rent. It eliminates the need to tie up a substantial amount of cash for a full year, but it s a hefty price to pay, and the money is not refunded even if the apartment is returned in pristine condition. Worse yet, the tenant will remain legally liable for any damage. To ensure the maximum possible refund of your security deposit, carefully inspect the 7

9 tenant guide apartment for any damage before or immediately after you move in. Bring the damage to the landlord s attention immediately and, if possible, take photographs to protect the record Rights to Sublease Lease terms typically run for periods of one year. This often leaves out-of-town students no choice but to continue paying rent for several months when they re not around. In Chicago, a lease must allow the tenant to sublease the apartment with the consent of the landlord (whose consent may not be unreasonably withheld), and the landlord may not charge additional fees for providing that consent. In certain instances, the parties may be able to negotiate an agreement that will allow for early termination of the lease in return for an additional payment by the tenant. If you negotiate a deal like this, be certain to get all the details in a signed writing Landlord Obligations The Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance obligates most apartment owners to maintain the premises in compliance with all relevant provisions of the municipal building code. Among other things, this obligates landlords to protect against damage to the structural integrity of the building; to keep the floors, walls, stairwells, porches, windows, elevators, and ceilings in good repair; to maintain bathtubs, showers, and sinks; to furnish hot and cold running water; to supply heat in the winter; to exterminate as necessary to prevent infestation by rodents and vermin; to supply locks and deadbolts; to maintain and repair all appliances and equipment furnished under the lease; to keep the premises watertight and free of leaks; and, perhaps most importantly, to maintain the dwelling unit and the common areas of the building in a fit and habitable condition Resolving Problems The Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance sets forth, in surprisingly plain English, exactly what to do in the event that the landlord is not maintaining the premises in a fit and habitable condition (assuming the lease is governed by the municipal code) or in the event that the landlord is failing to make even minor repairs. The first step, not surprisingly, is to deliver a written notice to the landlord specifying the exact problems with the apartment. (This is merely a cursory summary of the ordinance. In the event of a problem with the habitability of the dwelling unit, consult the CRLTO, which can be found online, or consult with counsel.) Communicating in writing with your landlord is an excellent practice. Even when requesting simple repairs that don t really impact the overall habitability of your apartment, correspond in writing and retain a photocopy of your letter. If the problem is urgent, send a letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, send a fax and retain the confirmation sheet, and send an too. The CRLTO sets forth in great detail all the remedies available to aggrieved tenants, including the withholding of rent in certain circumstances. Rent withholding can be a risky proposition, so consider seeking counsel (from a public legal services organization if need be) before resorting to such drastic measures. 8

10 16...Cars and Parking Stickers If you own a car or motorcycle and are not an Illinois resident at the time you move, you will need to register your license plates with the Illinois Secretary of State within 30 days and obtain a new driver s license within 90 days. If you already live in Illinois, you have 10 days to notify the Secretary of State of your new address, although this can usually be accomplished online. Updating your contact information ensures that you receive important communications, including annual renewal forms. You also have obligations to the City of Chicago. Within 30 days of moving into the city, you are required to obtain a vehicle sticker for your front windshield. No matter when you buy it (and you may buy it online), the sticker will expire on June 30, at which point you ll have to fork over at least $75 for a new one. If you move to a neighborhood where parking is scarce, there s a good chance you ll need to obtain a residential parking permit to avoid being ticketed during specified hours. You may apply for the permit online, and the permit will be consolidated with your vehicle sticker. You may also purchase temporary parking passes for visitors, just in case you ever throw a party and want to extend the convenience of curbside parking to your guests Renter s Insurance Renter s insurance is typically inexpensive and provides financial protection against theft or casualty. A renter s policy covers personal property, including consumer electronics, bicycles, jewelry, and other valuable possessions. It also protects against personal liability in case a visitor gets hurt inside your apartment and names you in a lawsuit. A renter s policy will cover both the cost of your legal defense and the amount of your ultimate liability (subject to standard policy exclusions, deductibles, and coverage limits). In the event of a casualty to the building itself, the policy will (or should) cover your additional living expenses during the period that your apartment is uninhabitable. Do not assume that the landlord s insurance policy will protect you, because it probably won t. tenant guide 9

11 tenant guide Tenant Checklist Building Exterior o Appearance of facade o Tuckpointing o Landscaping o Porches o Security & Admission Of Visitors (Doorman / Gates / Cameras) o Exterior Lighting The Apartment o Check ceilings for evidence of water damage o Check walls for evidence of cracking paint, plaster, or drywall o Turn on all lights o Turn on kitchen appliances o Check kitchen faucet water temperature and pressure o Open refrigerator and freezer o Check for and activate garbage disposal o Open kitchen cabinetry and cupboards check for evidence of rodents or leaks o Check bathroom faucets (sink and shower) water temperature and pressure o Check bathtub and shower for evidence of mold, moisture, or drainage problems o Inspect bathroom cabinetry for evidence of rodents or leaks o Flush toilets o Inquire about size and location of water heater o If the unit has its own furnace, check for evidence of rusting, chipping, or debris o Open and close, lock and unlock all doors, including entry door o Check for deadbolt on entry door o Open and close windows to ensure adequate ventilation o Test blinds, shades, or window coverings o Inspect closet floors and other dark areas for evidence of rodents o Check number and location of electrical outlets and telephone jacks and test all outlets for power o Check for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors o Inspect trash room o Inspect laundry room o Determine the source of heating o Check the air-conditioning o Test cell phone reception o Listen for ambient noises, particularly traffic o Ensure sufficient counter space in the kitchen o Ensure sufficiency of closet space o Determine the location of the electrical panel 10

12 Tenant Checklist continued Building Amenities o Doorman / mail handling o Laundry room o Fitness room o Bike room o Storage room o Accessory parking o Cable/Internet Neighborhood Amenities o El station / bus routes o Supermarket o Pharmacy o Health club Lease Terms o Monthly rent (apartment and parking) o Utilities included in / excluded from monthly rent o Estimated monthly utility costs o Start and end dates o Move-in / move-out fees o Security deposit o Concessions (free rent, reduced security deposit, right to renew on same terms) o Pets / smoking tenant guide 11

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