You’ve signed the lease, paid your deposit, and finally moved in all your boxes. Congrats! But don’t get too cozy yet. There are still quite a few things to do before relaxing in your new digs.
Here are the five most important moves to make right after you move in:
Take photos of everything
Want to make sure you get your security deposit back when you move out? Snap a photo of every ding, knick or scratch you can find, and save them for later. Odds are that you won’t ever have to consult them again, but this is a safeguard against deposit theft by your landlord.
Figure out what needs fixing and get it fixed
Small issues with your new place will reveal themselves soon after you move in: a leaky faucet, a window that won’t shut, a door that doesn't lock. When you notice any of these problems, report them immediately to your landlord and get them fixed.
Remember that your landlord needs to give advance notice before entering to make any repairs. Laws vary depending on where you live and what the reason is for entering, however. If it’s an emergency, they are generally not required to give you advance notice. However, if they request entry for repairs, the waiting period can be anywhere from 48 hours to a week unless you give permission for them to enter sooner.
When dealing with bigger problems like a bug infestation or broken heating system (in most states, functioning heat is required to make the space legally “habitable”), make sure to document everything with time-stamped photos that you either send via certified mail (which is best) or a text. Save it all, as it’ll be vital if you have to take your neglectful landlord to small claims court.
Make your neighbors your allies
Here’s a story from my life: While living in a four-plex in Oakland, we had a rat problem in the basement. They made a nest and fleas began jumping off their bodies and biting tenants. We told our landlord, who claimed she’d get around to it when she could afford it, but four months later, the infestation still wasn’t resolved. Finally, all four of the units sent a letter announcing that we were withholding rent until the problem was fixed. They were all gone within a week.
“[Going on rent strike] is a tricky strategy to try by yourself, because then you make yourself a target,” says Érida Tosini-Corea, a housing rights counselor for the working class advocacy group Causa Justa in Oakland. “One unit withholding rent can get a three-day notice [to vacate in California], but it’s hard for a landlord to evict all four units at once. It’s a phenomenal strategy when you have the power of a building.”
Be a good tenant—and neighbor
While the tenant-landlord relationship is often fraught with the struggles of power dynamics, it is still a relationship, which means you need to stick to your end of the bargain. The most important rule to follow is to always pay the rent on time.
But you can do more than that. Report dangers in the building’s common areas, like lights out in the hallways or broken railings. Use the recycling bins so the building doesn’t get fined. Keep it down in the late night hours and give your neighbors warning if you’re having one of those “small get togethers” that may devolve into something a bit more. Above all, don’t be a jerk. This is where you live, after all.
Learn your rights
Tenants rights organizations are only an online search away (here’s one in San Francisco, and here’s one in New York) and they’re vitally important to consult when things go badly with your landlord. These organizations not only know your local rights, but can also suggest effective tactics for dealing with a do-nothing landlord—from simply sending a sharply-worded email to taking them to court.
“People should never roll over and die,” says Tommi Mecca, director of counseling on the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. “Because if you fight, you can win. And if you don’t fight, you lose.”
Tenant-landlord dispute that can’t be resolved typically end up in small claims court, the tier of the court system reserved for civil complaints involving small sums. (Each state has different monetary limits and rules.) However, if you go down this route, prepare for an arduous process that may involve taking time off work for court dates, long stretches of preparation, and perhaps not even getting any money despite winning the case.
All of which means, if you can work out the dispute between the two of you without getting the court involved, that’s highly recommended!