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Top Renter’s Nightmares -- Solved!

Dream homes can quickly turn into nightmares when you get stuck dealing with repairs and (eek) pests. Erika Riggs, real estate expert for Zillow, gives her tips to help you tackle your biggest rental headaches.

Photo: Joora Song

Unwanted Guests. Remember that Sex and the City episode where Carrie has a mouse crawl into bed with her? Even if you don’t, that thought is enough to make any person’s skin crawl. Before manically dialing your landlord, property manager or exterminator, take a good look at your lease to see if it mentions rodent or bug infestations. If it doesn’t say anything about that, check out your state’s rental laws. (You can find a link to your state on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website.) Each state has different laws when it comes to insect or rodent infestation. For instance, in New York, the landlord of an apartment is responsible for dealing with insect infestation; however, the law notes that if the infestation was caused by the tenant, then the landlord is no longer responsible. “Before you call your landlord or the exterminator, research your state’s laws, know your rights and be prepared to provide an explanation as to why you believe the infestation was not caused by you,” says Riggs.

Broken Appliances. If your fridge is on the fritz, the first thing you should do is notify your landlord. Under most state laws, landlords have a “duty of repair,” which requires them to keep electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating and other appliances in working condition. Of course, how quickly they come to help will likely depend on your lease (and whether you have a good landlord!). Make your request in writing and make a copy for your records. If the landlord doesn’t respond to your request within a reasonable amount of time (two weeks is a good time frame), bring your complaint to your local housing officials. If you’re renting a house, you may be the one responsible for repairs -- if so, this detail should be present in your rental contract.

Damage (Um, That You Did). So you set a hot pan on the laminate counter, or you cracked a mirror. Well, that’s why landlords require security deposits to cover anything beyond “normal wear and tear.” If it’s minor enough, you can fix it yourself. If it’s a bigger problem, the best thing to do is let the landlord know. He may do one of two things: arrange for the repair and have you pay for it, or deduct the cost of the repair from your security deposit. If it’s significant enough damage, however, you may be at risk of getting the boot (yep, as in evicted).

Foreclosure. Unfortunately, it’s become more common for renters to find themselves out of a home owing to foreclosures. Riggs explains: “According to Nolo.com, in Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs, 38 percent of the 2006 foreclosures involved rental properties; in Minneapolis alone, 65 percent were rentals.” If you do find yourself foreclosed on, you don’t lose your lease immediately. Thanks to the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, tenants may continue to live in the property until the end of their lease, and month-to-month tenants are entitled to 90 days’ notice before having to move out.

Needing to Move Before Your Lease Is Up. You’re moving, you’re having a baby, you just want more space…there are million reasons to sublet, but whether you actually can depends on your lease. If it’s not mentioned in the rental contract, you’ll have to contact your landlord to request written permission. The majority of state laws do not have specific protections for sublets, and subleasing without landlord permission has its risks -- yep, we’re talking eviction (again).

Your Place Is Unlivable and You Have a Negligent Landlord. If you do find yourself living in a bad rental, you have the right to break your lease if the property is not “habitable” or up to your state’s rental codes. Again, these laws vary from state to state, so before you move out, do your research and talk to a real estate attorney.

Ultimately, not all state laws will protect you as a renter. “In most cases, your lease is the law, so before you rent, read and understand the lease carefully,” says Riggs. “If you require anything that is not specified in the lease, get the landlord’s agreement in writing. Finally, make sure you have up-to-date rental insurance for any other unforeseen problems.”

Nestpert: Erika Riggs, a real estate writer for Zillow Blog, a resource for real estate and mortgage news

-- Samantha Leal