'Buyer Beware' Still Applies to Renters : Rights Spelled Out Less Clearly Than in Purchase Contracts

United Press International

In an era of scrupulously detailed sales contracts and sly real estate lawyers, an old caveat for a prospective homeowner, "let the buyer beware," is as much a vestige of the past as a $25,000 beach-front house.

The adage, however, still applies to people who rent. Members of the real estate community say renters must beware of the landlord who knowingly or unwittingly takes advantage of them.

Compared to the apartment dweller, a new homeowner can expect a great deal more certainty in what he can expect from the person selling the dream home. The key to a successful, stress-free transaction is a good, clear contract.

A home, for example, consists of the property and the things attached to it, said Tom Griffin, president of Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate Service of Southern California, one of the largest real estate firms in the nation.

The seller may yank out the upstairs bedroom window air conditioner, but not the central air conditioning system. The bathroom towel racks can come down, but not if stripping them from the walls causes any damage to the house, Griffin said.

Some Gray Areas

"It all just depends on what's in the contract," Griffin said. "If the seller specifies in the contract that he gets the washer and dryer, then he gets the washer and dryer. . . . The biggest problem is a lack of clarity in the contract."

But there are some gray areas, such as whether the draperies are included in the purchase price. Griffin said there's usually more haggling about that then anything else.

The owner of the home has the obligation to disclose any facts about his property that the buyer would likely think twice about before putting his name on the dotted line, said Mick O'Brand, a legal expert with Coldwell Banker.

"If the seller knows about a leaky roof or that the property is on unstable, shifting ground and doesn't disclose that to the buyer, he could be liable for fraud," O'Brand said.

"When in doubt, spell it out on the contract," said James Wright, an Irvine real estate agent.

"A buyer needs to watch out for these kind of things," Griffin said. "But the days of the 'buyer beware' are really over."

Different With Renters

The fundamental right new homeowners are entitled to is simply to get the house they paid for--to get what's laid out in black and white.

It's not exactly the same with renters.

Although a landlord cannot by law discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion or age in entering into a rental agreement, the burden of proof usually rests on the renter.

The same goes with the landlord who evicts the tenant because the renter has repeatedly demanded that his leaky toilet be fixed. Or with the renter who gets the heave-ho for supposedly creating a nuisance so the landlord can finally get her brother-in-law's best friend the eighth-floor apartment, the one with the kingly view of the city skyline.

Blanche Rosloff has heard the complaints, seen the trickery, and witnessed the unresolvable tenant-landlord squabbling for the past decade as executive director of the Westside Fair Housing Council in Santa Monica.

The council was organized in 1968, chiefly to monitor rental properties in the Los Angeles area and inform renters of their rights. And renters do have rights, Rosloff said. More than they think.

First of all, in rent-controlled Los Angeles and in Santa Monica, renters cannot be charged more than a 4% increase in their rent each year.

Renters also have the legal right to a "habitable" dwelling, Rosloff said. That means no vermin, a toilet that works when flushed, safe electrical wiring, a healthy water supply, and proper heating and ventilation.

Notify the Landlord

If a problem does arise--the oven breaks or the roof leaks -- the renter must notify the landlord in writing of the trouble, Rosloff said. The landlord then has 30 days to make the repair.

If the landlord does not, the renter can deduct the cost of the repair from his rent, but the repair cannot exceed one month's rent.

Withholding the rent entirely is also permissible, but the apartment dweller must stash the rent in an escrow fund.

"But that's kind of a dangerous practice," Rosloff said. "The landlord can evict you--with 30 days notice--and then it's up to you to prove in court that he didn't make good on the repairs."

Documenting Conditions

Documenting the condition of one's apartment before moving in is well advised, Rosloff said--that, and paying close attention to the whys and wherefores of the lease.

Creating a nuisance, destroying property or violating the lease agreement are all justifications for getting the landlord's ax, she added.

Security deposits, typically a sore point among tenants and landlords, must be returned to the renter within 14 working days, Rosloff said.

If it isn't, the renter has the right to go to small claims court and can actually win back a full month's rent in damages.

In Los Angeles, where 59% of the city's population is minority, discrimination on the basis of race is the biggest clash between landlords and tenants, Rosloff said.

"I recently had an interracial couple that came in from Chicago," Rosloff recalled. "It was a black man and a white woman. Well, she went to check out the apartment.

"And everything was fine until she sent the man in with the deposit. And then he (the landlord) said it was taken and advised him to check out some places five blocks south where it was more of an interracial neighborhood."

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