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How to Avoid Singing the Awful-Roommate Blues

From PROJECT SENTINEL

Question: Do you have suggestions for roommate screening? I have always had good luck until recently, when I had a really nasty and expensive experience. I am especially interested in ways to protect my financial interests. My last roommate left owing me hundreds of dollars in back rent and utility bills.

Answer: We came up with these suggestions:

* Try to find roommates through friends or acquaintances. They may know something about the dependability and responsibility of the person.

* Interview the person several times, not just in your dwelling but in a restaurant or cafe. This gives you the opportunity to observe their interactions with other people. Spend as much time with them as possible before allowing them to move in and / or sign a rental agreement.

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* Check references. There also may be tenant screening services available in your area.

* Discuss your house rules--if you don’t have any, make them and put them in writing--and state your expectations.

Topics should include payment of rent and utilities, chores or division of housework, things to be shared and not to be shared (e.g., can use my TV but don’t touch my stereo). Important items to discuss are personal habits, work and sleep schedules, overnight guests, meals, parking, pet peeves and anything else that you think could be a problem later.

* Request a large enough security deposit to cover one month’s rent and any estimates on damage and cleaning costs. If you are providing all the furnishings, you can collect up to three times the monthly rent. If not, the limit is two times the monthly rent.

* Utilities: Define who pays for what and when. Telephone bills are a frequent and potentially very costly area of disagreement. It is best to have separate phones on separate lines billed separately.

* Get information on where your roommate works and banks. One way to do this is to keep copies of all checks received from him or her. If you have to sue for any money later, you will at least have a source for collecting any money judgment.

* Do not allow your roommate to move in until you collect rent for the first month and the security deposit.

* Last, but not least: Be consistent, put everything in writing and keep a copy.

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Couple Has to Pay for Breaking Lease

Q: I have been renting a duplex to a couple who are four months into a 12-month lease. They have just told me that they are moving out in two weeks because they have bought a house.

I told them that they are breaking the lease, and that to protect my interests, I plan to start advertising the unit in the local paper and that that they would be responsible for the costs of that ad. I also said that I will start showing the duplex, and that they will be responsible for rent until the unit is rented.

They were upset and implied that they would not pay for the ad and might be difficult as far as showing the unit. And as far as paying rent after they moved out, I should forget it. What are my rights in this situation?

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A: A lease is a contract in which a tenant agrees to pay rent and an owner promises to provide housing for a certain period of time.

The general rule in breaking a lease is that the owner should not lose any money, either in rent or in associated costs, such as advertising. Thus, the tenants are responsible for the costs of your ad.

Additionally, according to California Civil Code Section 1954, the owner does have the right to show the unit to prospective tenants.

However, the owner has to notify the tenant before entering--24 hours is considered reasonable notice. Tenants do not have to allow entry before or after normal business hours, which are considered to be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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Of course, you may point out to your tenants that it is in their best interest to cooperate as much as possible in establishing these showing hours. Why? Because they are breaking the lease and will be responsible for unpaid rent until the end of the lease period or until the unit is re-rented. So the sooner a new tenant moves in, the less costly it will be for them.

Tenants Solve Problem; Eviction Is Canceled

Q: A few days ago, my roommate and I received a 30-day termination notice. This was completely unexpected and we were baffled. We asked the resident manager why she gave us the notice.

First she said she didn’t have to give a reason, but then said it was because our neighbor complained about our television. We agreed to turn the volume down, and we moved the television set to another location, away from the wall that separated us from the neighbor. The manager canceled the notice.

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My question is, did she have the right to give us the notices without talking with us and giving us a chance to fix the problem?

A: There is no legal requirement that a rental owner or manager initiate verbal communications before written notices.

Obviously, there would have been no need for such a notice if your neighbor or manager had informed you about the sound from your television. Congratulations on taking the initiative to do the right thing. You can hope your neighbor and apartment manager will learn from your example.

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This column is prepared by Project Sentinel, a rental housing mediation service in Sunnyvale, Calif. Questions may be sent to 1055 Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road, Suite 3, Sunnyvale, CA 94087; they cannot be answered individually.

For housing discrimination questions, complaints or help, call the state Department of Fair Housing and Employment at (800) 233-3212 or the Fair Housing Council, Fair Housing Institute or Fair Housing Foundation office in your area:

Bellflower: (888) 777-4087.

Carson: (888) 777-4087.

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El Monte: (626) 579-6868.

Hawthorne: (888) 777-4087.

Lancaster: (888) 777-4087.

Long Beach: (562) 901-0808.

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Pasadena: (626) 791-0211.

Redondo Beach: (888) 777-4087.

San Fernando Valley: (818) 373-1185.

South-Central Los Angeles: (213) 295-3302.

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Westside Los Angeles: (310) 474-1667.

Orange County: (714) 569-0828.

San Bernardino County: (909) 884-8056.

Ventura County: (805) 385-7288.

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