BY JOEY FERNANDEZ Contributing columnist
Editor's note: Action Line is a weekly column from the Better Business Bureau answering consumers' questions and concerns about money and business issues.
Dear Action Line:
I recently graduated from college and landed a great new job in Kern County. I'm unfamiliar with the area and am looking for an apartment or small home to rent.
I don't know where to start but I know I need something quick. I worry about bad landlords who don't take care of their property or tenants properly. I'd hate to get stuck in a bad location or worse, with a bad landlord who doesn't treat their tenants right.
Do you have any advice to give when home hunting?
Searching for an apartment can be a daunting task. The Better Business Bureau serving Central California receives hundreds of complaints against apartment complexes every year, consistently placing the apartment industry on BBB's top 25 list of most complained about industries.
Of the hundreds of complaints received last year, most allege consumers were billed incorrectly, had difficulty getting their security deposits back or getting repairs handled in a timely manner.
Before signing any lease, make sure you read through the terms carefully and understand your responsibilities as an apartment tenant. Make sure the following information is included in your lease:
* specifics on how all maintenance and repair concerns are handled and within what timeframe. For example, some communities include light bulb replacement as the landlord's responsibility.
* information about what your security deposit covers and the conditions for deductions.
* the conditions under which your rent or other fees can be increased during your lease term.
* information about whether you are allowed to sublet your unit.
* when monthly payments are due and where rent can be paid.
* what insurance coverage, if any, is included.
Upon move-in, do not forget to document the condition of your apartment. Make sure to include each and every flaw or defect in your apartment so that you are not held responsible for those damages later. It's advisable to also take photos of your unit prior to move-in so that you have documentation available in case a dispute arises after move-out.
BBB serving Central California also suggests renters:
* Check out the apartment with BBB first. Go to cencal.bbb.org to see the BBB Business Review of the apartment you are considering. This will show its BBB rating, any history of complaints, as well as contact information.
* Visit each complex in person before putting down a deposit. Tour all amenities to be sure they meet your needs (swimming pool, workout center, parking, etc.). Websites often use pictures taken only from the best locations on the property or of promotional units.
* Keep a signed copy of the lease. Keep your lease in a safe place in case you need to refer to it.
* Know your rights as a renter. Check with your local regulatory agency to see the renter laws that apply to your area. Housing codes, which govern apartment rentals, are set by local authority -- city, county or state.
* Consider renters insurance. When a tenant's belongings are damaged or stolen, the apartment complex is very rarely held liable. Renters insurance would cover your losses in the event of fire, burglary or other damage. Pay attention to deductibles and coverage limits when choosing a policy.
If you find that your relationship with a landlord goes sour or that you cannot come to a fair resolution with a landlord or tenant, the BBB Mediation Services can assist within the courts or come into situations per the request of one of the parties. After a party contacts our office, we call the opposing party and request for them to come in and participate in finding a resolution. Parties meet with a mediator at our office and have the same agreement drawn up and signed as they can within the court setting.
If you are facing an unexpected lawsuit or conflict, call the BBB Mediation Team to assist you in getting the best outcome. Services are free and confidential, and our professional staff is ready to help you. We are available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday in Fresno, Bakersfield, Visalia, Delano and Mojave. The number to reach us is (661) 616-5252.
-- Joey Fernandez is assistant director of business services for the Better Business Bureau serving Central California. Send your consumer concerns, questions and problems to Action Line at the Better Business Bureau, 1601 H St., Suite 101, Bakersfield, CA 93301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.