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Law sets rights, responsibilities of landlords, tenants

Renters have certain rights. Often they don't know them. I cannot begin to cover all the legalities of the Landlord Tenant Law.

+ Before You Rent: Before renting a dwelling, be sure the lease covers all the issues. Make sure you thoroughly understand the terms of the contract before you sign it. If you don't understand, don't sign it. There is NO required grace period for canceling leases, so if you sign you are bound to the agreement. Walk through the premises to determine any problems with the property that should be fixed before you rent. Take pictures of any questionable conditions and include provision for repairs in the lease or in a separate written agreement.

+ Who is Responsible For What?: The landlord's responsibilities depend upon the type of rental unit. If the unit is a single-family house, duplex, triplex or mobile home, he must: Comply with building, housing and health codes; keep the roof, windows, screens, floors, outside walls and all other structural components in good repair; and keep the plumbing in reasonable working condition. The landlord's obligations can be altered or modified in writing with respect to a single-family home or duplex. If the unit is a triplex or other type unit, unless otherwise agreed upon in writing, he must: provide for the extermination of rats, bugs and wood destroying organisms; provide locks and keys; provide a functioning heating device; provide running water and hot water; remove garbage from the premises; and provide a smoke detection device. This does not mean the landlord is obligated to pay for utilities, water, fuel or garbage removal, although he might choose to. Other provisions can also be altered by the written lease agreement.

+ The Tenant: You are responsible for complying with housing and health codes; keeping the dwelling clean; removing garbage from the dwelling; not defacing or damaging the premises; occupying the dwelling without disturbing the peace; and not abusing the electrical, plumbing, heating, air conditioning or other systems furnished by the landlord.

+ If the Landlord Does Not Comply: You can withhold the rent if your landlord fails to do what the law or the lease requires. You must, however, announce your intention by certified mail at least seven days before the rent is due to allow time to remedy the problem. If the problem is not corrected within the seven days and you withhold the rent, the landlord can take you to court to collect it. Under these circumstances, you must pay the rent into the court registry pending the judge's determination of the case.

+ If the Tenant Does Not Comply: You can be evicted for not living up to your end of the lease. The process of removal depends on the offense.

+ Failure To Meet Lease Obligations: Except for the failure to pay rent, a landlord must notify you, in writing, of the shortcoming and give you seven days to correct the situation. If you still have not complied after seven days, the landlord can begin the eviction process.

Florida law does not allow a landlord to force a tenant out by shutting off the utilities or interrupting service, even if the service is in the landlord's name; changing the locks or using a device that denies you access; removing the outside doors, locks, roof, walls or windows (except for purposes of maintenance, repair or replacement); and removing the personal property from the dwelling unit unless action is taken through a lawful eviction.

+ Deposits and Advance Rent Requirements: A landlord has the discretion to collect various deposits as well as some rent in advance. Be careful about making any deposit. A tenant who puts down a deposit, but then decides not to occupy the unit, might not be entitled to a refund. If a deposit is nonrefundable, it must be so stated in the rental agreement.

A damage deposit is one of the most common requirements of landlords. At the time of your prerental walk through with the landlord, you should make note of damaged items or areas, worn rugs, broken fixtures, etc., and give a copy to the landlord. Keep a copy for your files.

When you move out, your landlord must either return your deposit within 15 days of termination of the lease or justify in writing, within the 15-day period, why he is keeping the money. The justification must be sent by certified mail to your last known mailing address. If the notice is not sent as required, the landlord forfeits his right to impose a claim unless you failed to give proper notice prior to vacating.

For a free brochure or a complete printing of Statute 83, Part II, call the Florida Department of Agriculture Division of Consumer Services toll free at 1 (800) 435-7352.

_ Information for this article was gathered from the Florida Division of Consumer Affairs.

_ By Dottie Teuton, executive director of the Better Business Federation, 6460 W Gulf to Lake Highway, Crystal River. Call 795-3547 in Citrus County or 307-9222 in Marion County. The office may also be reached by e-mail at betterbusifedgowebco.com. Or call the Florida Division of Consumer Services at 1-800-435-7352.

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