HOW TO RENT AN APARTMENT
IN BERKELEY

by Mark Tarses

USE GOOD TELEPHONE ETTIQUETTE. When you call a landlord, call from a quiet place. It is a turn-off to landlords to get phone calls from applicants with loud music or barking dogs in the background. Don't call from a phone booth at a noisy location, like a busy intersection.

When you call a landlord to get information about an apartment, think about the questions you want to ask before you call. Most of the time, you will have to leave a message on an answering machine. Speak slowly and clearly when you leave your message. Quite often, I don't return phone calls simply because the caller spoke so fast that I could not figure out what his phone number was.

A landlord is more likely to reply to a brief, polite, businesslike message than a long, rambling, confused message.

For example, in May, 2002; the following message was left on my answering machine: "Hi, my name is Lisa. I saw your listing. I am very interested in your cottage! Gee, I hope you get this message. If you get this message, please call me at home at 643-xxxx. If you don't get this message, then call me on my cell phone at 519-xxxx, but don't call me on my cell phone if I'm driving my car, because I don't like to talk to people on my cell phone when I'm driving. Oh gosh, I just realized, you have no way of knowing if I'm driving when you call me. Well, if I could be driving, then you better wait until I get home before you call me back." This message rambled on for another 4 minutes. I did not return her call.

BEFORE YOU APPLY FOR AN APARTMENT, BE PREPARED.

FIRST, KNOW THYSELF! You should know your driver's license number, your Social Security number, your car's license plate number, and your telephone number. Landlords do not check credit by names, but by numbers. Lots of people have the same name, but Social Security and driver license nunbers are unique to each person. If you don't know these numbers, then a landlord cannot process your application.

I am often told by applicants: "I'm staying with friends, and I don't know their phone number." Well, what do you expect me to do? Send out bloodhounds to find you? If I decided to rent this apartment to you, how would I contact you?

BRING YOUR WHOLE GROUP. It is unrealistic to expect that a landlord is going to rent an apartment to people who he hasn't met and who haven't seen the apartment.

DON'T BRING FRIENDS WITH YOU - unless they are interested in renting the apartment also. It is O.K. to bring one friend with you for your personal safety, especially if you are viewing an apartment at night.

DON'T EAT, DRINK, OR SMOKE. Finish off your lunch, cigarette, or coffee outside.

DON'T PRY. If you are looking at an apartment that is already tenant-occupied, don't pry. Its O.K. to open closet doors to check out the space inside, but don't open the drawers of the tenant's dresser or read his mail. Respect the privacy rights of the current tenant.

BRING DOCUMENTATION. Don't be surprised if the landlord asks to see your driver's license or other photo I.D or your credit card. If you've going to be paying your rent with student loan or scholarship money, bring something in writing to show that you've got it. Give the landlord a copy. Don't expect the landlord to take your word for things. Landlords know that people often lie on rental applications.

CO-SIGNERS. It's normal for landlords to require that college students have a parent co-sign a lease, particularly if the student has no real income of his own. Speak to your parents about this before shopping for an apartment. If one of them won't co-sign, you may not be able to get an apartment in Berkeley. Make sure they understand that by co-signing your lease that they are accepting responsibility for you and your roommates.

THINK ABOUT YOUR APPEARANCE. Don't dress up, but use common sense. Wear clean, untorn clothes. Don't come barefoot.

Politics. Leave your politics at home. I once got an application from a guy who was wearing a button that said "Rent Is Theft" on a T shirt that said "I'd Rather Be Smashing Capitalism." Some people in Berkeley dress that way. I had 20 applications for that apartment, but he didn't get it!

Religion. Wearing discreet religious jewelry is O.K., like a small cross or Jewish star on a necklace. "Discreet" is the key word here. What is indiscreet? In 1997, an applicant for an apartment tried to convince me to join a suicide cult that had recently moved to Berkeley.

Don't act like a nut! Berkeley has a well-deserved reputation as a magnet for crackpots. This city is often refered to in the local press as "Berserkley" and "The Open Clinic." Berkeley landlords take note of applicants who are acting irrationally. Renting an apartment is a business transaction. Don't say things that will leave the landlord wondering whether you are a dangerously deranged lunatic or just a college student with an odd sense of humor. Its sometimes hard to tell the difference. Here are some examples. Below are some answers to questions on Rentals Application forms that I have received:

Pets? Yes. If 'Yes', give details: That's as far as I'll go on a first date.
Employed by: A jerk who's grandfather owns the restaurant where I work.
Other Income: I may already be a winner in the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.
I Certify That the Above Information is True and Complete to the Best of My Knowledge: Yeah, whatever.
Sign Here: Capricorn on the cusp with Aquarius
In Case of Emergency: CALL 911!

DON'T BRING PETS INSIDE - unless the landlord has asked you to do so. It sometimes helps to bring your pet, but leave it in your car, in case the landlord asks to see it. If your pet isn't with you, bring a photograph of it.

DON'T ALIENATE THE LANDLORD. Don't suck up to the landlord, but don't antagonize him either. Here are some things that I've been told by prospective tenants:

Landlords take note of comments like these! Remember, landlords are businessmen, and like all rational businessmen, they try to avoid getting involved with people who will likely cause them trouble down the road.

Landlords know that people are on their best behavior when they are applying for an apartment. If you are acting like you don't want the apartment, the landlord will offer it to somebody else.

ASK QUESTIONS! Landlords realize that most college students have never rented an apartment or signed a lease before, and rent is a big chunk of the cost of going to college in Berkeley, so landlords expect to get questions from college students. Don't feel embarrassed to ask questions! In fact, landlords are often suspicious of applicants who ask no questions! Landlords expect you to ask questions, like:

However, don't ask insulting or incriminating questions. For example:

These questions are tantamount to asking the landlord if he is a crook!

BE PREPARED TO ACT QUICKLY! Take as much time as you want to look at apartments, but be prepared to act quickly when you find something you want! A landlord with a desirable and reasonably priced apartment may get 30 applications in one showing! If you are offered an apartment that you want, be prepared to sign a lease on the spot!

Be sure you have enough money in your checking account to give the landlord the "key money" (first month's rent and deposit.)

If you have roommates or co-signers, make sure that they are on hand or nearby to sign the lease. If you aren't prepared to sign a lease and give the landlord the key money, somebody else will get the place!

It is unrealistic to expect a Berkeley landlord to "hold an apartment" off the market while you get your money together or until your roommates return from their vacation. Don't be disappointed if you don't get the first apartment that you apply for.

READ THE LEASE BEFORE YOU SIGN IT. Ask the landlord to go over the lease with you. Remember, a lease is a legal contract. For many college students, a lease is the first contract they have ever signed. Understanding what you are signing may prevent unnecessary quarrels later on.

SOME TENANT RIGHTS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT.

1. In California, all rental deposits are refundable, even if your lease says otherwise. There is no such thing as a "non-refundable" security deposit or cleaning fee in California.

2. In Berkeley, landlords must pay interest annually on security deposits. However, interest rates are very low these days, so the amount you get won't come to very much.

3. If you have a month-to-month rental agreement, a 30 Day Notice can be given to the landlord at any time, regardless of what day of the month the rent is due. In other words, if you give your landlord a 30 Day Notice on the 15th of the month, your obligation to pay rent ends on the 14th of the following month.

4. When you rent an apartment in California, you have a non-waivable "Implied Warranty of Habitability." It means that you have a right to certain basic services: hot and cold running water, heat, etc. If a basic service isn't working, tell the landlord promptly and ask him to fix it. If after a reasonable amount of time, he still hasn't fixed it, you can have the repair done and deduct the cost of the repair from your rent.

For example, suppose the toilet in your apartment is backed up and won't flush. This is a common problem. If there is only one bathroom in your apartment, this is an emergency repair and must be fixed immediately! Let us say you have called your landlord, but even after 24 hours, nothing has happened. You can then call Roto Rooter yourself, have them do the job, and deduct the cost of the repair from your next month's rent.

Be careful. Use this right only when you really have to. This right is a not a license to steal or to remodel your apartment at your landlord's expense.

Also, you can't make your landlord pay for repairs if you caused the damage yourself. For example, if your toilet backed up because you flushed your hairbrush down the toilet, that repair is your expense.

PETS. Most Berkeley landlords have a "no pets" policy. Landlords who do allow pets (like me) will want to know a lot of things about your pet before giving an O.K. Don't be surprised or offended if the landlord asks you pointed questions about your pet. Bring documentation with you. If your cat has been spayed or neutered, show the landlord the certificate or vet's bill to prove it. Its also a good idea to bring proof that your pet has had its shots. Bring a photo of your pet with you. Show it to the landlord.

Every pet owner tells landlords that his pet is "house-broken" and "sleeps all the time"; but landlords know that people frequently lie about their pets when applying for apartments. I once had an applicant who estimated his dog's weight at 30 pounds. His dog, a St. Bernard, actually weighed 150 pounds.

Try to see things from the landlord's perspective. A tenant with a cat may think: "What is the matter with this landlord? What possible harm could my little cat do to this apartment?" Well, I once rented an apartment to a woman who owned a cat with poor bladder control, a condition which is common among old cats. That cat did $5,000 damage to the oak floors in that apartment.

BE PATIENT. It is not unusual in Berkeley for people to view and apply for many apartments before getting one. Visiting lots of apartments and filling out many application forms is time-consuming and can become frustrating. Although it sounds self-serving for me to say this: we landlords did not create the rental housing shortage here. If I have only one apartment for rent, and 10 people or groups apply for it; then it is a mathematical certainty that I will have to disappoint 9 of those applicants. There is nothing that I can do about that.

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