Best practices & tips for renters

The following is adapted from Solid Ground for Texas renters:

1. Document all communication with your landlord in writing.

Always make repair requests in writing. Keep a copy of your communications with your landlord and proof of mailing. Make sure to get copies of all documents that you sign.

You can prove that the letter was sent and received by sending it “Certified Mail Return Receipt” or asking your landlord to sign and date your copy of the letter. You can also ask a reliable person to witness your delivery of the notice to the landlord.

Document all agreements between you and your landlord and any commitments your landlord makes to you, especially payment arrangements. All agreements should be signed and dated by both you and your landlord. If the landlord will not sign an agreement, confirm the agreement with an email or text message to the landlord and save it.

2. Do not sign anything you don’t understand.

Check out this video from the City of Waco that demonstrates why it’s important to read and understand your lease.

Ask questions if you don’t understand something or ask for the landlord to give you documents in a language you understand.

3. Always get receipts for money you pay to your landlord.

Check out this video from the City of Waco.

Ask the landlord for a receipt for rent and other payments. If you pay rent through an online portal, your banking bill showing the charge should count as a receipt. You can also document payments by sending them certified mail or making a photocopy of the check or money order before you send it to the landlord, and sending it with a letter stating the amount paid.

Whenever possible, pay using money orders or cashier’s checks instead of cash, and make copies of the money order after it’s filled out but before it’s separated from the stub. You can mark checks and money orders “For April [or appropriate month] Rent” and keep a copy. Texas law requires a landlord to give a tenant a rent receipt when the tenant pays the rent by cash.

4. Do not withhold rent even if your landlord is not making repairs.

Even if the needed repairs are for extremely bad conditions, withholding rent will leave renters vulnerable to eviction. For more information on your rights to get repairs made, check out the Repairs page.

5. Document the condition of your unit when you move in and when you move out.

You can help to make sure you get your security deposit back by documenting the unit’s condition when you first move in and when you leave. For more on this, see Before you sign the lease agreement.

Take detailed photographs of the unit’s condition. Make sure that the photos are tagged with the date they were taken. You can put a newspaper with the date in the photo, or a phone screen displaying the date.

Landlords are not required to do move-out inspections, but many will do so. Upon moving out, you should ask the landlord to walk through the unit with you and provide you with a copy of the signed inspection report at the end.

Make sure to give your landlord a forwarding address for yourself or the address of a dependable friend or relative when you move. This way, the landlord has a place to mail you your security deposit or send you an itemized list of charges. You should keep a copy of the notice you give to the landlord for your records.

6. Evictions always require a court process.

Verbal eviction notices are not valid. All eviction notices must be in writing and follow a specific legal process. This process takes multiple days. See the Eviction page for more information.

7. Protect yourself by documenting when you move out of a unit.

Even if you’re on a month-to-month lease, you have to give your landlord at least 30 days notice that you will be moving out. You should give this notice in writing. 

You should make sure to move out of your unit by the end of the month that you gave notice. If you stay even one day past the vacate date, the landlord may be able to  legally charge you for the entire following month’s rent. This depends on the language of the lease.

And, once you are ready to turn over possession of the unit to the landlord, return the key and ask for a receipt for the key.  This will help prevent issues relating to the actual date you vacated the apartment. 

If you are on a long-term lease, you normally cannot end the lease until the term ends. Sometimes you can negotiate this with your landlord or get out of the lease if the landlord breaks the lease, but this can be very difficult and may be done only if your lease permits it or the Texas Property Code permits it. 

8. Landlords can only enforce rules written in the lease or referred to in the lease.

Landlords cannot legally enforce any terms other than the ones written in your lease or written in documents referred to in the lease, like House Rules.

The landlord cannot legally change the terms of the lease during the term of the lease unless you both agree to those changes or you agreed in the lease agreement that the landlord had the right to change certain parts of the lease. See Lease changes for more on this. Once your tenancy becomes month-to-month, your landlord can change the lease by giving you 30 days’ written notice of changes. You can reject the changes and give the landlord 30 days’ written notice that you will move. Some leases give the landlord the right to change certain community or house rules during the tenancy. If the landlord proposes a change in the rules during your tenancy, you should check your lease to see whether the rule change is legally allowed.

Read the lease carefully before you sign. The landlord can enforce all terms written in the contract as long as they don’t contradict any state or local laws.

Because leases are written by landlord associations and landlord attorneys, they favor the landlords’ interests. Make sure you understand the terms of the lease before you sign the contract (see Before you sign the lease agreement).

9. Pay rent first.

Housing loss makes it virtually impossible to maintain stability in other areas of life. Don’t take any chances with your housing! Document every payment and communication with your landlord to protect yourself against housing loss.

10. Advocate better tenant laws.

Texas Housers works to make Texas’ laws fairer to tenants. We advocate several improvements to tenant/landlord laws, including allowing tenants to withhold rent when the landlord refuses to make repairs, creating a right to cure when a tenant is late paying the rent, and banning lockouts. If these issues are important to you, call your legislator, and tell them about it. You can also sign up for the Housers Newsletter to follow our progress. Check out the Advocacy page for other opportunities.

See more on Tips for Renters and The Myths of Renting in Texas from the Austin Tenants Council and Evidence Collection Tips for Renters from Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA).