Wisconsin renters have many legal rights. In this blog series, we will introduce you to your rights at three stages: before you rent, while you are renting, and after you move out. This first post is about your rights before you rent (and right after you move in). This blog is for general information only and is not intended to give legal advice – if you have questions about your individual situation, please talk to a lawyer.

1. Application Fees

When you apply to rent an apartment or house, the landlord or rental company can charge you up to $25 as a credit check fee. If you have a credit report from the last 30 days, you can present that instead, and the landlord must accept it. If the company runs your credit history, it must give you a copy. If it doesn’t run your credit history, it should return your money.

A landlord who charges any other application fee is technically collecting earnest money. If you are not accepted to rent the apartment, the landlord should return your earnest money. If you do rent the apartment, the money should go towards your security deposit or rent. The rules around earnest money are complicated -if you think you have been charged an unfair fee, contact DATCP or an attorney (see resources below.) If a landlord or company does not follow these rules, you can report them to the state for breaking the rules.

2. What does the landlord have to tell you?

Landlords must maintain their properties in a safe and healthy condition for their tenants. If there are any open code enforcement orders from the City of Milwaukee on a rental property, the landlord must tell you about them before you move in. Also, if there are any conditions in the property that could seriously threaten your health and safety, the landlord must tell you about those conditions before you move in.

The landlord might promise to make repairs to the property to convince you to move in. If you can get that promise in writing, it will be easier to enforce it later.

3. Signing a rental agreement

A rental agreement is a binding contract. You should read it carefully before you sign, and make sure you understand the terms. Here are some things to look out for:

  • What day is rent due? How and where do you pay it?

  • Are there late fees for overdue rent?

  • Which utilities will you pay? Which ones will the landlord pay?

  • Who should you contact if you have problems with the rental unit?

  • Are there any unusual rules for tenants at this property?

4. Protecting your security deposit

To have the best chance of getting your security deposit back, it is a good idea to keep records of the condition of the property when you move in. When you move in, you have the right to inspect the property and notify the landlord of any problems. The easiest way to do this is by turning in a move-in checklist, where you make a note of any problems with the unit. (You can find an example here.) You can keep a copy for yourself. You can also take pictures of the property when you move in. That way, when you move out, you can show how much or how little has changed.

Also, if your landlord charged the last tenant for damages to the property, he must give you a copy of those charges – if you ask for it in writing.

April Hartman and Elizabeth Pierson are attorneys at Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Community Law Project. Their work includes educating renters about their legal rights and representing them in court.

You can contact April and Elizabeth at agh@legalaction.org, emp@legalaction.org, or (414) 278-7722.


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