Questions to Ask When Relocating to a New City

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Right around this time of year most Chicago landlords are sending out their final lease renewals for the year in preparation for the end of the rental season. Right around this time of year Chicago landlords area also fielding requests from tenants to go in and do the "mandatory annual repainting" that is supposedly required by law.

Newsflash: it is required by law. In New York City. Not in Chicago. Even in NYC it's only required once every three years. According to Chicago law your landlord only has to keep the walls in sound condition and good repair.

I have no idea how this New York only law became something that tenants across the country assume is in effect everywhere, although I have my suspicions as to what occurred. But it never fails that every year at least one renter within a landlord portfolio of decent size will ask for their annual paint job when they get their lease renewal offer. It came in so often at my old job that I had to make an email macro to handle the responses. The important takeaway here is that rental and real estate laws vary wildly from state to state and city to city.

If I were to move to a new city today, there's definitely some laws I would verify in my new location right off the bat. Here's some of them.

    • What utilities are considered life-essential? In Chicago we place a lot of importance on keeping the heat working. In southern states heat is a non-issue but air conditioning is mandatory.
    • Are there restrictions on rent increases? Some areas have rent control. Rent control does not mean the same thing in all of these places.
    • What classes are considered to be protected under fair housing laws? While federal law specifies a small number of protected classes, individual states and cities can define more of them at their discretion.
    • What appliances does a landlord have to provide with the apartment? In some areas the norm is for the landlord to supply all appliances. In others it's expected that tenants bring their own from apartment to apartment.
    • Do agents have to disclose dual agency? Some states require real estate agents to disclose to all parties when they're working both sides of a transaction. Other states do not require this disclosure.
    • How long do landlords have to make repairs? In Chicago a landlord has 72 hours to fix emergencies and 2 weeks for everything else. This is not the case in other parts of the country.
    • How do Section 8 voucher transfers work between these two locations? This one is only for tenants on government subsidized rent, but it is important. Some local housing authorities have their acts together more than others do. Some voucher programs have very long wait lists and it can take some serious wrangling to find the right department to handle interstate transfers.
    • Is my exotic pet legal in my new state? If you have a pet cat you're probably good to bring them along anywhere in the country. Some areas of the country are strict about certain breeds of dog. Other pets may be banned in your new town or forced into quarantine for a certain period after arrival.
    • Is the new town subject to different weather or natural hazards? If you're moving to an earthquake-prone area you might want to give a second thought to bringing big heavy furniture. If you're moving to a humid area your swamp cooler might not work. Are you going to have to suddenly deal with tornadoes or snow or termites?
    • Is there a high presence of radon in the area? Radon is a radioactive gas which can cause cancer. It is a naturally occurring substance but some geological areas are more prone to creating a lot of it. Chicago soil doesn't generate a lot of radon but in some nearby suburbs you have to have radon mitigation gear in every basement.
    • What fees can a landlord legally charge you before moving in? Some states are pretty restrictive on move-in fees and deposits. Massachusetts in particular is quite restrictive, limiting up front charges to first month, last month, a security deposit that can't exceed 1 month's rent and a realistic lock change fee. Other states and cities have no such restrictions.
    • How long do I have to change my address and licenses? If you're going to be bringing a car with you, it's important to check how long you have to transfer your license places, city stickers, pet licenses, driver's licenses, passports and other similar documents. If you wait too long some states will charge you a late fee.
    • Do any city neighborhoods get seasonal surges in traffic? Some Chicago neighborhoods seem quite pleasant throughout most of the year but become absolute nightmares at other times. (Looking at you, Wrigleyville.) Moving to a city during a tourist off-season can lead to some nasty surprises a few months later.
    • How much notice does a landlord have to give you before entering your home? In Chicago it's 2 days. Elsewhere in Illinois it's "a reasonable amount of time." In other areas of the country it could be as little as 24 hours.
    • What are the laws about subleasing and breaking leases? Chicago landlords must permit you to sublease your apartment at no cost to you, but places no limits on lease break fees that a landlord can charge you to get out early without subleasing. Other cities around the country will have different rules for breaking your rental contract.
    • What is the renter/owner ratio? If you're moving to a town where a huge majority of the residents are homeowners you may find yourself facing some class discrimination as a renter, not to mention scant options for housing.

If you're moving to a new city I'd definitely recommend talking with someone in that city who has gone through the relocation process before. Try to make it someone who doesn't have a financial stake in your move. (That means you should talk to someone other than your real estate agent or prospective landlord.) While you're totally allowed to be the new kid in town for a bit, you must remember that in a big city like Chicago a newbie attitude can paint a big target on your back.

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Published by

Kay Cleaves