Major changes to the website are being done over the weekend of 3/1. Minor changes will be made throughout the week. Before relying on the website information this week, check back to make sure you have the best information available.
Purple bold or strikethrough language indicates changes under SB107 (Wis. Act 108). These apply to leases written after 12/21/11 or events that occur after that date, unless otherwise indicated in your lease.
Orange bold or strikethrough language indicates changes under SB466 (Wis. Act 143). These typically apply to leases written after 3/31/12 or events that occur after that date, unless otherwise indicated in your lease.
Green bold or strikethrough language indicates changes under SB179 (Wis. Act 76). These laws will apply to leases written after 3/1/2014 or events that occur after that date, unless otherwise indicated in your lease.
Have your lease available when calling the Tenant Resource Center so we can help you know what your rights are. Also, depending upon when the violations of Wis. Stat. 704 occur, your ability to sue for double damages, court costs and attorney fees may vary. 2013 Wisconsin Act 76 removed the language about double damages, court costs and reasonable attorney's fees for all matters in Wis. Stat 704 except security deposits and illegal lease clause violations. So, double damages for violations of chapter 704 are only allowed between 3/31/12 and 2/28/14. Double damages remain in place for violations of ATCP 134.
Also available as a PDF (new one coming soon!) for easy printing.
Tenants have a legal right to know the implications of the lease they are going to sign. Informed tenants can take advantage of several resources to screen for the most qualified landlord and should know that landlords are required by law to provide applicants with certain information about themselves and their building before accepting any payments or signing a lease.
Choosing the Right Landlord
It is customary for landlords to check the background of prospective tenants. It is equally important for tenants to check out the landlord. This research can be quick and can save tenants the expense and inconvenience of settling disputes that could have been avoided.
If you only check one resource, it should be the current tenants. You may want to visit without the landlord, explain that you are considering renting and that you would like a little information about the landlord and the building. Many tenants are willing to talk for a few minutes. Ask questions such as:
• Does the landlord respond quickly when repair problems are reported? Were promised improvements (such as new carpet) completed on time?
• What happens if you pay the rent late?
• Is the landlord pleasant and professional?
• Does the landlord keep common areas (yards, laundry rooms, hallways) in good condition? Are there major repair problems in the building? Does the heat work and do the appliances work properly? Are there pests (such as cockroaches, bed bugs or mice)?
• Are there noise or safety problems in the building or the neighborhood?
• Is proper notice given before the landlord enters the unit?
• Why is the current tenant leaving?
If possible, talk to at least two current tenants. Poor reports are strong reasons to keep looking.
Small Claims Court Records
It is easy to check small claims court records. You can find out any court cases your landlord might have in Wisconsin through CCAP. Make sure you check the name of the landlord or management company that is listed for the address on the city assessor's website. Records are available on the CCAP website. The case files will often be brief, but will tell who is suing whom, for what, and who won the case. You can also click on "case details" or "court records" for further information. For additional information you may want to go to the court in person and ask the clerk to pull files for all cases your potential landlord has been involved in during the last few years.
When you check the court records, try to also take into consideration the number of apartments the landlord/management company controls. If you find that the landlord has a disproportionately high number of tenant/landlord cases, or if you are surprised by the reasons tenants are suing them, then it may be wise to look for another apartment.
Call the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection at (800) 422-7128 to ask if any complaints have been filed against the landlord. You can find out the number of complaints which have been filed against the landlord, the dates they were filed, and the way in which the complaints were resolved. Again, remember to consider how many apartments the landlord owns or manages. You can also go to the agency and see the actual complaints.
Building Inspection Records
Many towns and cities in Wisconsin have building inspectors. Most inspectors keep written records every time they inspect an apartment and these records are public. You can ask to see the records for addresses you are considering. Focus on recent records, such as reports within the past five years. The records should show that the inspector has visited the apartment and what repairs the landlord was ordered to make. Check to see how soon the repairs were finished. Also check to make sure it is still the same landlord who owns the building. Remember, retaliation against tenants who contact inspectors is prohibited by statute and by Consumer Protection. Buildings that inspectors have visited several times recently are probably not being maintained well. You can also avoid landlords who do not make repairs even after being ordered to do so by the building inspector.
When you check inspection records it is a good idea to check zoning. In most towns and cities, building and zoning inspectors share the same office. Give the zoning staff the address of the apartment and ask how the building is zoned. You may find that no more than two or three unrelated persons can live in the building, which may come as a shock if you were planning to move in with some friends. You might also find out that your prospective "three-bedroom" apartment only has two legal bedrooms. In the City of Madison, if a co-tenant is forced to vacate by an inspector because of zoning or occupancy limits that were not disclosed to the tenants, some tenants may be able to break the lease without any consequences (MGO 32.08(2)(d)). Call your local building inspector or the Tenant Resource Center for more information.
Call your local police department and ask whether you can get a printout of all police calls to your prospective apartment building. You may have to go to the police department in person and/or pay a small fee. There also may be a police officer assigned to the neighborhood you want to move into. Talk to that officer about the neighborhood. You should also talk to neighbors about their relationship with the police in the neighborhood. It might be a good idea to stay away from any building that has a long record of police calls. If the landlord or manager has a criminal record, you may want to consider that this person will have a key to your home. Just as the landlord probably looked up your conviction record in Wisconsin on CCAP, you might want to do the same for your landlord or property manager.
What the Landlord Must Disclose
Landlords must provide full disclosure of certain information to applicants prior to accepting any money. This is required so tenants can decide if they are interested. Landlords are also required to include written information on leases so tenants know the conditions of the unit and whom to contact if there are problems.
Tenants' Copies of Agreements
Tenants must be allowed to inspect copies of all written agreements and rules before they pay any money to the landlord or make any rental agreement. After a tenant signs a lease, the tenant must receive a copy of the signed lease. If you request one from the landlord and they do not respond, you may make a complaint to Consumer Protection at (800) 422-7128.
Note: With the passage of SB466 it has become extremely important that you read your lease before signing. Just because a landlord puts something in the lease does not mean it is legal. In fact, if the landlord puts certain illegal clauses in a lease, it could make the whole lease invalid. See Ending a Lease for more information. If you have any questions, please call or email the Tenant Resource Center before signing.
Disclosure of Owner/Manager Information
Landlords must give the following information to tenants in writing before or at the time a rental agreement is made:
• Name and address of the person who collects the rent
• Name of the person who manages the building
• Name and address of the repair contact person. The tenant must be able to contact that person easily.
• The owner or other person authorized to accept legal papers and other notices (must be in Wisconsin and must be a street address, not a post office box) ATCP 134.04(1)
Landlords who live in and manage buildings with four or fewer units do not have to provide owner/manager information in writing (It is assumed they will manage the building and accept legal papers.) ATCP 134.04(1)(c) Tenants must be notified of any change in the name or the address of the owner/manager, the maintenance contact person, and the person who accepts legal papers within 10 days of a change. ATCP 134.04(1)(b) In Madison they must also disclose the phone number for each person above. MGO 32.08(1).
If the landlord fails to provide this information:
• Contact the city assessor/treasurer or county register of deeds and find out who owns the property and where that person lives.
• Look up that person's office and home number in the phone book or on the internet in case you need to reach the landlord in an emergency.
• Send any rent or repair requests to the address of the owner, along with a request for any information not disclosed in the rental agreement, and keep dated copies of all your written requests.
• Mail the rent payment at the post office and get a "certificate of mailing" (cheaper and faster than registered mail) or "delivery verification" to verify delivery. If there are no more problems, you may not need future receipts, but keep copies of each payment, the letters you send and any receipts.
• Tenants may also file a complaint with Consumer Protection at (800) 422-7128.
Utility Disclosure Information
Before making a rental agreement or accepting any money from the tenant, the landlord must tell the tenant what utilities are not included in the rent. The landlord must also tell the tenant if the tenant will be paying for any utilities in common areas of the apartment building including hallways, yards, parking lots, and laundry rooms. If the apartments do not have separate utility meters, the landlord must disclose this as well as what method is used to determine how much each renter will pay. ATCP 134.04(3) If the landlord informs the tenant that the tenant will be paying for a shared meter, the tenant could negotiate a fairer arrangement (perhaps paying a portion equal to the number of people in each unit). Have the landlord sign the agreement and make sure to keep a copy for yourself.
If the utility information was not disclosed:
Call the local utility company for assistance. A service person from the utility can visit the unit to determine what services you should pay for.
If you find out you are paying for someone else's utilities, ask the utility company for a copy of previous bills and estimate the amount the landlord should refund to you. The utility company can help with estimates or you can find some information about estimates here.
Tenants who find out they have a shared meter which was not disclosed to them should write a letter to the landlord requesting a refund and give the landlord a deadline (10 days to two weeks). If the landlord does not respond, file a complaint with Consumer Protection.
If you and your landlord are still unable to come to an agreement, mediation may be helpful. For details, call the Housing Mediation Service at (608) 257-2799. If the landlord does not comply, the tenant may sue in Small Claims Court for mandatory double damages plus fees. Wis. Stat. 100.20(5).
Disclosure of Building Code Violations
Before renting the landlord must tell the tenant about uncorrected building code violations that they have actual knowledge of and which present a significant threat to the prospective tenant's health or safety before renting to the tenant. Wis. Stat. 704.07
NOTE: If it is a building code violation, it is probably considered a significant threat to the tenant's health or safety and should be disclosed.
ATCP 134.02 and Madison and Fitchburg General Ordinances also require the landlord to disclose the following conditions to the tenant:
• Lack of hot or cold running water
• Lack of plumbing or sewage disposal facilities in good working order
• Heating facilities that are not in safe working order or are not capable of maintaining a temperature in the dwelling unit of at least 67°F
• Wiring, outlets, fixtures or other parts of the electrical system that are not in safe operating condition
• Lack of electricity to the unit
• Any structural or other conditions in the dwelling unit that are a substantial health and safety hazard.
NOTE: SB 466 (2011 Wis Act 143) only changed the language about required disclosures in Wis. Stats. 704.07. It is unclear how and whether this changed the disclosure requirements in ATCP 134 and how that impacts local ordinances, if at all. However, the items noted above clearly present a threat to the tenant's health or safety and should be disclosed. Otherwise the landlord could be sued for misrepresentation (including double damages, court costs and reasonable attorney fees) under ATCP 134.09(9).
In the City of Madison the landlord must also disclose the tenant's right to abate rent (reduce rent payments to enforce the completion of inspector-mandated repairs), off-street parking requirements, and occupancy standards (how many people can live in an apartment). MGO 32.08(2)(c). Violations of Madison's disclosure requirements can carry a fine. If a tenant in Madison has repair problems that the landlord refuses to fix, call the City of Madison Building Inspector at 266-4551.
NOTE: We believe these extra protections in Madison still apply because they do not conflict with ATCP 134.
Promises to Repair
When a landlord promises to make repairs before you sign your lease/move in, they must put them in writing. Consumer Protection can help you if they are not completed on time. For more information, see the Tenant Resource Center's "Repairs" web page or call Consumer Protection at (800) 422-7128.
Lead Paint Requirements
According to Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a landlord must disclose that a dwelling built or remodeled before 1978 may contain lead paint. Call HUD at (414) 297-1493 or the Tenant Resource Center if you suspect a lead paint problem. More information on lead paint is here.
Safe Housing Protections
The following language must be provided in every lease or in an addendum to the lease entered into or renewed after 3/1/14:
“NOTICE OF DOMESTIC ABUSE PROTECTIONS(1) As provided in section 106.50 (5m) (dm) of the Wisconsin statutes, a tenant has a defense to an eviction action if the tenant can prove that the landlord knew, or should have known, the tenant is a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking and that the eviction action is based on conduct related to domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking committed by either of the following:
(a) A person who was not the tenant's invited guest.
(b) A person who was the tenant's invited guest, but the tenant has done either of the following:
1. Sought an injunction barring the person from the premises.
2. Provided a written statement to the landlord stating that the person will no longer be an invited guest of the tenant and the tenant has not subsequently invited the person to be the tenant's guest.
(2) A tenant who is a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking may have the right to terminate the rental agreement in certain limited situations, as provided in section 704.16 of the Wisconsin statutes. If the tenant has safety concerns, the tenant should contact a local victim service provider or law enforcement agency.
If a tenant requests information about sex offenders in writing, the landlord should inform them to get information from the sex offender registry or the Department of Corrections. Landlords are not obligated to keep or disclose this information themselves.
After disclosing the required information (see previous sections) landlords are allowed to accept "earnest money," sometimes called an application fee, money down or "hold" money. Earnest money includes ALL money (other than the actual cost of a credit check) which the tenant pays to the landlord before they sign a lease. ATCP 134.02(3)
Earnest money is refundable except for the actual cost of a credit check. (Credit bureaus charge about $8 for a report.) Tenants can avoid this fee if they provide their own copy of a credit report less than 30 days old. City of Madison tenants cannot be required to pay the cost of a credit check. ATCP 134.05(4)
After the disclosures, here are the three things that a landlord can do with the earnest money:
1. If the landlord accepts you as a tenant and you sign a lease, the landlord must either return the earnest money, or apply it to the security deposit or your first month's rent. ATCP 134.05(2)
2. If your application is denied, or if you withdraw the application before being accepted/denied (which you should always do in writing), the landlord must return the earnest money by the end of the next business day (unless you gave written permission for them to retain it for up to 21 days). ATCP 134.05(2)(a)3.
3. If you are accepted but don't want the apartment, the landlord can deduct for the actual costs of re-renting the apartment (ex. advertising). They must return the rest of the earnest money to you within three business days (unless you gave written permission to retain it for up to 21 days). ATCP 134.05
For more information on what to do when moving into an apartment, check our webpage on Moving Out of One Apartment Into Another.