Preparing to Rent

Choosing the Right Landlord

It is expected that landlords will check the background of prospective tenants. It is equally important for tenants to check out the landlord. This research can be quick and usually it's anonymous. Even if you don't have many options for where to rent, you will go in with very important information which can save you lots of money, time, and stress.

Current Tenants

If you only check one source, it should be the current tenants. Visit without the landlord and explain that you are considering renting and that you would like a little information about the landlord and building. Ask questions such as:

  • Does the landlord respond quickly when you report repair/maintenance problems? 
  • 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?
  • Before you moved in, were you promised improvements (such as new carpet)? Was this done? Was it on time?
  • 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 (usually 12 hours) given before the landlord enters the unit?
  • What happens if you pay the rent late? 
  • Are there late fees?
  • Is the landlord pleasant and professional?
  • Why is the current tenant leaving?

If possible, talk to at least two current tenants. Bad reports are a strong reason to keep looking, or to be extra careful about preventing and documenting problems if you move in anyway (take photos before moving in, keep things in writing about repairs (texts/emails), etc.) .

Small Claims Court Records

You can easily find any court cases your landlord might have in Wisconsin through CCAP (Consolidated Court Automation Programs). Make sure you check the name of the landlord or management company that is listed for the address on your city assessor's website (for City of Madison residents, click here) or Access Dane

CCAP On the Internet

The case files will tell who is suing whom, for what, and who won the case. Click on "case details" or "court record events" for details. While CCAP online can be helpful, it may not say why someone was evicted.  If a case has a “stipulated dismissal”, the landlord and tenant worked out an agreement.  A default judgment usually means one side did not show up, usually the defendant.  A judgement of eviction usually only comes after a hearing with a judge, but not always.

CCAP at the Courthouse

For more information, go to the county courthouse in person and ask the clerk to pull files for all cases your potential landlord has been involved in during the last few years. Have the case numbers from CCAP ready to avoid possible fees for looking them up. More information on CCAP is here.

When you check the court records at the courthouse computer (records room), you will find more details about why people are evicted. Look at the section entitled "complaint" to learn why tenants were evicted, but consider 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, or be extra careful renting from them.

NOTE: Landlords will also use CCAP to look up your record of evictions, being sued for money, etc. As of 4/18/18, the laws make it much easier for tenants to remove eviction cases from their CCAP record (as well as removing all other small claims court cases, such as money cases). Wis. Stat. 758.20(2)(a)2017 Wis. Act 317, Sec. 46, Effective 4/18/18. Click here for more information about tenant records and CCAP.

Consumer Protection

Contact the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (online or at 800-422-7128) to ask if any complaints have been filed against the landlord. 

  • You can find out the number of complaints, the dates they were filed, and how they were resolved. 
  • Again, 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 ATCP 134.09(5). Buildings that have been inspected several times recently are probably not being maintained well. You may want to avoid landlords who do not make repairs even after being ordered to do so by the building inspector.

Zoning Records

When you check inspection records, it is a good idea to check zoning: 

  • 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 find out that your future "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, they 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.

Police Records

Police Reports and Police Contacts

  • Call your local police department and ask whether you can get a printout of all police calls to your prospective apartment building.  
  • If you want information specific to one person (landlord) you should ask for police contacts, list the address and date of birth if you have one. 
  • Most police departments have a records office, Madison’s is here. You may have to go to the police department in person and/or pay a small fee. 

Neighborhood Officer

  • There also may be a police officer assigned to the neighborhood you want to move into. 
  • Talk to that officer about the neighborhood/your landlord. 
  • 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; however, some neighborhoods have high police vigilance, which will contribute to the number of police calls for properties within those neighborhoods. 
  • 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. More information on CCAP is available here.

What the Landlord Must Disclose

Landlords have to give applicants certain information prior to accepting any money, so tenants can decide if they are interested. Landlords are also required to write certain important information in the leases.

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. When a tenant signs a lease, the landlord must give them 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. ATCP 134.03(1) Here are some things to think about when reading your lease.

NOTE: With the passage of new laws, 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. It will also tell you what they can do with your property when you move out, or if you are evicted. See Ending a Lease and Property Left Behind for more information. If you have any questions, contact the Tenant Resource Center before signing and we can help you understand the lease and identify possible problems.

Disclosure of Owner/Manager Information

Landlords must give the following information to tenants in writing before or when they enter into a lease:

  • 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 name of 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, if tenants live in a building with more than 4 units, or if the owner does not live on site. ATCP 134.04(1)(b) In Madison, landlords must also disclose the phone number for each person above. MGO 32.08(1), Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(d)1, 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec. 2

New laws make it clear that the landlord can give the tenant copies of the rental agreement and any related documents in an e-mail or text message. Wis. Stats. 704.10(2) & (3), 2017 Wis. Act 317, Sec. 42, Effective 4/18/18.

If the Landlord Fails to Provide This Information

  • Contact the city assessor/treasurer or county register of deeds and find out what information they have available.
  • Look up that person's office or home phone number 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 (DATCP online or at 800-422-7128).

Utility Disclosure Information

Before making a rental agreement or accepting any money from you, the landlord must tell you what utilities you have to pay for in addition to the rent.  Landlords must also tell you if your bills include 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 how they 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 (such as 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 help. A service person may visit your home to see 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. If you live in the MG&E service area in Dane County 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 (ten days to two weeks). If the landlord does not respond, file a complaint with Consumer Protection (DATCP online or 800-422-7128).

If a tenant and their landlord are still unable to come to an agreement, mediation may be helpful. Contact the Housing Mediation Service in Dane County or the Wisconsin Association of Mediators outside of Dane County. If the landlord does not comply, the tenant may sue in Small Claims Court for mandatory double damages plus court costs and reasonable attorney's fees. Wis. Stat. 100.20(5)

Disclosure of Building Code Violations

Before entering into a rental agreement or accepting earnest money, the landlord must tell the tenant about documented, uncorrected building code violations that they have actual knowledge of and which are a significant threat to the prospective tenant's health or safety. ATCP 134.04(2)(a), Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(d)1, 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec. 2, Effective 3/31/12 and 11/1/15.

Before entering into a rental agreement or accepting earnest money, the landlord must also tell the tenant about any conditions affecting habitability which the landlord would know about, or could have known about based on a reasonable inspection. These include any lack of: hot or cold running water, safe electrical system, sewage disposal, heating systems unable to reach 67°F in all living areas in all seasons, and all other likely health or safety hazards. ATCP 134.04(2)(b), MGO 32.08(2)(a), FO 72-108(2)a

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). Violations of Madison's disclosure requirements can carry a fine. If a tenant has repair problems that the landlord refuses to fix, call the building inspector. In Madison, call the City of Madison Building Inspector at 608-266-4551.

Promises to Repair

When a landlord promises to make repairs before you sign your lease/move in, they must put these promises in writing. Consumer Protection can help you if they are not completed on time. For more information, see Repairs (Madison & Fitchburg or Wisconsin) or contact Consumer Protection (DATCP online or at 800-422-7128). 

New laws make it clear that the landlord can make promises to repair in an email or text message. Wis. Stat. 704.10(3), 2017 Wis. Act 317, Sec. 42, Effective 4/18/18.

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, and provide the tenant with a lead hazard information pamphlet. 42 U.S. Code § 4852d . For enforcement, call HUD at (414) 297-1493 or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For more information on lead paint, visit the HUD website, or see our blog post on lead paint

Safe Housing Protections

The following language (a summary of the Safe Housing Act) must be provided in every lease or in an addendum to the lease entered into or renewed after 3/1/14: (Wis. Stat. 704.14, 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec.14)


(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:

  • Sought an injunction barring the person from the premises.
  • 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.

(3) A tenant is advised that this notice is only a summary of the tenant's rights and the specific language of the statutes governs in all instances.”

Note: If there is a clause in the lease prohibiting crime, and this language, quoted above, is not in the lease, then the lease is void and unenforceable. Wis. Stat. 704.44(10) For more information, see our Ending Your Lease page.

Sex Offenders

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. While landlords are not obligated to keep this information themselves, landlords are obligated to disclose any "actual knowledge" they have about a specific person, IF a tenant asks for it. They are not liable for any particular disclosure if they refer a tenant to obtain information about the sex offender registry and persons registered with the registry by contacting the Department of Corrections, with appropriate contact information. Wis. Stat. 704.50

Earnest Money

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 which the tenant pays to the landlord before they sign a lease, except for up to $25 for the actual cost of a credit check) and up to $25 for a background check for tenants applying from out of state. ATCP 134.02(3), Wis. Stat. 704.085(2), 2017 Wis. Act 317, Sec. 41, Effective. 4/18/18.

Earnest money is refundable except for the actual cost of a credit check (credit bureaus charge about $8 - 12 for a report) and a background check for out-of-state applicants. Tenants can avoid the credit check fee (but not the background check 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. MGO 32.02(2)(c) & 32.10(3), Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(b), ATCP 134.05(4) For information about free credit reports see Credit Reports.

NOTE: The regulations in ATCP 134 which govern the return of earnest money have not been updated yet for the new law allowing the landlord to charge out-of-state applicants for background checks. However, 2011 Wis. Act 143 says that ATCP cannot conflict with laws in Wis. Stat. 704, such as this one.

 Here are the three things that a landlord can do with the earnest money:

  • 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)(b)
  • 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.
  • If you are accepted but don't want the apartment, the landlord can deduct for the actual costs of re-renting the apartment (for example, advertising) but they can't charge for their time spent showing or re-renting the apartment. 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

If your landlord won't return your earnest money, you can file a complaint with Consumer Protection (DATCP online or at 800-422-7128)  and/or sue in small claims court for double what they owe plus court costs and reasonable attorney's fees.  Sometimes writing a letter threatening to do those things if the landlord won't return it by a certain deadline can quickly resolve the issue.

Still confused about earnest money? Read our blog post about it!

For more information on what to do when moving into an apartment in the City of Madison, see Moving Out of One Apartment Into Another.