Quick and Dirty Guide to Renting in Madison

Don't Rent Early

Why Wait for Spring? Lots of Reasons

  • Roommate conflicts. The earlier you sign a lease, the more time there is for a falling out with your future roommates. Remember, you'll be living with these people for an entire year, so make sure that you understand joint and several liability.
  • Potential apartment problems. After living in your apartment for a while, you may find major repair problems, such as a bad heating system or a basement that floods in the springtime. If you renew early, you'll be stuck there for a second year. Check out our pages on repairs in Madison & Fitchburg or the rest of Wisconsin.
  • Unknown future plans. You may find a great opportunity for studying abroad or an internship, but if you've already signed a lease, you might have to pay rent in Madison while you are living in another city.
  • Lower rent. Historically, some landlords reduce rent prices as it gets closer to summer, and there will likely be apartments left un-rented in August, although in recent years the vacancy rates have been far below the national average.
  • Once you sign a lease, you're obligated. You can't break a lease without consequences. There is no "3-day grace period," no medical excuse, no school transfer exception. Although the landlord must attempt to re-rent the apartment after you leave, they can charge you for all expenses (not including the cost of showing the apartment) incurred in doing so, plus the rent while the apartment is vacant. Subletting is an option, but you'll still be responsible for the apartment, and it can be hard to find sublessees.

Know Your Landlord and Apartment Before You Rent

Find a good landlord and a good apartment! Even if you think you aren't particular, you probably don't want to spend the winter without heat or a refrigerator, surrounded by mice, or with sewage in your basement. 

  • Current Renters. Stop by and talk to the people who currently live there; if they've had landlord or apartment problems, chances are they'll be glad to talk to you.
  • Consumer Protection. See if any tenants have filed complaints against the landlord. This only takes a minute; just call the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection at (608) 244-4953.
  • Building Inspector. Find out if previous tenants have reported repair problems by calling the Building Inspector at (608) 266-4551.

For more tips, see our page on Preparing to Rent and Moving In and Out in Madison.

Look at the Apartment

The following are some things to look for and questions to ask when viewing apartments. It's always better to check things out yourself whenever possible rather than asking, since the answer you get might not be accurate. Take notes so you won't forget anything.

  • Are there laundry facilities? How much does laundry cost?
  • Is any furniture included? Are the basics there (fridge, stove) and do they work?
  • Is there hot water and good water pressure? Do the tub and sinks drain?
  • Are ceilings or walls stained or cracked? This may indicate defective rain gutters, or a leaking roof or plumbing, which could cause mold or a collapse?
  • Are there working smoke detectors in the building?
  • Are there functioning deadbolt locks on the apartment doors and exterior doors?
  • Are there storm windows and/or screens on the windows? Are there locks?
  • Do the windows have blinds? If not, will the landlord provide them? (Get this in writing, of course!)
  • Are windows secure or loose in the frame? Push very gently to check.
  • Are there roaches? Open cabinets and immediately shine a flashlight, and look for roaches and eggs.
  • Are there bed bugs? Check for rust colored stains in the seams of mattresses or upholstered furniture.
  • Are there mice? Look for droppings in drawers, cabinets, and closets.
  • Do they meet your needs for cable, phone, DSL, or satellite TV?
  • Is there parking? How much does it cost? How is parking enforced?
  • Who is responsible for cleaning the common areas/hallways, shoveling snow, and lawn care?
  • Are any tenants staying? This shows the general satisfaction level with the building/landlord.
  • Are pets allowed? Are there monthly pet fees?
  • Does the furnace work? Even in summer, turn the thermostat up to see if it turns on.
  • Which utilities are included (gas, electricity, water, cable, phone)?
  • If gas or electric aren't included, call MG&E at 252-7222 for the average bill for the apartment (or see their online estimation tool here). It could be hundreds of dollars per month in the winter.

Get all promises to repair in writing. Verbal promises are unenforceable and mean almost nothing, and cosmetic repairs cannot be enforced by Building Inspection. If the landlord agrees to paint, replace carpet, re-glaze the tub, etc., this must be written into the lease, with a specific deadline (e.g. by move-in date). It's best to add that if repairs are not completed satisfactorily by that date, rent will be reduced until the repair is completed. Again, this must be in writing.

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.

"Money Down" or Earnest Money

Many landlords request earnest money before they will review your application. If you put down earnest money, the landlord has 3 days to make a decision or return the money, unless you agree to a longer period of time, but it cannot exceed 21 days. ATCP 134.05(2)(a) Earnest money can be any amount and does not include the credit check fee and up to $25 for a background check on out-of-state applicants. The landlord can only charge actual costs, and it must be from a national company. MGO 32.02(2)(c) & 32.10(3), Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(b) Effective 12/21/11. What happens to the money depends on which of the following four situations you end up in:

  1. If you are accepted and you still want the apartment, the landlord must return the earnest money or apply it to your security deposit or first month's rent. ATCP 134.05(2)(b)
  2. If you are accepted but you don't want the apartment, the landlord has to mitigate the damages (try to re-rent the apartment) but can deduct for the costs (e.g. advertising). If this happens, make sure you ask for receipts for all expenses. You can end up losing all of the earnest money, so don't put anything down unless you are sure you want the apartment! ATCP 134.05(3)
  3. If you withdraw your application before you are accepted or denied, the landlord must return all of your earnest money by the end of the next business day. ATCP 134.05(2)(a)2.
  4. If your application is denied, the landlord must return all earnest money by the end of the next business day. ATCP 134.05(2)(a)1. Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(d)1.a., 2013 Wis. Act 76, Secs. 2 & 4 Effective 3/1/14.

If you feel you were discriminated against, call the Equal Opportunities Commission at (608) 266-4910 or the Fair Housing Center of Greater Madison toll-free at 877-647-FAIR. 

Read the Lease

If you have any questions about your lease, bring it to our office. We can help you understand it and find possible illegal provisions. The following is a list of some common things to watch out for in a lease:

  • The amount of rent, apartment address, or dates of occupancy are not filled in. If these aren't on the lease, your landlord could try to give you a different apartment, raise the rent, or terminate your tenancy with only 28 days' notice.
  • Set cleaning fees. Most court commissioners and judges will want to see proof of costs and usually landlords must provide receipts as proof of any cleaning costs if you go to court. Pre-set fees are a way for them to try to avoid this and potentially overcharge you. Try to strike these fees out of the lease.
  • Fees for carpet cleaning or painting. Landlords can't deduct from your security deposit for routine carpet cleaning or painting unless the damage is beyond normal wear and tear. They also cannot require that you pay for routine carpet cleaning at the end of your lease period. 
  • Responsibility for repairs is placed on you. This is illegal. The landlord is responsible for repairs (Madison & Fitchburg) of the structure and supplied amenities. They may only require you to pay if damages were caused by you or your guest. If your lease contains a clause like this, you may be able to end the lease without penalty. 
  • "Landlord may add or change rules during tenancy." In this case, the landlord may try to change the rules for their benefit. Suddenly you might not be allowed to have porch furniture or do laundry after 8pm. Get this removed from the lease. If you're presented with a rule change during the lease, you don't have to sign it. The landlord cannot unilaterally change the rules in the lease.
  • Separate addenda. Anything you don't sign won't bind. Be careful about these addenda if you do sign them. They often contain provisions which are to the landlord's advantage. Typically, anything in a "NONSTANDARD RENTAL PROVISIONS" form waives your rights as a tenant in Wisconsin.

Usually, an illegal rule in a lease will be unenforceable while the rest of the lease is still valid. However, if your lease has any of the following provisions, you can automatically break your lease with no further obligations to pay rent. These provisions make your lease "void and unenforceable." Wis. Stat. 704.44 Previously, case law was most clear about the provisions regarding legal fees. Recent changes to state law and the Consumer Protection regulations make it more clear that the following provisions make a lease void and unenforceable:


  • Read the lease carefully, and watch out for the above mentioned clauses. (Learn more about Reading Your Lease)
  • Describe needed repairs (Madison & Fitchburg) in writing with a set deadline to repair before you sign the lease.
  • Bring your lease and any addenda to the Tenant Resource Center so we can check it over.
  • Keep a copy of the lease for your own records immediately after you've signed it. ATCP 134.03(1)

Roommate Agreements

Many tenants, even close friends, end up having conflicts. To help avoid disputes about partners moving in, cleaning, subletting, pets, noise, smoking, etc., you and your roommates should seriously consider filling out a roommate agreement. In the case of disagreements over who owes what for bills and rent, a roommate agreement is the best way to show who is responsible if you end up in court.

For a copy of a roommate agreement, stop by our office or click here.

Moving In

Check-In Forms 

When you move in, your landlord is required to give you a check-in sheet and let you know you have seven days to inform them of any problems. ATCP 134.06(1)(a)1, Wis. Stat. 704.08, 2011 Wis. Act 143, Sec. 18, Effective 3/31/12.

Landlords can send all documents and forms related to the security deposit in an email or text message. Wis. Stat. 704.10(2), 2017 Wis. Act 317, Sec. 42, Effective 4/18/18. If you do not receive a check-in form, make your own or use the Tenant Resource Center's Sample. Make a copy of the complete document for yourself and send the original to your landlord within the deadline they give you (must be at least 7 days). If the landlord doesn't follow check-in procedures, it will be difficult for them to prove the initial condition of the apartment when they try to deduct from your security deposit. Tenants should still fill in their own check-in sheets and take photos or video of the initial condition of the apartment.

When filling out the check-in form, be thorough. The landlord cannot charge you for any existing damages that you include on the check-in form.

Dirty Apartment

If the apartment is dirty, either don't clean it and notify your landlord immediately to have it cleaned or negotiate to have the landlord reimburse you for cleaning. Make sure you get a written agreement including a wage per hour or discount in rent.

Common Problems During Tenancy

Repairs and Pests

If something needs fixing, call your landlord. If your landlord doesn't respond and it's an emergency such as no heat, water, or electricity, call the Building Inspector at (608) 266-4551. If it isn't urgent, write a letter and give a deadline for completion. Keep a copy for your records to document your actions. If your landlord still doesn't fix the problem, call the Building Inspector. The inspector will look at your apartment and order your landlord to fix any code violations. If your landlord does not complete the work order by a specified deadline, you could be eligible for rent abatement. Do not start withholding rent on your own or you may be evicted. Wait for notice from the Building Inspector's office and complete the rent abatement process before you deduct from your rent.

2013 Wis. Act 76 includes language about pest control. The language does not make the tenant automatically liable for pest control, but it says that they are responsible if the pests are due to acts or inactions of the tenant. This provision goes into effect for tenancies in effect on 3/1/14. Wis. Stat. 704.07(3)(a), 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec. 12 Effective 3/1/14. Whenever repairs are needed because of a tenant's action or inaction, the landlord can charge a "reasonable hourly rate" for their time, materials, and time spent purchasing or providing materials, supervising their staff or agents, and hiring a third-party contractor. Wis. Stat. 704.07(3)(a), 2017 Wis. Act 317, Secs. 37 & 38, Effective 4/18/18.

Landlord Entry

There are three legal reasons to enter which all require advanced notice: repairs, inspections, and showings (for re-rental or sale.) Emergencies (like a burst pipe) don't require advanced notice if there is a threat of harm to the property. Now, unless the lease says otherwise, Madison landlords only have to give a 12 hour notice to enter for repairs and inspections. MGO 32.05(1)(d), Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(d)1., 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec. 2 Effective 3/1/14. They only have to give a 12 hour notice to enter for showings for re-rentals or sales. MGO 32.05(1)(e),Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(a)4. Effective 12/21/11.

If your landlord enters without notice, you should write them a letter citing the dates of illegal entry as well as the law prohibiting it (MGO 32.05(1)(d) or ATCP 134.09(2)). If it continues call (608) 224-4953 to file a complaint with Consumer Protection, which will send a written warning to the landlord. You can also call the police non-emergency number if you're home when the landlord tries to enter illegally: (608) 255-2345. They could be ticketed for up to $600.


It is unlawful for any landlord to retaliate against a tenant who exercises their rights. A landlord cannot issue an eviction notice, increase rent, decrease services, or threaten not to rent or renew a lease just because you asked for repairs or called the Building Inspector. If you think your landlord is retaliating, contact the Tenant Resource Center for more information.

NOTE: It's important that you keep a log of all the dates and details of any problems such as repairs, harassment, or landlord entry. This way, if you ever end up in court or need to cite dates, you'll have clear documentation and won't have to try to remember dates and times.

Security Deposits

A security deposit is the money you give the landlord in case the apartment is damaged during your tenancy or to cover unpaid rent.

The landlord must return your security deposit or a written, itemized list of deductions within 21 days from the date your lease ends or the date you notify the landlord in writing that you have moved out. As of 3/31/12, if you moved out early, they can return it 21 days from the date that someone new enters into a lease or your lease ends, whichever is sooner. This provision also goes into effect for eviction actions started after 3/1/14. Wis. Stats. 704.28(4)(b) & (c), 2013 Wis. Act 76, Secs. 21, 22 & 23 If they don't, you could sue for up to double damages plus court costs and attorney's fees. MGO 32.07(10), Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(b) If your landlord does deduct from your security deposit, ask for receipts of all the deductions to ensure that they are deducting fairly. You may also request a copy of the deductions made from the previous tenants' security deposits.