Renting a house 101
April 23, 2010 11:05 AM   Subscribe

How do I rent a house (in Madison, WI)?

I always thought that when we moved out of our university-owned apartment, we'd buy a place. But with the housing market still in disarray, our family is planning to rent a house instead. Resources of the form "You're buying your first house! Here's what you need to know" are common -- but I'm finding very little about renting. What questions should I be asking potential landlords? What should I expect them to be asking me? What are potential pitfalls I might not catch on a cursory walk-through? Are there ways to find possible rental houses that I haven't thought of? (Right now: craigslist, University classified boards, asking friends, cruising around our favorite neighborhoods looking for "for rent" signs.) Madison-specific advice -- or the address of a great house! -- is welcome as well, if you happen to have it.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total)
People renting houses often pay all of the utilities, which may be a shock if you're used to renting an apartment and paying for just electricity, cable, and maybe water. Find out in writing which utilities you'll be responsible for, and ask the landlord what the costs have run in the past. Heating costs in the winter, for instance, can be a real shocker to people who haven't lived in a full-sized house before. Some of my friends also had to pay all the city utility costs, like the fee for garbage pickup and recycling. Somehow I never knew before then that people in houses had to pay for those things, because I had always rented.
posted by vytae at 11:12 AM on April 23, 2010

What questions should I be asking potential landlords? What should I expect them to be asking me? What are potential pitfalls I might not catch on a cursory walk-through?

in addition to the things you mentioned, has classifieds - and an entire section on homes for rent. Generally speaking, you'll find more duplexes and single family homes outside of downtown - I feel they are mostly on the east side, but it's been a while since I've looked. The closer to downtown/campus the house is the more expensive it will be to rent. You'll have more options if you look to surrounding communities (Verona, Fitchberg, etc.)

When I have rented homes in the past, I have been responsible for snow clearing, lawn mowing, and other general maintenance. These things were also set out in the lease. Make sure you are clear on who does what - your landlord will not be pleased to get charged a fine for snow shoveling.

Ask what utilities you will be responsible for (if it's heat, whats the average cost ?) and how you get them ordered. The house should have garbage/recycling bins, and if not, the owner needs to get them (they go with the property, and are available from the city).

ask about parking. On the Isthmus there are various parking rules in effect, and few homes have driveways. If it's a sticker area, there are limits on how many permits you can get.

Traffic on the isthmus sucks during rush hour, and the a bus commute from one end of town to the other is torturous. If you can find a home near work, you will save yourself much aggravation. (ideally, live downtown and commute out, instead of the other way).

If you have other question, memail me. I've lived here for 10 years (Near East!) and am happy to help.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:19 AM on April 23, 2010

Besides lawn mowing and snow removal, make sure you and the landlord are on the same page regarding landscaping. Will the landlord care if you plant some flowers in the front? Or, alternately, will the landlord expect you to keep the bushes trimmed, etc.

Likewise, painting and repair and internal stuff. Like an apartment, the landlord's responsible if the furnace goes out. But for "minor" stuff, what are the expectations?

I rent out two houses, and one of our tenants put in a garage door opener. The negotiated deal was that as part of a lease renewal concession, we bought the device but they paid for installation. They also wanted to paint some of the rooms to their tastes, which was fine with us, with the understanding that they'd have to restore it to something neutral when they moved out.

YMMV greatly depending on the individual landlord.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 11:33 AM on April 23, 2010

Things may have changed, but when I lived in Madison the vast majority of rental units leases started/stopped on the same two days (perhaps May 15 and August 15, IIRC), at least in the neighborhoods around UW. The practice made it tough to secure movers, rental trucks, etc. and limited choices at other times of the year.
posted by carmicha at 12:12 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

No advice on Madison specifically, but in many places, the MLS will list homes for rent along with homes for sale. See if there's an online MLS search website you can access for free.
posted by devinemissk at 12:44 PM on April 23, 2010

On the subject of utilities-- you might already know this, but the MG&E website has a handy tool where you put in an address and they tell you the average gas and electric bill for the last 12 months, if you want a rough estimate of how much you'll be paying next year.
posted by Vibrissa at 3:14 PM on April 23, 2010

You might also want to check out the fora on, specifically the Madison forum - they usually have great advice.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:48 PM on April 24, 2010

Tenant Resource Center - especially the 'Preparing to Rent' section.
They also steered me away from troublesome landlords when I was there (back in the 1900s).
Good luck!
posted by badger_flammable at 8:55 AM on April 26, 2010

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