Housing: Building Stability and Security

Finding a safe, affordable place to call home is essential for building a successful life in the United States. Understanding the rental process, your rights as a tenant, and the path to homeownership will empower you to make smart decisions for your future. Navigating these different stages can feel overwhelming, especially as you adjust to a new culture and financial system.

We’ll guide you through the ins and outs of renting and homeownership. From finding your first apartment and understanding your rights, to exploring the long-term possibilities of owning your own home, you’ll gain the knowledge needed to make informed housing decisions with confidence.

Getting Started

NEW BEGINNINGS: YOUR FIRST 30 DAYS IN THE UNITED STATES

Welcome to Your New Home!

Congratulations on starting a new life in the United States!  In this lesson, we’ll learn about renting a home – a very common way people live here. This information will help you find a safe and comfortable place to stay.

Your Rights as a Renter

  • You have the right to a safe and well-maintained home.
  • Your landlord must fix important things like broken heaters, leaky roofs, and plumbing problems.
  • If you feel something isn’t right, you can find organizations that help renters understand their rights.

Understanding Rental Agreements

  • A rental agreement is like a contract between you and your landlord (the person who owns the home).
  • It says how long you’ll live there, how much rent you’ll pay, and the rules you both need to follow.
  • Read the agreement carefully before you sign!

Getting Ready to Move In

  • Most landlords ask for the first and last month’s rent before you move in. This is called paying “in advance.”
  • You might also need to pay a security deposit. This money protects the landlord if there’s damage when you move out. If you take care of the home, you should get it back.

Rules and Respect

  • Your rental agreement will have rules. These might include things about pets, noise, or changing the apartment.
  • It’s important to follow these rules to have a good relationship with your landlord and neighbors.

Remember: Don’t be afraid to ask questions if something is unclear.  Renting a home can be different from where you came from. Learning the basics now will help you feel settled and secure in your new home!

Do:

  • Take photos of the apartment before moving in. This helps document its condition on your first day.
  • Read your rental contract carefully before signing. Ask questions if anything is unclear.
  • Keep track of your rent payments. If paying in cash, always ask for a receipt.

Don’t:

  • Move into an apartment without a signed contract. This protects both you and the landlord.
  • Let anyone live with you without the landlord’s permission. Your contract likely has rules about this. Short-term visitors are usually okay, but it’s best to check.

Here are some important words you’ll need to know when renting a home:

  • Eviction: When a tenant has to leave their rental home because they broke the rules.
  • Furnished: An apartment that already has things like a bed, couch, and table. These usually cost more to rent.
  • Landlord: The person who owns the place you rent.
  • Late Fee: Extra money you may have to pay if you don’t pay your rent on time.
  • Lease: A contract that says how long you can rent and the rules you must follow.
  • Rent: The money you pay to the landlord each month to live in the apartment.
  • Renters Insurance: Protects your belongings in case of theft, fire, or other damage. Landlords often require you to have it.
  • Security Deposit: Money the landlord holds to cover potential damages. You should get it back when you move out if you leave the apartment in good condition.
  • Tenant: The person who pays to live in a rental home.
  • Utilities: Things like electricity, water, and gas that you need in your home.

1.1 Housing

Test your understanding of housing for your first month in the US

Who typically pays to replace a broker oven?
Who typically pays to clean the windows?
Who typically pays to fix the furnace if it doesn’t work?
What should you do before moving into an apartment?
Which is usually more expensive?
Which of the following will be in a rental contract?
Which situation requires approval from your landlord?
Who typically pays for the bed covers and sheets?
What is in an unfurnished apartment?
What does “security deposit” mean in a rental agreement?

Settling In

SETTLING IN: MONTHS 2-12 IN THE UNITED STATES

As you settle into your new life, you’ll start to learn more about long-term housing. Knowing how repairs work, your rights as a tenant, and how to keep your home safe will give you peace of mind in your new community. Let’s answer some common questions:

Something’s broken in my apartment – what do I do?

It’s important to report any major issues with appliances or building systems (think heaters, plumbing, etc.) to your landlord right away. Always put your request in writing, as this creates a record for both of you. Reporting things promptly protects your comfort and might even prevent the problem from getting worse.

My landlord won’t fix the plumbing – what now?

If you’ve put in a written repair request and your landlord hasn’t responded, take the next step. Send another request by certified mail, so you have proof they received it. You can also contact your state’s attorney general’s office for guidance. It’s important to remember that withholding your rent usually causes more legal problems for you, so it’s best to avoid doing that.

Can my landlord enter my apartment without permission?

In most cases, your landlord needs to give you notice before entering, unless there’s an emergency. However, the specific rules can vary depending on where you live. It’s always best to check your lease agreement for details on this.

How to make my home safe:

Ensuring your home feels safe is important! Make sure your smoke detectors work, keep all exits clear, and always lock doors and windows – even when you’re home. It’s also smart to familiarize yourself with your building’s safety features and any specific guidelines they have.

I need good credit for an apartment – how do I build it?

Many landlords check your credit score before approving a rental application. If you’re new to the US, you might need to start building your credit. A good way to begin is with a “secured credit card” from your bank. Make just one small purchase on it each month and pay it off in full right away. Store credit cards can also help, but only use them if you can pay the balance off immediately. Remember, building good credit takes time, so get started now!

I want to move out early – what are my options?

If you need to move before your lease ends, the best thing to do is talk to your landlord as soon as possible. You might be able to negotiate an early termination fee or find someone to take over your lease. However, remember that you might still be responsible for paying rent until the original lease term ends or a new tenant is found.

How do I get my full security deposit back?

The best way to increase your chances of getting your security deposit back is to leave your apartment in great condition. Before moving out, clean everything thoroughly, repair any damage you might have caused, and take photos to document how you left it. If possible, try to be present for the final walk-through inspection with your landlord.

My landlord and I disagree about the security deposit – what do I do?

If you and your landlord have a disagreement about damages or deductions from your security deposit, try to resolve it directly first. If that doesn’t work, consider reaching out to a mediation service for help. As a last resort, you might need to file a claim in small claims court.

Practical Do’s and Don’ts

These tips will help you avoid common rental problems and have a good relationship with your landlord:

Do:

  • Report maintenance issues promptly: If you notice leaks, electrical problems, or issues with your heating, let your landlord know right away. Put your request in writing to create a record.
  • Ask before making changes: Always get written permission from your landlord before making any changes to the apartment, even if they seem minor.
  • Renew your lease on time: If you plan to stay in your apartment, make sure to review and renew your lease agreement according to the timeline it specifies.

Don’t:

  • Make major changes without permission: Avoid making permanent changes to the apartment without written permission from your landlord. This could cause problems when you move out.
  • Ignore your landlord’s communication: Always try to respond to your landlord’s calls, emails, or notices in a timely manner.
  • Break your lease early: If you need to move out before your lease ends, talk to your landlord as soon as possible. You might still have financial obligations, so it’s important to find a solution together.

Important Words to Know

  • Appliances: Large household machines, such as refrigerators, ovens, washers, and dryers. Your landlord may or may not provide these.
  • Credit Score: A number that shows how well you’ve managed credit in the past. Landlords often check this before renting to you.
  • Lease Violation: Breaking a rule or term agreed upon in your lease agreement. This could have consequences, so it’s important to understand your lease thoroughly.
  • Maintenance: Keeping the apartment and building systems in good working order. Report any maintenance issues to your landlord for repair.
  • Notice Period: The amount of time you need to give your landlord before moving out. This is always stated in your lease agreement.
  • Renters Insurance: Protects your belongings in case of theft, fire, or other damage. Landlords often require tenants to have this coverage.
  • Security Deposit: Money you pay upfront that the landlord holds in case of damage. If you leave the apartment in good condition, you should get this money back after moving out.
  • Sublet or Sublease: When you allow someone else to live in your rented apartment temporarily. You usually need your landlord’s permission to do this.
  • Utilities: Services like electricity, water, and gas that you’ll need to pay for separately from your rent. Be sure to ask your landlord which utilities are included and which you need to set up on your own.

2.1 Housing

Test your understanding of housing during your first year in the US.

Is it okay for your landlord to enter your apartment at any time without letting you know?
What is a “security deposit?”
What should you do if your landlord does not fix a reported plumbing issue quickly?
What is the “notice period” mentioned in a lease?
What is an effective way to handle rental problems?
How can you legally make changes to your rental apartment?
What should you do if something in your apartment, like the furnace or plumbing, breaks?
What can help build a good credit score for apartment applications?
What is one important step to make your home safe?
Why is it important to review and understand your lease agreement before signing it?

Planning Ahead

PLANNING AHEAD: BEYOND YEAR ONE IN THE UNITED STATES

As you build your life in the U.S., buying a home can be a significant next step. It offers stability, a sense of community, and the opportunity to build wealth for your family. This lesson will guide you through the financial, legal, and practical aspects of homeownership, so you can approach this important investment with confidence.

Getting Started With Homeownership

If you’re thinking about buying a home, there are a few key steps to take early on. Start by saving for a down payment, checking your credit score, and figuring out how much you can comfortably afford to spend on a home. It’s also a good idea to get pre-approved for a mortgage – this shows you how much a lender is willing to loan you and helps you shop for homes within your price range.

Understanding Mortgages

A mortgage is a loan that helps you purchase a house. You’ll pay back the loan, plus interest, over time in monthly payments. The higher the interest rate, the more your home will cost overall. Most mortgages last for 30 years, but some people prefer shorter loans to save on interest, even though their monthly payments will be higher.

How much money do you need for a down payment on a house?

The down payment is usually a percentage of the home’s purchase price, often between 5% and 20%. The exact amount can vary depending on the type of mortgage you get, your lender’s specific requirements, and if you qualify for down payment assistance programs in your area.

The Legal Process of Buying a Home

Buying a home involves a few legal steps, including making an offer, signing a purchase agreement, and transferring the property title (or deed) to your name. A real estate agent and, depending on your state, a lawyer or a title company will help guide you through this process.

First-Time Homebuyer Programs

There are often special programs available for first-time homebuyers that offer financial assistance, lower down payment requirements, or helpful educational resources. Check with your local housing authority, city or county housing departments, and local nonprofit housing agencies to see what’s available in your area.

What are closing costs, and how much should I expect to pay?

Closing costs are the fees you’ll pay when you finalize the purchase of your home. These can include appraisal fees, title insurance, loan origination fees, and more. They typically range from 2% to 5% of the home’s purchase price, so it’s important to budget for these in addition to your down payment.

How does my credit score affect my mortgage options?

Your credit score plays a big role in determining if you qualify for a mortgage and the interest rate lenders will offer you. A higher credit score means you look like a less risky borrower, which can lead to better loan terms and lower interest rates. Even with a lower score, you might still qualify for a mortgage, but you could face higher interest rates.

What is the difference between fixed-rate and adjustable-rate mortgages?

A fixed-rate mortgage has an interest rate that stays the same throughout the life of the loan, which means your monthly payments are predictable. An adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) has an interest rate that can change after a set period, which could cause your monthly payments to go up or down. Fixed-rate mortgages offer stability, while ARMs might start with a lower interest rate.

Practical Do’s and Don’ts

These tips will help you navigate the home buying process wisely:

Do:

  • Get a home inspection: A professional home inspection can reveal potential problems that might affect the price or your decision to purchase the home.
  • Shop around for your mortgage: Don’t just go with the first lender you talk to. Compare rates and terms from different banks, credit unions, and mortgage brokers to find the best option for you.
  • Understand all the costs: Buying a home involves more than just a down payment and monthly mortgage. Factor in closing costs, property taxes, insurance, and ongoing maintenance when figuring out what you can truly afford.
  • Think about future value: Consider the neighborhood, local amenities, and the potential for the property to increase (or decrease) in value over time.

Don’t:

  • Skip pre-approval: Getting pre-approved for a mortgage helps you understand your price range and makes you a more serious buyer to sellers.
  • Rush into a decision: Buying a home is a big commitment. Take your time, see multiple properties, and carefully consider if a particular home is the right fit for you.
  • Underestimate your credit score: Your credit score has a big impact on the interest rate you’ll get. Improving your credit before applying for a mortgage can save you a lot of money in the long run.
  • Forget about ongoing costs: Budget for regular expenses like maintenance, utilities, and any HOA fees associated with the property.
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Learning these words will help you navigate the home buying process.

  • Adjustable-Rate Mortgage (ARM): A mortgage with an interest rate that can change periodically, affecting monthly payments.
  • Appraisal: An expert assessment of a property’s market value, usually conducted for the lender.
  • Closing Costs: Fees associated with finalizing your home purchase, including loan origination fees, title insurance, and more.
  • Down Payment: The percentage of the home’s price you pay upfront. The rest is financed with your mortgage.
  • Equity: The difference between what your home is worth and what you owe on your mortgage. Your equity grows as you pay down your loan and if your home’s value increases.
  • Escrow: An account where a portion of your monthly mortgage payment is held to cover costs like property taxes and homeowners insurance.
  • Fixed-Rate Mortgage: A mortgage with a constant interest rate and monthly payments that remain the same for the loan term.
  • Home Inspection: Having a professional check a home for problems before you buy it.
  • Homeowners Insurance: Insurance that covers your home and belongings in case of damage or theft.
  • Mortgage Rate: The interest you pay on your home mortgage loan.
  • Pre-Approval: A lender’s promise to give you a loan before you start your home search.
  • Property Taxes: Money you pay to the local government based on the home’s value.

3.1 Housing

Test your understanding of housing for your life in the US beyond your first year.

How does the length of a mortgage loan typically affect the interest rate?
Which option best describes typical homeowners insurance?
Why is your credit score important when buying a home?
What can first-time homebuyers potentially benefit from?
How is a home’s down payment typically calculated?
If someone verbally offers to sell you a home after you rent it for 10 years, what should you do?
Which of the following is a typical step in the legal process of buying a home?
Why is it important to have a home inspection before buying a home?
What is an appraisal in the home-buying process?
What is the purpose of getting pre-approved for a mortgage?

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