Learning About Renting or Owning a Home

If you have never rented or owned a home, there will probably be many things you will need to learn about before deciding whether renting or owning is the best option for you.  

Learn About Renting

When you rent a home, you pay money every month to the owner of the property, often called the landlord.  The landlord will screen applicants for credit and criminal background, and may deny an application if the background check shows issues that are a problem for the landlord such as a low credit score, previous eviction, money owed to a previous landlord or a criminal background.  

People who rent are often called tenants or residents.  The tenant also is usually responsible for paying for utilities, including gas, electric and sometimes water, sewer and trash removal.  Tenants must sign a lease when they rent, which is a legal document stating the responsibilities of the tenant and the responsibilities of the landlord.  Most leases go for a full year, and can be renewed each year if the tenant wants to continue to live in the apartment.  

Many landlords also have community rules, which are enforced under the lease.  The community rules explain tenant responsibilities in more detail and give additional requirements that tenants must meet.  

Before deciding to rent a home, it is best to visit the rental unit and talk with the landlord about the application process and conditions for living in the community.  Some properties have a no smoking policy, may not allow pets, and may have restrictions on the number of nights a guest can visit.  

Below are links to a You Tube videos with information you may want to consider before renting your first place.

Important things to know before deciding to rent

What is a Lease?

A lease is a legal agreement between the landlord and the tenant (you) that provides information about when your right to live in the unit begins (the lease date), the amount of rent you will pay, the amount of security deposit you will pay, your responsibilities as a tenant, such as paying rent on time, fees for rent being late, care of the unit etc.  The lease also spells out the responsibilities of the landlord, such as maintaining the property, keeping you informed of regular maintenance activities, providing utilities (if this is the case for your unit), etc.  Finally, the lease provides guidelines for renewing the lease, notification of your intent to move and the landlord’s right to pursue eviction if you break the terms of the lease.  Always review the lease before you sign it, and have your HSS or case manager or family review it with you to make sure everyone understands it.  If there are parts of the lease you don’t understand, make sure you get answers to your questions before signing the lease.  

What are Community Rules and How are They Different from a Lease? 

Many communities have “community rules” that expand on the lease requirements by describing lease terms more clearly and by giving additional requirements.  Community rules are generally a lease addendum and therefore have the same legal requirements.  It is important to review the community rules prior to signing the lease.  The types of issues in community rules: are listed below.  Note that all community rules apply no you and to your guests and staff.  Be sure to make your visitors and staff aware of the rules as well.  If a visitor or your staff violate the rules, it could result in you receiving an eviction notice.  Your continued tenancy could be seriously affected by the behavior of your guests and staff.

  1. Maintenance – how to report both emergency and non-emergency maintenance issues and regular maintenance that is the responsibility of the tenant and landlord such as replacing HVAC filters, ceiling fixture light bulbs, smoke detectors etc.
  2. Occupancy – Properties and programs that base rent on household income typically have strict rules about overnight guests.  While rules vary, many apartment communities state that the tenant cannot have an overnight guest for more than 14 nights per year.  This is to ensure that there are no additional long-term occupants whose income should be included in the total household income.  It also ensures that the family is not “under housed”, which means that there are more people living in the unit than the number of bedrooms will permit.  
  3. Pet policy – Communities usually include information on whether pets are allowed and if so, whether there are size and breed restrictions.  Some communities also charge an additional pet deposit and pet rent.
  4. Pest Control – Communities typically have regular pest control services, and tenants must allow the treatments.  The rules also often have a bed bug policy with detailed guidelines on preventing, reporting and controlling these pests.
  5. Emergency Lock-Outs – Rules often provide guidelines for when property management will let someone in their unit if they have lost their keys and procedures for obtaining after hours lock-out services.
  6. Vehicles – Rules usually contain information on tenant and guest parking, and restrictions on types of vehicles, vehicle maintenance and washing.
  7. Trash and bulk trash – Rules include information on where trash disposal is and how to handle disposing of large/bulk items.
  8. Care of the unit – Some community rules provide guidance on cleaning appliances, floors, carpets etc.
  9. Common Area Use – Rules will provide information on when common areas are open, such as community rooms, computer rooms, libraries, etc.  The rules will also provide guidance on acceptable clothing when people are in common areas.  Supervision of children is also addressed in this section and often states that children must be accompanied by an adult.

What is a security deposit?

Landlords are allowed to collect a security deposit when renting a unit.  The security deposit is held in a separate interest-bearing account until the end of your tenancy.  The funds may be used by the landlord to repair any damage caused by the tenant.  If there is damage that meets or exceed the amount of the security deposit, the landlord can keep the entire amount.  If the cost of repairing the damage is less than the security deposit, the landlord will return the remaining funds to you.  If the unit does not have damage beyond normal wear and tear, the landlord will return the deposit and any interest it has earned to you.  

It is important to do a walk-through of the unit before you move in with the landlord or property manager.  Note any damage to the unit and give a list to the landlord so you won’t be charged for this damage when you move out.  If you keep the unit clean and repair any damage that occurs, you have a good chance of getting all of your security deposit back.  After removing your belongings from the unit, be sure to do a walk-through with the landlord or property manager again and be sure that you note any damage they say will need to be repaired at your expense.  

It can be difficult to come up with the money for the security deposit.  Some waivers have “transition services” that will help pay for security deposits, basic household goods and moving costs.  Check with your HSS/case manager to see if you have this benefit.

What is a landlord and what do they do?

 The landlord is the person who owns the property.  The landlord decides the amount of the rent, rules for people to be eligible to rent the unit, the terms of the lease other than those required by local government and whether a tenant has broken the lease and should be evicted. The landlord also decides whether to not to grant a reasonable accommodation or modification to a unit to address the needs of a person with a disability.  

What is a property manager and how are they different from a landlord? 

A property manager works for the landlord and is their “agent”.  The property manager screens applicants just like the landlord would, and works with the tenant to sign the lease.  The property manager is usually at the property every day and makes sure tenants are complying with the terms of the lease and community rules.  The property manager works with tenants on having good relationships with their neighbors.  They also make sure that maintenance fixes things.  If a tenant has broken the terms of the lease or the community rules, the property manager will notify the tenant and help the landlord with the eviction process. 

Who fixes things when they break?

Am I responsible for paying to fix things?  The maintenance staff will fix things in your apartment that belong to the landlord.  For example, if the sink leaks or the refrigerator doesn’t work, the maintenance staff will fix it.  You will be responsible for fixing anything you break due to misuse or that is beyond “normal wear and tear”.  For example, if the window blinds get bent/broken or there are holes in the walls, you will be responsible for paying for new blinds or repairing the hole in the wall. 

Can I move whenever I want to?

You will be required to pay the rent on the unit for the lease period.  If the lease goes for a year, you will need to pay rent for 12 months.  After you have leased for a full lease term, you can sometimes rent on a month-to-month basis.  It’s good to find out about this before you sign your first lease at the property.  

If you decide you want to move before the end of your lease you may be responsible for rent payments even if you aren’t living in the unit.  If you need to leave the unit for medical reasons, you will need to provide medical documentation of the need to leave and Maryland law will limit the number of months you owe rent to 2 months. 

Can I have other people live with me?

If you include other people in your application to the property, they are usually able to live with you.  If you are renting a place with a rent subsidy that is based on your household income, you need to make sure that the income of all people who will live in the unit does not go above the maximum income for the rent subsidy program. 

If you want to add someone to your household after you have signed the lease it is more difficult.  Some landlords will only allow people to be added to the household when a new lease is signed. It’s good to ask this question before you sign the lease.

Can I have overnight guests whenever I want to?

Some landlords restrict the number of nights a guest can spend in your unit.  This can be due to the rent subsidy program or the conditions the landlord agreed to when financing the development of the property.  Other times the landlord will not specify the number of overnights per guest.  This information should be included in the lease or community rules.

Will I be allowed to have a pet?  The pet policy is stated in the lease or community rules.  Sometimes when pets are allowed, the landlord will charge an extra deposit and additional monthly rent.  In addition, the landlord may restrict the size, number and breed of pets you can have.

Will I be allowed to smoke?

The smoking rules will be stated in the lease or community rules.  If the property has a no smoking policy, you will need to go completely off the property to smoke.  If you or your guests smoke in the unit or on the property, it can result in eviction.

Learning About Homeownership

The process of purchasing a home is very different from the renting process.  Most people will need a mortgage loan to be able to buy the home.  To get a mortgage, you will need a good credit score and will also need enough income to pay for the mortgage, taxes, insurance and home maintenance.  Many homes are located in communities with a Home Owner’s Association, and you will need to have enough income to pay the monthly or quarterly dues.  

It’s a good idea to get “pre-qualified” for a mortgage by the lender/bank of your choice.  When you are pre-qualified, the bank tells you the maximum purchase price for a home you can afford.  In addition, if you are pre-qualified, the owners of the home you want to buy will feel more confident in you as a buyer because they know you can afford the home.  

Some of the problems that can come with homeownership include regular maintenance costs (I.e., mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, cleaning the house, shoveling snow, washing the windows and exterior of the home, servicing the heat/air conditioning system, and replacing air filters) and periodic larger maintenance and repair projects (I.e., replacing the roof, painting the exterior wood, cleaning the chimney, replacing the heat/air conditioning system, replacing broken appliances and fixing plumbing leaks).  You will need enough money each year to take care of regular maintenance and to put some aside in savings in case a larger maintenance project needs to be addressed.

Some of the benefits of homeownership include having a stable place to live, the ability to decorate and make changes to the home that meet your needs and desires, the ability to have other people live with you without the rules that may be in place at a rental property, the ability to have other people stay with you for a visit without breaking one of the rental property rules and having an asset that will likely grow in value.  

Basic Decisions to Make About Having Your Own Place

Who will I live with?

When you apply for a rent subsidy waitlist, to live at an apartment or to purchase a home, you will need to know who will be living with you.  Do you want to live alone? Will you live with other family members?  Will you live with friends? Will you want to find a roommate to share costs?  Do you need a caregiver to live with you to help you take care of activities of daily living? This decision will help you know how many bedrooms your new home will need to have.  

Roommate – If you would like to live with a roommate and do not know someone, here are roommate finder websites that may be helpful to you: 

Live-in Caregiver

A live-in caregiver is someone who lives with you to provide medically necessary services in your home.  The types of services the caregiver provides are based on your personal needs, but in general may include help with bathing, dressing, meals, taking medication, supervision for safety, household cleanliness, shopping etc.  A live-in caregiver’s income is not included when you apply for an income-based rent subsidy or apartment.  Also, the caregiver does not have rights of tenancy.  This means that they are not protected by a lease, live in your home at your will and must leave if you ask them to leave.  

A live-in caregiver can be a family member who does not have an obligation to support you.  This includes parents and siblings of adults, cousins, aunts, uncles, and adult children of the person with a disability.  It does not include a spouse, because your spouse is obligated to care for you.

A live-in caregiver can be hard to find.  Some resources for finding a caregiver include provider staff, local college students, ads in local papers and listings on  Here are some strategies for finding and interviewing a potential live-in caregiver:

Finding a caregiver

  1. Write an interesting ad which includes
  2. Interests and hobbies
  3. Pertinent lifestyle factors
  4. Tasks the caregiver will need to do
  5. Hours the caregiver will need to be with you

Interviewing a potential caregiver

  1. Meet in a public place
  2. Bring someone who cares about you to the interview
  3. Get a resume
  4. Get references
  5. Do a criminal background check and a credit check
  6. Write out your questions in advance:
    Ask about work experience, hobbies and interests, lifestyle (morning person or night owl, likes to party or homebody), dietary preferences (vegetarian, vegan), other commitments (college classes, job, significant other, coach/part-time teacher etc.)
    Ask the person with you to take notes
  7. Do not commit to hire them at the interview

It’s very important to have a written agreement with the caregiver that details expectations and requirements.  Make sure you have them sign it!

Where will I live?

Your preference for where you live is also something to think about.  Do you want to live in a city or in a rural area?  Do you want to live near where you work, your family or your faith community?  Do you need to live near public transportation or do you have another source of transportation?  Below are some things to think about when choosing where you want to live.

  1. Urban – An urban area is a city or highly populated area outside of a city.  Urban areas often have a variety of public transportation services, medical facilities, faith centers, shopping areas, restaurants and recreation areas.  Urban areas have a larger number of people living there and may be more crowded and noisy.  There’s usually a lot to do close to home.
  2. Suburbs – Suburban areas are less densely populated than cities and often surround urban areas.  In the suburbs, transportation options may be more limited but there are usually bus lines, taxi’s, Uber, Lyft and other resources.  Shopping, medical facilities, faith centers, restaurants and recreation areas may be farther from your home, and people tend to use a car to get around.  The suburbs are often less populated and quieter.
  3. Near work/family/friends/faith community – People who work often prefer to live close to work due to their transportation needs.  Sometimes people prefer to live near family so they can visit easily and get support from family members when needed.  Some people prefer to live close to their church or synagogue so they can walk to services.
  4. Near transportation/medical facilities – People with disabilities often need to use public transportation to get to work, the store, family, medical appointments etc., and living near public transportation is very important.  If a community has paratransit services, they will provide you with transportation if you live within ¼ mile of a fixed transit route.  Think about your transportation needs and resources when you look for a place to live.

Some people have frequent medical appointments and prefer to live near their doctor or hospital.  This may make transportation to appointments easier.

What Are My Accessibility Needs?

Where you live may be affected by your physical accessibility needs.  Some people need a home that is fully accessible for using a wheelchair.  Others may need a home with no steps but don’t need the accessibility features that someone who uses a wheelchair may need.  Still others may need vision or hearing adaptations in their home.  It’s important to think about your accessibility needs and write them down before you look for an apartment.  Here is a checklist to help you with thinking about your accessibility needs.

What Can I Afford?

Probably one of the main barriers to renting or buying a home for a person with a disability is financial.  Rent is not affordable to people whose main source of income is SSI or SSDI, and most of these individuals need a rent subsidy or financial help from others in order to afford rent a home.  Financial help from others is also often needed by people who are looking to buy a home.  Here are some suggestions for thinking about your financial resources.

Housing Affordability Standard
There is a standard for housing affordability that has been agreed on by the government and housing providers.  Housing is affordable for someone if they pay no more than 30% of their income for rent and utilities combined.  For example, if someone receives the maximum SSI as their only source of income, they are receiving $794 each month. To find out what 30% of $794 would be, multiply $794 x .30. The amount is $238.20.  That is 30% of maximum SSI at this time. Paying more than $238.20 for rent and utilities would not be considered affordable.

Assessing Existing Resources
List the amount of money you have coming in each month and any valuable property or investments you may have (income and assets)

  1. Earned income: Do you have a job?  The money you make is called “earned income”.  
  2. SSI/SSDI/retirement/pension/annuity:Some people have income from Social Security, whether it be SSI, SSDI, survivor benefits or retirement income. Some people may receive a pension from a job they worked or from their parent’s job.  Some people may also receive income from an investment called an “annuity”. 
  3. Other: List any other income you receive on a regular basis.  This may include money you receive monthly from a trust or from family members.  If you receive regular financial assistance from your family, friends or a trust, this is considered income.  It can affect your SSI benefits if your family or friends help you with paying your rent/mortgage, utilities or food.  Gifts your family and friends give you every now and then are not considered income.
  4. Assets: Savings and Investments
  5. ABLE account: Money from your ABLE account can be used to pay for housing expenses such as rent, utilities (gas, electric, water, sewer), maintenance (grass cutting, house cleaning), mortgage, insurance and property taxes etc.  The money in your ABLE account is not considered an asset for housing programs that are available to people with low income.  
  6. Savings account: The money you save at the bank in a savings account is considered an asset.
  7. Investments: This is money you may have in a 401K, IRA, stocks, bonds, etc.
  8. Special Needs Trust: Funds in a special needs trust are usually not considered an asset.  It is important to check with an attorney to see if your special needs trust funds would be an asset.
  9. Rent Subsidy: A rent subsidy is money paid to your landlord on your behalf to pay part of your rent.  Most rent subsidy programs are based on the person’s income.  For example, most rent subsidy programs require the person to pay 30% of their income for rent and utilities, and the program pays the rest of the rent.  If you live with someone else and have a rent subsidy, the program will base the rent on the income of everyone living with you.
  10. Roommate Income: If you have a roommate, the money they contribute to monthly housing costs can make renting a place much more affordable.  If the roommate pays their fair share of room and board costs, their contribution to household costs is not considered income.

Creating a Household Budget
Creating a budget is a great thing to do.  A budget helps you know how much money you receive every month, how much your expenses are and how much money you have left for other things.  You can start to create a budget now, and learn to live within the budget even before you get your own home.  If you can do this, it will show your family and housing providers that you are responsible with your money.

When you create a budget, you figure out how much money you receive every month from your earnings, SSI, SSDI, other sources and family/friends.  Then you list all of the expenses you have – everything from rent to utilities, gym memberships, cable, insurance, transportation costs, food, clothing, gifts for family and friends, etc.  Add up all of your income and expenses separately, then subtract the expenses from your income.  This will tell you how much money you have for other things.

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