How safe is your rental? 12 things to check (© John Wilkes Studio/Corbis, Jeffrey Coolidge, Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Safety should never be a luxury. But when money's tight, the basics often slip.

With the economy in a tailspin, many homeowners who can't sell their homes are becoming landlords for the first time — with little or no knowledge of safety regulations and code requirements. And existing landlords are traipsing tenants desperate for affordable housing through units with exposed wires in the living rooms and rodent droppings in the hallways.

"The vast majority of landlords are good and prudent people," says Jeff Cronrod, a landlord himself and a board member of the American Apartment Owners Association, a national trade group that assists owners of small and midsize buildings. "But they're not all like that. There are some pretty unsophisticated landlords out there." (Bing: What are your legal rights as a renter?)

Now compound the entire situation with weakened oversight. Across the country, municipalities charged with responding to health and safety complaints find themselves crippled by severe budget cuts.

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"There are routine health and safety and fire inspections, but for the most part, cities are behind. They're very slow to get out there and do it," Cronrod says. Code violations are up, he notes, and cities are unable to respond to tenant complaints as quickly as they previously might have.

"Rarely does a day go by where there isn't some story, somewhere across the country, where someone has been harmed or ripped off," Cronrod says. "It's renter beware."

The upshot is this: No matter where you live or what you pay, it's incumbent upon you to take responsibility for your own safety. Look around, check equipment and ask questions. The hazards need not be glaring to be serious.

"It might be clean and beautiful and in a nice neighborhood but there's no smoke detector or no egress or no hot water," Cronrod says.

Here, then, are 12 key items to check before handing over that first payment:

1. Smoke detectors
This is the most valuable protection you can have — and must have.

Although nearly all housing laws are local, there's one that every jurisdiction agrees on: Owners must provide tenants with working smoke detectors. Missing or damaged detectors should serve as a red flag: What other safety issues might the owner have forgone?

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Detectors should be on ceilings outside the bedrooms, main living area and kitchen. Check to see that they are working and ask when the batteries were replaced.

For more, see these tips and videos at the National Fire Protection Association.

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If you've already moved and the landlord is unresponsive, financial assistance may be available through a local fire department. Many run smoke-detector giveaway programs.

If the unit burns oil, gas or wood, it should also contain a carbon-monoxide detector. About 500 people die every year of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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2. Exits
Every dwelling is susceptible to fire, obviously. Carelessness abounds; accidents happen. But residents of multiunit buildings face an added and elusive danger: They are at the mercy of their neighbors’ stove-top antics.

Whether your apartment is in a basement, attic or even a separate wing 100 feet from the kitchen, make sure that you have at least two ways to get out. A bedroom must have an egress window, too.

When doing a walk-through of an apartment you're considering, become a worrier in chief. Look around and ask, "Would I be able to get out in a fire?"

An average of 270 apartment fires break out each day in this country. Every year, nearly 3,000 people die in home fires and 13,000 are injured, according to the NFPA. Young children and the elderly are most at risk because they have trouble escaping.

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3. Electrical wiring
Electrical fires are scary. Unlike a lit stove or fireplace, to which you may be attentive, an electrical fire can start through no fault of your own and smolder behind a wall for days.

Every year, about 53,000 electrical fires occur in homes in the United States, causing more than 500 deaths, 1,400 injuries and $1.4 billion in property damage, according to the NFPA.

When going through the apartment, check:

  • Are there enough outlets for each a room? "Particularly in older homes, there tends to be one outlet in a room, and it can be easily overburdened," says Christopher Lindsay, director of programs for the Electrical Safety Foundation International, a nonprofit. The excess energy turns into heat and, potentially, fire. "We see a number of those fires every year."
  • Is the owner relying on extension cords or expecting you to? This presents a fire hazard for the same reason. "Extension cords aren't meant as permanent wiring. They're only meant for temporary situations," Lindsay says.
  • Do any of the outlets or switches have broken plate covers? This can pose a risk of shock or electrocution, particularly for children with poking fingers.
  • Do the areas around the outlets appear discolored? Teardrop burn stains above an outlet can indicate faulty wiring.
  • Does the landlord have to reset the breakers often? If so, why? "Breakers that are constantly tripping are usually indicative of a more serious problem," Lindsay says. "And it's something that you can't resolve as a consumer. It's something that needs to be looked at by a licensed electrician." (You may need to ask other residents about this issue.)
  • Flip the light switches. Do you hear any sizzling or popping? Those aren't good signs, and also can indicate serious wiring problems.
  • Do you see any cords jutting out? "We have a zero tolerance for exposed wiring," Lindsay says. That means anywhere — from outlets, walls, ceilings or fixtures. It could indicate improper installation and cause deterioration of the wire's insulation.
  • Do the outlet plates in the bathrooms and kitchen have a red reset button in the middle? Those are ground-fault circuit interrupters, and they are required in new construction in locations near water. GFCIs detect leaking electricity and automatically shut off the circuit, protecting against electrocution.

4. Windows
Do egress windows have break-away latches on the inside? Do ground-level windows or those beside fire escapes have solid locks on the outside? If you have children, do the screens and windows have childproof locks?

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5. Doors and gates
If it's a multiplex, ask if common entries are locked to the public. How are the common areas secured? Does the swimming pool have childproof gates? Has the lock to your individual unit been changed since the previous tenant moved?