Where can tenants turn for help? (© Thinkstock/Getty Images)

© Thinkstock/Getty Images

It's safe to say that renting may be the most massive unregulated industry we have in this country.

More than a third of Americans — 34% and rising in 2011 — lease their home from either a private landlord or an apartment company. With average rent hovering around $1,000 a month, that's $460 billion turned over every year in rent — about what the entire grocery industry grosses annually. (Bing: What's the average rent in your area?)

But while supermarkets are subject to periodic government inspections to check things such as accurate price scans and safe food handling, landlords in all but a few locales need never fear a random visit from a housing inspector. (See "How landlords get away with it.")

As Steven R. Kellman, founder of the Tenants Legal Center in San Diego, likes to say, good laws to protect tenants exist, "but they're not going to jump up off the page." It's up to tenants to learn their rights and take action. He also likes to say that all you need to be a landlord is "a deed and a pulse," which highlights the absence of required legal training to manage a rental.

It's a high-stakes game played without a referee in sight. But we're here to try to be helpful. So here it is: Tenants can find answers and get help if they know where to look and how to frame the question.

(Tenants: We're putting together a story on scams targeting tenants in foreclosed buildings. Have you received any solicitations from individuals or groups saying they can prevent or delay your eviction for a fee? Please send an email to msnrealestate@microsoft.com.)

"A lot of people make mistakes," Kellman says. "They'll go on the Internet and they won't get information that's specific to their jurisdiction."

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The Internet is the still the best place to start. But it's a great place to be misled, as well. The search can be particularly tricky because aside from the new federal law protecting tenants in foreclosure, tenant laws vary by state, county and city.

You can get an idea of what protections tenants typically have in articles such as these from MSN Real Estate: "15 common renter's rights" and "Don't fall for these 10 crazy landlord claims." But when it comes to the specifics — your situation, your lease, your town, your state — you'll need to do some local research and eventually make a local call.

To find the laws for your area, start with government sites. Do a Web search for "housing authority," "consumer protection" or "attorney general" in your state. Check at the county and city level, too. Don't be afraid to call if you can't find information for tenants on those sites.

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University housing offices provide information online, as do some tenant lawyers, as with this blog for San Francisco tenants.

But if you need something done, call a lawyer, tenant union, legal aid group or neighborhood legal-services organization, Kellman says. See if the court clerk or bar association knows some lawyers who offer pro bono assistance.

"You can get information of a general nature through books, the Internet, pamphlets," Kellman says. "But the real value is if a skilled person can take your situation and apply it to the law in a way that benefits you."

Before you call, 3 questions to answer
1. What is your question, exactly? This is not as easy or as obvious as it sounds.

Janet Portman, a lawyer who writes a weekly column for Inman News, says many of the reader "questions" she receives could more fairly be described as emotional rants. This is understandable, she says, but it's not helpful. Neither is the one question that invariably follows such a screed: "What should I do?"

"Good lawyers don't tell people what to do," she says. They ask the client what he wants to do.

So what is it, exactly, that you want? Do you want the landlord to stop showing your unit to would-be buyers? Do you want the smoke from other tenants to stop wafting into your unit? Turn each gripe into a goal and then a question. For example, in town X, can a landlord enter five times in one day, with notice, if my lease says Y?

"They need to dispassionately learn their rights and their obligations," Portman says.

2. Have you notified the landlord in writing? Bill Deegan, executive director of the American Tenants Association, a nonprofit association for renters, says he gets an average of 100 calls a week from renters in search of answers, often about security deposits or maintenance issues. Nine out of 10 of his callers can be dispatched with the following question: "Did you tell the landlord?"

"No," the tenant will say.

"Well, do it," Deegan says. "Open the lines of communication. It's really a communication business. Write a letter."

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It may seem obvious, but emotions can easily bully common sense. I'm supposed to sit down and write a calm, polite letter requesting my security deposit when he's already late and I'm fuming? Yes.

In fact, it's hard to think of a scenario in which the tenant's first step isn't to contact the landlord. Certainly, the legal-aid representative will ask for evidence that the landlord was notified and had an opportunity to correct the situation.

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Contact the landlord in writing. Be polite and to the point. Don't indulge in emotional ramblings. You just want to detail the problem and request that the landlord address it. Close with a statement that you expect to hear back within a certain time frame — a few hours if it's a serious safety issue such as a broken heater. If the landlord doesn't resolve the issue, write again and state that you will be contacting housing authorities.

3. Did you reread your lease? Although a lease cannot supersede the law, certain situations will hinge on the lease agreement, and the lawyer will ask you for details.