A few tips I like to give in this day of renting are:
1. Research the property address to ensure the homeowner is not in any eminent foreclosure danger. You can’t guarantee the homeowner won’t go into default, but if the tax record shows they are behind on their mortgage, or purchased the home with a loan between 2005-2008, that’s certainly a red flag.
2. Check sites such as Craig’s List to see what the “going rates” are so that you know you are looking in an area affordable for you, and you have an idea of what true rent should be– giving you a tool for negotiating.
3. Make sure everything is in writing – If it isn’t written down, it never happened. All of the terms of the lease must be in writing for your protection, your deposit, first and last, walk thru, release of deposit at the end of the lease, etc. Get it all in writing!
4. Maintenance and repairs – Get this in writing as well, showing how your landlord will deal with repairs and what repairs they will/will not make.
A book I love to refer to tenants and tenants to be is California Tenants – A Guide To Residential Tenants’ & Landlords’ Rights & Responsibilities (http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/landlordbook/catenant.pdf)