Excited to head back to school? Think dorm life was worse than high-school detention? You’re probably eager to move into your own apartment and begin your first truly independent living experience. But before you pack your microwave and mini-fridge, take a minute to learn about signing your first rental agreement, and the rights and responsibilities therein.
What is a lease?
A lease is the agreement between you and your landlord to rent an apartment. A lease may be oral or written. Because oral leases often lead to problems, try to get your lease in writing. Once you’ve signed the lease, make sure to get a full, signed copy for yourself.
The University of Indiana’s Student Legal Services has compiled a list of lease clauses to look out for:
- Savings Clause: Makes the tenant liable for rent for the full lease term even if he or she is evicted from the apartment.
- Acceleration Clause: Says that once a tenant breaches the lease, all the rent owed for the remainder of the lease term becomes due immediately.
- Attorney’s Fees Clause: If a landlord hires an attorney, even if it’s just to write a letter to the tenant, or to enforce the lease through a lawsuit, and wins, the tenant will be ordered by the court to pay the landlord’s attorney’s fees.
- Late Fee Clause: If your rent is more than a certain number of days late, additional fees will be charged.
- Rules and Regulations Clause: If the landlord issues rules and regulations after you have signed the lease or during your lease term, they can become part of your lease agreement, which means you are bound by them as much as any other term in the lease.
- Joint and Several Liability Clause: If you rent an apartment with several other tenants, all of you are responsible for each others’ share of the rent.
- Lien Clauses: The worst of them allows the landlord to take your belongings and sell them to satisfy a claim for money, without obtaining a court order first.
- Self Help Eviction or “Lock-Out” Clause: Allows the landlord to gain possession of your home without first obtaining an eviction order from a judge.
- Carpet Cleaning and Repainting Clause: Requires tenants to have the carpet professionally cleaned before moving out, or pay for the entire apartment to be repainted.
- Clauses Which State that the Landlord Does Not Guarantee that the Apartment will be Available and Cleaned for You at the Beginning of Your Lease: Puts the burden on you to get the unauthorized occupants out.
- Cosigner Clauses: Some leases require you to obtain a cosigner. Typically your cosigner will be one of your parents.
- Lawn Mowing and Snow Removal Clauses: Makes the tenant responsible for routine maintenance and/or lawn care and snow removal. Find out what routine maintenance you will be responsible for before you sign.
Inspecting your new apartment
Before moving in, you’ll want to inspect your new apartment, and make sure that you and your landlord agree on the condition of the property before your tenancy. This is important because tenants are typically responsible for paying for any damages to the property beyond normal wear and tear. You’ll want to be able to show that any pre-existing problems with the property were not your fault, so that you don’t have to pay unnecessary damages. Also it’s a good idea to have a reference point for the apartment’s appearance so that you can restore it and get your security deposit back if you eventually decide to move out. When inspecting your apartment, you’ll want to fill out a renter’s inspection worksheet and describe the state and contents of each room, and note any additional observations. Take a disposable or digital camera with you, since pictures can be invaluable for your records.
Complaining to your landlord
Repairs are typically your landlord’s responsibility. If your landlord fails to fulfill his or her duties as stated in your rental or lease agreement, put your complaint in writing, and if possible take pictures of the problem situation. Be sure to keep copies for your records, because if your landlord does not respond to your complaints, you’ll need all this documentation to show that you made an effort to resolve the problem. Typically, your landlord will respond to the first series of complaints. If your landlord does make repairs, thoroughly inspect and document the process to make sure repairs are done properly.
Breaking a lease
While you may have valid reasons for wanting to get out of your lease (for example, you’re moving because of a job, marriage or divorce, or the apartment is severely damaged), breaking a lease is still a breach of contract, so you could be penalized.
Remember, if you have a fixed lease (usually for a year), you’re usually obligated to pay rent for the entire year. This means if your landlord can’t find a replacement tenant immediately, or loses rent because of your move, you’ll probably have to pay the difference. Rather than breaking a lease outright, many tenants choose to sublet the apartment for the time that the no longer wish to leave there until the lease has expired. Before you take any action, check your rental or lease agreement for clauses allowing or preventing you from subletting the rental property. If you sublet your apartment without your landlord’s permission, you could lose your lease so be sure to talk it over with your landlord. Generally, if the reason for the sublet is reasonable (ex: you are going somewhere for the summer but will be back in the fall), landlords will have no problem signing off on a sublet for an approved subtenant.
While some states have laws to protect tenants and landlords from bad subtenants, many do not. It’s your responsibility to find a suitable subtenant and have them sign a sublease agreement. Your landlord, as well as any roommates, will also have to approve of the terms of the sublease agreement. Consider adding a security deposit; it may be the best way to limit your liability. Take pictures of the apartment before you leave as a reference point. For the same reason, you may also wish to fill out a renter’s inspection worksheet.
How you find your subtenant is completely up to you: you can use Craigslist, Facebook, local bulletin boards, or word of mouth. However you find your subtenant, you should do a background or credit check. Complete background checks may not be necessary, but since the lease is still under your name, you are liable for whatever damage or late payments your subtenant makes.
Just remember to check your lease get your landlord’s okay before subletting. You don’t want to come home to an eviction notice!
If you leave the apartment in the state it was when you first moved in (or in otherwise satisfactory condition), your landlord must return your deposit. Since security deposits often amount to more than a month’s rent, you’ll want to make sure to treat the property well so that you get this significant amount of money back when you terminate your tenancy.
To get your security deposit back from your landlord, it’s usually as easy as writing him or her a security deposit refund letter. In the letter, you should give a forwarding address and any other delivery instructions. Protect yourself and your deposit by walking through the apartment with the landlord, and make sure you both agree on the condition of the apartment.