Most of us have heard some cringe-worthy rental stories, or even experienced a few. Unresponsive landlords, bug problems, or sneaky language can all make your living situation dreadful.
Personally, my last landlord was a nightmare to contact for repairs. Several light fixtures failed on me over the years, so I decided I’d had enough and repaired the faulty fixtures myself. Ironically, my landlord scheduled an inspection the following day, and a dispute broke out over whether my deposit should be docked for my illegal work. At the end of the day, my landlord decided not to dock me when we determined her pattern of neglect had left me no choice.
Avoiding these problematic situations starts with signing effective lease agreements that will secure harmony between tenants and landlords. An ideal relationship needs open communication from the beginning to ensure the landlord will be attentive and the tenants will be respectful.
To help, I’ve compiled this list of eleven tips to better understand your lease and ensure you’ll enjoy your living conditions for the duration of the contract:
1. Know how to read a lease
This might sound basic, but the truth is that learning how to read a lease is a skill all people should have. At the very least, we should all be able to decipher legal language so we can catch a tricky situation before it becomes a legally binding nightmare.
2. Avoid generic agreements
Most lease agreements are based on a similar template, but language can vary between contracts. Generic agreements can spell disaster and may omit special provisions like extensions, move-in and move-out dates, and damage limits. Always make sure the agreement explicitly states the address of the unit, the name of the landlord, contact information for the landlord and maintenance personnel, deposit and rent amounts, and expected utilities.
3. Include a severability clause
A severability clause is your best friend in a lease agreement. This clause protects a renter by keeping the contract intact, even if one part turns out to be illegal or unenforceable. In other words, if you discover something illegal in your agreement after it’s signed, you can get that single piece removed without the rest of the contract falling apart.
4. Understand local and state laws
Laws will vary state to state; what may be legal in one state may not be in another. The two most important documents you should read entirely before renting are your lease and your state’s rental right laws. Make sure the boring legal language covers every detail so that you’re set in the event of a dispute.
5. Look out for illegal clauses
Once you brush up on the laws, look for anything that seems unenforceable. For example, landlords are required to provide maintenance, so any clause that says otherwise should get booted. This should cover the apartment’s state at the end of the lease, too. Mild carpet stains and picture-hanging holes are well within reason, but expecting every inch of the apartment to be brand new is way past OK.
6. Note your late payment penalties
Make sure the landlord acknowledges “grace periods” for late payments so you won’t be stuck with fees in a bad situation. Generally, late fees are enforced as a fee-per-day basis, so watch for any language that references ponying up any extra dough (and make sure it’s still reasonable).
7. Outline utility responsibility
The landlord usually has to pay for gas and electric if the utilities are in his or her name (unless each unit has its own meter). Also, landlords can’t use your security deposit to pay for it, so don’t let that get into your lease.
8. Make house rules clear
House rules aren’t just common courtesy—they’re quite a big deal. It’s your responsibility to understand how much noise you can make (and when you can make it) before signing a lease. Without clear-cut noise and disturbance rules, your landlord can crack down on even the smallest offenses.
9. Check pet provisions
Don’t be surprised to find landlords who are wary of our furry friends. Even if the advertisement stated some pets are allowed, do your due diligence and double-check. Unfortunately, landlords are allowed to charge extra for pet owners over those tenants who don’t own pets. The fees may be negotiable, however, so don’t be afraid to ask.
10. Understand subleasing
Arguably, one of the most important aspects of any leasing agreement is the subleasing clause. Some landlords don’t allow subleasing, while others charge extra fees or expect cuts of the additional rent. Ask questions so this clause is clear to both of you before signing.
11. Know your rights
Here are two basic things you should always keep in mind: Your rent can’t go up until the contract expires, and you can’t be evicted without breaching the contract. At the end of the day, landlords are running a business, and tenants want a peaceful existence. With a little negotiating, both sides should be able to walk away happy.
David Adams is the founder of HomeSuite, an online marketplace for temporary furnished housing that uses technology, data, and customer service to provide the best possible experience for tenants and landlords. Connect with David on Twitter.