This article is part of our 52 week journey through Bill’s latest book, The Graduate’s Guide to Life and Money. Each week, a full excerpt from his book will be presented from beginning to end. To get your copy of his book, visit www.TheGraduatesGuide.com.
Knowing Your Rights as a Tenant
Once you think you have found the ideal apartment, start looking very carefully at the lease contract. How long are you locking yourself in? Some contracts are six months, others are for one year, and some are for 18 months or even two years. You also want to find out how long of a notice you have to give before you leave. In some cases you have to notify your landlord two months before the end of the lease if you want to renew your lease or not. They usually reserve the right to show your apartment to new prospective renters during the final thirty days of your lease. If you don’t know what will happen 12 months from now, you may want to find out if you can rent month to month. Some contracts allow this after you have been in the apartment for one full year, but you still need to give them enough notice (such as 30 or 60 days) before you do finally move out.
What happens if you get transferred or lose your job? What if your dream home becomes available just six months into your 12-month lease? You should find out what the penalties are for breaking your lease. Some contracts try to obligate you for the entire annual rental amount. Most will stipulate that you can break your lease for a fee, but you are still responsible for the rent until another tenant is found. That could be bad if no one else comes along and takes over your lease. Other contracts simply charge you a larger fee, such as one month’s rent, and allow you to break the lease at any time.
Be sure there are not any stipulations you absolutely cannot live with that are in the contract. If you have any pets, make sure they are welcome in your apartment. In many cases you have to pay an additional pet fee, such as $25 extra per month, or an extra $250 pet security deposit, or both. Decide if your pets are really worth all of that (just kidding!). Also, you may not be able to have more than a certain number of visitors, or visitors after a certain hour. I realize this can be more restrictive than a college dorm at times. That’s because the landlord can’t just go to your parents if there are problems (unless they cosign). Just look for anything in the contract that really annoys you. You can try to negotiate. Most landlords use a standard form. They may be willing to make small changes if they feel you are a trustworthy tenant (use the same charm that worked for you in the job interview).
As for specific tenant rights, almost every state has resources available. You can check on the Internet for tenant rights organizations, most of which are non-profits or government sponsored organizations to help you with any landlord disputes. Many of them also offer general guidelines and tips. Since each state has its own set of rules, and many cities also have their own specific guidelines, I won’t try to list them here. In Appendix C, I have listed several websites you can browse for specific tenant rights. Below is a list of some common rights that tend to apply no matter where you live.
- Your landlord must give you “reasonable” notice before entering your apartment. In other words, he can’t just let himself in while you are in the shower. Usually the landlord is required to give 24 hours notice. Be sure to check your lease.
- You cannot be denied housing based on race, color, sex, religion, disability, family status, or national origin. This is federal law (The Fair Housing Act).
- Your dwelling must be habitable and in compliance with local health codes. In other words, your apartment cannot be falling apart or unsanitary. It must also provide adequate heat, electricity and water (assuming you pay your utility bills on time).
- Your landlord must give you an itemized report of any deductions from your security deposits (if any). Normal wear and tear cannot be deducted. The damage from the 300 holes in the wall where your dartboard used to be will be deducted from your security deposit.
- Most states require your deposit be refunded within a reasonable time period (usually 30-45 days after the end of your lease).
- Your landlord must complete repairs and maintenance in a timely fashion (or allow you to pay for the repairs and deduct the amount from your rent).
- Your landlord cannot change your locks or have the utilities shut off or evict you without proper notification. To evict you, your landlord must get a court order.
- You have the right to break your lease if your landlord breaks important aspects of your lease relating to safety, health or necessary repairs.
- Landlords cannot seize your property unless you abandon your property (as defined by law). Failure to pay your rent is not abandonment. There are other legal actions that will be taken against you first (such as an eviction).
Hopefully you will never have to deal with any of these issues. In the unfortunate event your landlord does violate one (or more) of your rights, what do you do? You cannot just move out the next day. If you just leave and take your stuff with you, not only will you not get your security deposit back, but the landlord may actually be able to take legal action against you. On the other hand, it can be prohibitively expensive to take your landlord directly to court. What is the best way to resolve the issue?
The first thing you should do is speak with your landlord directly. Explain your concerns. It’s possible the two of you can work everything out. If you come to some sort of agreement, either get it in writing, or write a letter yourself that details what the two of you agreed on, and send a copy to your landlord. This may help you to avoid any future misunderstandings. If that does not work you should try to contact one of the organizations that specialize in such disputes. You may be able to find an organization that will help you for free. Check out Appendix C (of the printed version of the book) and see if any of the information can help.
Perhaps you feel uncomfortable with your landlord and you want to move out. It is possible you can still work out an agreement to get out of the lease almost immediately, depending on what the issue is. Some landlords will let you break your lease for a fee. If you have serious issues (such as finding your landlord in your bedroom when you return from work), you should immediately contact a tenants rights organization.
Next week we will look at some ways to save money with your apartment.
Bill Pratt is a former credit card executive turned student-advocate. He is the author of Extra Credit: The 7 Things Every College Student Needs to Know About Credit Debt & Ca$h and The Graduate’s Guide to Life and Money. Bill speaks at colleges to educate and entertain students about real-life issues in money, leadership, and success. His goal is to help students succeed personally and financially so they can improve the lives of those around them. You can learn more at www.ExtraCreditBook.com or www.TheGraduatesGuide.com.