The idea of "being on your own" is thrilling to most young adults. The days of curfews and schedules finally are replaced with independence. But along with new-found freedom comes the greater responsibility of finding a place to live—including signing a lease, paying rent and bills, taking out the garbage, vacuuming, doing laundry, dusting, scrubbing...
Being a tenant is not always easy—especially when you're taking on new responsibilities—and stories of horrible experiences with landlords are never sparse. But by taking proper steps and knowing your rights and responsibilities, you can pave the way for a pleasant experience.
find the right place
The first step to avoiding a bad landlord is background screening. Janet Portman, attorney and author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide," says many college towns have a housing office on campus that deals with local landlords. She suggests using this office as your first point of reference.
Portman also recommends talking to neighbors and past tenants, and checking online reviews for complaints.
When you find a suitable place, read the lease carefully and understand all details ahead of time. Don't be afraid to ask lots of questions, such as:
- How much will I need to put down for the security deposit?
- When is rent due and how should I pay it?
- Are utilities included?
- Is there a penalty for late payment?
- How long is the lease period?
- Is there an application fee?
- Is parking available? How much does it cost?
- Is storage available? How much?
- Are pets allowed?
- What security features are available?
the tenant's responsibility
Once you've moved in, you're responsible for keeping your living quarters clean, and the landlord can't be held responsible for damage due to your own negligence.
Take your move-in checklist seriously, and note anything that's even a little damaged. Take dated pictures of the unit before you move in. If you don't, your landlord may attempt to charge you for damage you did not cause. When you move out, walk through the unit with your landlord or take another set of pictures.
RentLaw.com gives examples of damage that landlords could charge for: holes in the wall; spots or tears on the carpet; broken windows, hinges, or doors; stains or burn marks; plumbing clogs caused by improper disposal of items; removing or replacing items in the unit; and excessive bathroom mildew. You also can be charged for not properly cleaning the apartment before moving out. This includes vacuuming, defrosting the fridge, cleaning the oven, washing the walls, dusting, and cleaning all sinks, toilets, and tubs.
Normal wear and tear is expected, but the term is vague and can be interpreted in many ways. Protect yourself by using extra caution.
the landlord's responsibility
According to NOLO, landlords must maintain a facility that meets basic living standards, including adequate weatherproofing, available heat, water, and electricity, and sanitary and structurally safe premises.
Report any damage immediately to your landlord and keep any communication in writing, Portman suggests. Clearly articulate the problem and explain why it is in the landlord's best interest to fix it. If your landlord doesn't take action and the problem gets worse, you have a record of your request come move-out time.
But what about repairs that don't necessarily affect safety? A leaky faucet or peeling paint, a broken tile or busted garbage disposal?
Respectable landlords will attend to such requests in a timely manner; whether they are legally required to do so is debatable. If you're not sure, consult your lease, building codes, and state landlord-tenant laws.
your security deposit
Failure to reimburse a security deposit is the largest source of tenant-landlord disputes, says Portman. In most states, landlords have between 14 and 30 days to return your deposit after you move out. In many states, a landlord who deliberately violates the security deposit statute may have to return all of your deposit plus two or three times the amount, in addition to attorney fees and costs.
If your landlord does take deductions for cleaning or repairs, Portman says you're entitled to a statement that explains the purpose and the dollar amount of each deduction. Ask your landlord to be specific. Portman gives an example in her book: "Carpet cleaning by ABC Carpet Cleaners, $160, required by several large grease stains and candle wax embedded in living room rug."
If you don't receive your deposit or an explanation within a reasonable time, Portman suggests starting with a simple phone call to your landlord. Then, follow up with a letter, and, if needed, go to small claims court.
"It's inexpensive, usually $10 to $50, to file a case. You don't need a lawyer, and disputes typically go before a judge within 30 to 60 days," according to Portman. "The trial itself, which consists of both sides explaining what happened from their point of view and presenting any evidence or witnesses, seldom takes more than 15 or 20 minutes."
Portman says the maximum amount you can sue for varies among the states, but it's about $3,000 to $7,500 for small claims.
Before going to court, Portman suggests obtaining a copy of your state's security deposit law and any local ordinances. You also will need evidence such as written documentation, photos, or video.
Being in your own apartment is exciting, and you can likely avoid any disputes by taking proper precautions.