Student Guide 2010: Be careful what you sign


A renter’s guide to negotiating a lease
So, you’ve paid your dues in the dorms and are ready to move away from the tyranny of RAs and floor monitors and into your first place. There’s a big, enticing world of rental properties out there, and Craigslist has literally hundreds of apartments posted each day for your perusal. You might be feeling like a kid in a candy store. And you’re right to feel that way.

But you have to be careful.

Getting your own place requires signing an extremely complicated legal contract called a lease, and the terms of the lease can make or break any sort of conflict or disagreement that may come up with your landlord in the future.

“There’s a natural inequity in landlord-tenant law,” says Bruce Sarbaugh, legal advisor for the University of Colorado’s Off-Campus Student Services office. “The landlords have a much stronger negotiating position. So you take that natural inequity and impose it on the freshmen who are coming out of the door that are firsttime renters and don’t know any better, all they want to do is find a place to live. … If they do have a problem, then it falls back to the lease.”

So naturally, you want to make sure that your lease is as fair as possible. The great thing about legal contracts is that everything is negotiable, including rent. This should be the foremost lesson in your mind when you are signing a lease. Ever looked at a used car and heard the salesman say you’d better act quickly, because five other people are interested? Some landlords do that too. It’s called creating false demand, and it’s a classic sales technique. Don’t fall for it. If you think the landlord is asking for too much rent, don’t be afraid to say you’ll only sign the lease if the price comes down.

What else should you be on the lookout for? Nearly every lease includes some sort of language about repairs. This clause defines who is responsible for the cost of repairs if something in the apartment breaks. The fairest clause says that the landlord is responsible for all repairs to the place’s amenities unless caused by the tenant’s (your) negligence. So the landlord would be on the hook if your dishwasher starts leaking or your fridge stops working, but you and your roommates would be responsible if, say, you put a dent in a doorway while moving a couch, or your friend kicks a hole in the wall after losing a game of beer pong.

Make sure there is a repair clause in the lease, regardless of the exact wording. Some leases, Sarbaugh says, will include language making the tenant responsible for all repairs. Avoid that at all costs. You don’t want to be paying for a water heater that will last 20 years if you’re only living there for 12 months. So be careful.

To minimize any potential trouble, it’s a good idea to document the condition of the residence at the beginning of your lease. Use a digital camera to photograph every room of the house/apartment, paying careful attention to scratches, dents, paint and any other markings. Save the pictures to a folder in your computer and forget about them until it’s time to move out. Having photographic evidence will prove invaluable should a dispute arise. Don’t be afraid to fight back if your landlord does something you consider unfair.

“It takes an informed tenant to really exercise their rights,” Sarbaugh says. “And some of that means you may have to go to small claims court. A lot of students, I think, think it’s not worth their time. I’ll go ahead and pay the $20 because I didn’t change a light bulb — light bulbs aren’t $20 — but students don’t want to deal with it, and believe me, landlords know that.”

When signing a lease, the aphorism “get it in writing” will prove invaluable. One of Sarbaugh’s favorite sayings is that “a verbal agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on.” Getting it in writing is as simple as crossing out a part of the lease (in pen, of course), writing something else in the margins and getting the landlord to initial the change.

For example, say the lease includes steep late fees if you don’t pay your rent right on the first of the month. These fees concern you, but the landlord assures you that he never charges late fees until the fifth of the month. Insist that he put that in writing — that late fees won’t apply until after the fifth of the month. If he doesn’t, that should raise a red flag. Trust what’s in the lease, not what comes out of the landlord’s mouth.

Another concern is privacy. Say you’re sitting on the couch the day after hosting a raging party, relaxing with your favorite herbal remedy and watching TV before you clean up. All of a sudden your landlord, whose opinion on herbal supplements differs from yours, unlocks your door and enters, unannounced. This scenario could have been prevented by including a privacy clause in your lease, which says that the landlord must give you notice before entering the premises of the home.

But often times, Sarbaugh says, leases will vaguely define the notice to be “reasonable,” and that means different things to different people. So cross it out and write “24 hours” in the margins and get your landlord to initial it.

When you’re reading your lease, Sarbaugh recommends being on the lookout for “unenforceable penalties.”

“When you violate a lease, that’s a breach of contract; the general principles are that the non-breaching party, in this case the landlord, is entitled to recover any monetary damages you cause because you breached the lease,” Sarbaugh says.

Say your lease doesn’t allow pets, even visiting ones, and includes a $500 penalty for having a visiting pet on the property. Your friend brings a dog over and you two share a beer on the front porch. The landlord walks by, sees the dog on the porch, and fines you $500.

“The dog didn’t go inside the property, so there’s no monetary loss the landlord has suffered, so that’s what would be called an unenforceable penalty, because the landlord is trying to penalize you for breaking the lease as opposed to trying to get back what would make them whole,” Sarbaugh says.

Last but not least, Sarbaugh recommends getting renter’s insurance. Renter’s insurance will cover any damages to your property (or the landlord’s) in case of many different types of accidents. Ask your parents first, because their homeowner’s insurance might cover you as well.

Be a respectful and informed tenant and you won’t run into any issues. And keep in mind that the folks at the Off-Campus Student Services (OCSS) office can help you look over your lease and offer many other services, and the folks at Legal Services will assist you with any legal trouble you may encounter. You can find the OCSS office in UMC 313, and you can reach them with any questions you might have at 303-492-7053.


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