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Legal Matters: Lease Basics for Students

Congratulations, you have been accepted to the school of your choice!  Your school is in another state that you have never resided in, and a city that you only experienced when you toured the campus. Now that you have been accepted to your new school, you are going to need a place to live.  Most professional schools do not offer student housing. Those that do have a limited supply.  Chances are certain that you are going to be renting either an apartment or a home for the foreseeable future.  

Renting seems straight forward: you find someone that owns a property and you agree to pay them to live there.  You follow the lease and the rules, and the landlord maintains the property.  In short, that’s how renting is supposed to work. 

But often this isn’t the case. From less than reputable landlords to problematic roommates, what can you do to protect yourself and make sure you have a good rental experience?

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Let’s start with breaking up the rental process in to three simple steps.  Before you sign the lease, during the lease, and moving out or terminating the lease.

Before You Sign the Lease

Know your rights before you look for an apartment or a home to rent

Don’t assume that you know the law.  Just because you believe that first and last month’s rent is standard across the rental industry does not mean that it is.  For example, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania “first and last month’s rent” is a misnomer.  It is just a security deposit.  

Some landlords will take advantage of your lack of knowledge of rental laws, municipal rules and regulations.

Each state, city and county can have different regulations on the books about renters’ rights and landlord’s obligations.  If you are renting for the first time in a new area, before you start looking for a place to stay or sign a lease, get some basic information.  

Where to start?  Try an internet search for the city that you are going to be renting in followed by “rental rules”, such as “Altoona rental rules”.  Chances are, you are going to find either the municipalities own website that handles rental inspections and codes enforcement or an article written by the university or professional school that you are about to attend.  

Take some time a get to know the basic rules that are there to protect you.  In fact, if you are lucky enough to hold acceptances at multiple schools, it is not a bad idea to factor housing costs and tenant rights into your decision. 

Consider getting help

Once you know your new hometown’s rules on rentals, consider getting help from a realtor or local attorney that handles landlord tenant matters.  Either can provide useful information.  Please note, however, that real estate agents are getting some form of commission from the apartment complex for their recommendation.  Don’t hesitate to ask what they are getting out of the deal; many states require such disclosures.  But don’t be afraid to ask regardless.   

If you are approaching an attorney for information about local renting conditions some will be forthright of individuals to avoid.  Others may not.  Check to see if your school has a student legal services department.  It is likely that they will be able to provide you with information of possible places to avoid.

If you chose a real estate agent to help you, inform them of your budget and what your expectations are.  For example, you are probably going to want a place that is quiet rather than the apartment complex known for the best parties.

Inspecting the apartment or house

When you find a suitable location that has the features and amenities you want, make sure you inspect the apartment before you consider signing a lease.

Inspect the apartment or home that you are going to rent.  Make sure to ask if you are being shown the actual apartment you will be getting, or if you are being shown a like or similar apartment. Take photos of the place that you are shown, especially if it is not going to be the apartment that you are actually renting.

What should you look for in your inspection?

  • Keep your eyes open for water, mold or other types of damage.
  • Look under the sink and the stove, in the pantry, and in each closet.  Check to see if these areas are clean and maintained.  
  • While viewing a location ask yourself, can I personally live here?  If smells bother you and the apartment has a funk, don’t hesitate to look elsewhere.  

In short, do some due diligence. Make sure that you are agreeing to what you believe that you are getting.

If you want to move forward with the property, then it will be time to execute a lease agreement.

Signing the Lease

What is a lease?  

In short:

“a lease is a distinct, legally recognized right involving the transfer of possession to the tenant, and a reversionary right in the landlord.  The actual rights that are incident to the lease are defined within the lease agreement between the landlord and tenant and outside the lease agreement by statute, case law, and common law.”

Ronald M. Friedman, PA Landlord – Tenant Law and Practice

So, what does that mean?

A “legally recognizable agreement” means that the agreement is not only recognized by the courts but that it’s recognizable to anyone who reads it.  You are allowed to live in the property (the transfer of possession) and at the end of the term or length of the lease the property goes back to the landlord (the reversionary right).  The rights and obligations of each party are defined by the agreement (the lease) as well as the law (the law in this case being statutes, case law, and common law court rulings). 

You agree to take on the obligation of paying the landlord to stay on the property.  The landlord takes on the obligation of allowing you to stay on the property free from interference (subject to the agreement).  If you fail to pay the landlord, the landlord has the right to remove you from the property (evict).  

Your rights and warranties under the lease

Each state is going to have some form of implied warranties that you get under the lease.  These implied warranties may not be specifically be spelled out in your lease, but the law states that you get them.  For example, in the state of Pennsylvania there is the implied warranty of habitability and the implied warranty of quiet enjoyment.  The Pennsylvania warranty of habitability means that the property should meet basic standards, including functioning water and heat and be free from bugs and vermin. 

You should understand these basic rights and look out for any language that runs contrary to these rights.  Most states will not allow you to waive these rights.  But some states do.  Again, when in doubt, get help in the form of an attorney.

“Intent to rent” agreement

I have personally seen this in the area that I practice law.  A student will find an apartment and the landlord offers them not a lease, but an intent to rent agreement with a surety deposit.  This sounds fine, but these agreements to rent tend to be designed to cause you to lose your deposit if your situation changes.  In Pennsylvania and various other states, agreements to rent are not enforceable as an operation of law.  This has been done to protect renters from landlords abusing their power. In the state of Pennsylvania, this is not a lease, but it does fall under landlord tenant law.

Preparing to sign the lease

After getting information about rental laws in your municipality and finding a legitimate landlord, you may be ready to sign a lease. This may seem basic, but before you sign, you need to understand what you are signing. Read the lease and the disclosures carefully.

If you do not understand a term in the lease, ask for clarification.  You should never be brushed off about a term.  Do not hesitate to ask a lawyer to review the lease, even if you have to pay them for an hour of their time.  This could save you later.

Plain Language

You want a written lease agreement that is in plain language that and is easy to read.  Any lease agreement that you sign (and thus agree to) should be easy for you to read and be free of legal Latin phrases.  In many states, Pennsylvania being one of them, the lease agreement being in plain language is required by law.  But, just because it’s the law doesn’t mean that your landlord is going to follow or even know the law.

Joint and Severable leases

If you are going to be renting with a group of roommates, your lease may contain a provision that makes the lease “joint and severable”.  “Joint and severable” means the landlord may, at their sole discretion, hold ALL renters signed to the lease responsible for unpaid rent or other damages caused to the premises.  If your roommate fails to pay their share of the rent, you will now be responsible for that rent, along with late fees, court costs, and attorney fees should the landlord bring legal action against you and your roommate.  

If you are renting with roommates, when possible, you should avoid joint and severable leases. Instead sign a lease with individual lease responsibilities.  In these cases, should your roommate stop paying their rent, the landlord can only go after the nonpaying roommate.  It is important to note that you may have to give up the choice of who is your roommate in a lease such as these. You will need to weigh your options carefully.

Defined Term

Your lease should have a defined term (the dates that you are renting from).  In many cases, this is going to be an academic year.  In addition to a defined term, the renewal process should be clear.  Do you have to sign a new lease?  Or will the lease automatically extend?  Ultimately you want this spelled out on your lease. Otherwise, you will default to the your State’s and Municipality’s landlord-tenant laws, as well as previous court decisions.

Month-to-Month

Be cautious of Month-to-Month agreements or renewals that go Month-to-Month.  On a month-to-month agreement, you only have to be given one months’ notice that your lease is not being renewed.  Now, while you should be studying, you are frantically looking for a new place.  Further, on month-to-month leases, your rent can be increased each month.  Some State’s and Municipalities may limit these actions; however, many States do not. 

Rental Payments

The lease should clearly state when rent is due.  Further, many landlords are going to have some sort of late fee associated with the failure to pay on time.  Make sure that you avoid the late fees and have a schedule for getting rent to your landlord on time.  

When possible, try and get your rent due on the third of the month.  I have personally seen when the rent is due on the third there is a surprising drop in the number of late fees charged.  This is likely because you are not caught off guard by the short months.  If your landlord requires payment on the first, consider mailing that check on the 25th.

While convenient, avoid renting from landlords that use ACH or automated credit card or auto debit from your bank.  The reasoning for this is in most States, when you have a dispute, you may escrow your payment (i.e., not pay your rent) until the dispute is dealt with.  When a landlord demands you be enrolled in their auto pay system as a condition of the lease, consider looking for another alternative or housing.

Utilities

Your lease should clearly state what utilities you are responsible for (and how you are to pay them). For example, if you are responsible for electricity, the easiest way to pay is to set up an account with the electrical utility and pay them directly.    

Be wary of paying your landlord a “share of the utilities”.  When you are presented with a term such as this, ask more questions.  How is your share going to be determined?  If it is not clear to you, ask before you sign. 

Rental Rules

If your lease has rules, they should be attached with the lease packet.  You should have to initial that you were given the rules.  If the lease says that you were given the rules, and you were not, note that on the lease before signing.

Disclosures

Lead disclosures are required by law for properties before 1978.  You should know when the building was built.  If you do not get the required disclosure and lead pamphlet, you should take note of that failure.

Roommate Contract

When you are leasing with a group of other students, it is not a bad idea to have a roommate contract written out with the basic rules and expectations of your agreement.

Items you may want to include in a roommate contract: 

  • What is each roommate’s share of the rent?
  • When is rent due to the group/or landlord?
  • What is the share of the utilities?
  • Most important – What rights are you giving yourselves to deal with a roommate the fails to pay “their share” of the utilities or fails to pay rent?

Renters Insurance

Renters insurance may be required by your landlord. Even if your landlord does not require insurance, it’s a good idea to carry a policy.  Your landlord is responsible for the physical property of the rental; however, they are not responsible for your personal property in the rental.  

If there was a fire, and the rental unit was damaged, and you lost all of your personal property, you will bear that loss completely.  Your landlord will not be responsible for the amounts lost in your personal property.  Yes, there are examples where a landlord’s extreme negligence resulted in a judgement against the landlord for the loss of personal property. However, those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Often, when we think of property losses in renters’ situations we think of fire.  What we do not think about is theft or windstorms and other extreme weather events that result in you having your personal property lost or damaged.  Rental insurance is there to help guard you against a complete loss in the event of one of these disasters befalling you.

Make sure that you get a renters insurance policy that will cover the risks that are likely.  Items that should be covered include theft, fire, windstorm and hail, lightning, electrical short-circuit damage, explosions, smoke damage, vandalism, and freezing of plumbing.

In addition to renters insurance protecting your personal property, most plans will have some form of liability coverage.  So, if you are sued for damages caused by a toilet overflowing, you are not going to be paying out of your paycheck.

After Signing the Lease

You have signed your lease, now what?  

When you move in, take photos to document the original state of the property. You will use these at the time of lease termination or move out.

Remember to keep your lease in a safe area that you can refer to it when needed.  When possible, scan a copy onto your phone or other computer that backs up to multiple devices.  

Refer to your lease to confirm dates and renewals.  It is likely that if you find an affordable apartment, you will want to stay there more than one year.  Mark on your calendar when you need to inform the landlord that you are going to renew or not going to renew for the next term.

Be a Good Tenant

Pay your rent on time. Don’t be a nuisance to your neighbors. When something needs the landlord’s attention, notify them in a timely manner as prescribed by the lease.  For example, if the landlord provides the number for a maintenance person, call them first if there is a problem, not the landlord.

When you communicate with the landlord always be polite. Where possible, communicate in some form of documented writing, such as email.

When you use emails, it is best to use an account that you own, such as a Gmail, Outlook or other internet email account.  You shouldn’t use your student email or a business email.  The reasoning is, when you leave the school or leave your job, you could lose access to these documented communications.  Thus, it makes sense to claim yourself a personal email account either from Google or Microsoft as a good habit to separate your personal life from your business life. Because you are going to be likely dealing with your landlord over the period of years, rather than days, take a moment to set up a smart folder that will archive any emails from the landlord along with your responses. 

Termination, or the Move Out Process

Again, you need to understand the law of the municipality that is controlling the rental laws of the municipality.

First, you should review your lease. Are there any “special” requirements on the move out, such as shampooing the carpet?  

You should have taken photos when you moved in.  Review those photos to see the original state of the apartment.  Then you should return the apartment back to that state.

Do a walk through with your landlord.  If they state everything looks good, have them sign something to that effect or document it in an email to the landlord immediately. You do not want them sending you a bill later saying there was damage that wasn’t addressed.  

Provide your landlord with a written letter (both by us postal service and email) of your new forwarding address.  Return the keys to the landlord as required by the lease.  If there is no specification, or office, return them by US Postal Service, with some form of tracking to the address of the landlord which should be listed on the lease.

Many states have penalties for your deposit not being returned in a timely manner.  Most of these States require some form of letter providing the landlord with your forwarding address for you to qualify for any additional damages against the landlord for failing to return your security deposit.


“Legal Matters” is an ongoing series of articles about legal issues impacting students.

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William Burnett graduated from University of California, Davis. He obtained a Masters degree in tax law from Golden Gate University and his JD from Washburn University School of Law. He is licensed to practice law in the state of Pennsylvania. William Burnett graduated from University of California, Davis. He obtained a Masters degree in tax law from Golden Gate University and his JD from Wa...