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The Minefields in Your Lease
In some markets across the country -- San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., for example -- the renters' market is so hot that properties are snatched up the same day they become available. In fact, many landlords in these markets find themselves negotiating among multiple offers.
In climates like these, propsective tenants often feel pressured to sign on the dotted line. The reality is that if they opt to take home the lease, read it carefully and return to the property the next day, they'll lose the apartment to another tenant. Unfortunately, this pressure to sign and do it quickly means that tenants merely skim the terms of their leases prior to signing them. Contrary to what you believe, all leases are not alike. And while landlords usually aren't out to deceive their tenants, they can and do draw up leases that protect their own interests, which are sometimes at odds with the tenant's. If you don't take the time to review the terms of lease before you sign it, you could very well find yourself in financial distress or even facing eviction because you violated a term that was clearly stated on the lease, but which you failed to read before you signed it.
Another risk facing renters is a lease in which the landlord's terms are written in somewhat vague terms, leaving the door wide open for interpretation. If you have any doubts as to what those terms mean, ask. Your interpretation may be vastly different than the landlord's intent.
Depending upon where you reside, your district may have tenant laws that do a fairly good job of protecting tenants. Other districts aren't quite as strict. It's in your best interests to obtain a copy of your district's tenant laws before you begin your apartment search, or contact an attorney who specializes in real estate issues.
A few terms on your lease of which you should be particularly aware are:
Ask if the apartment is protected by rent control. Even if it is, that doesn't cancel out the possibility of a rent increase upon your lease renewal. Rent control actually consists of two rent levels: a rent ceiling, which is the maximum amount of rent a landlord may obtain from tenants; and the actual rent charge. When your lease is up for renewal, your landlord may raise your rent closer to the rent ceiling. If there's a large discrepancy between the rent charge and the rent ceiling, you should consider the possibility that your landlord will increase your rent significantly when it comes time to renew. So before you sign a lease, ask what the rent ceiling is.
If the landlord is asking for a high security deposit, refer to your district's tenant laws to find the legal maximum for security deposits in your jurisdiction. In many districts, landlords may not ask for more than one month's rent. If a landlord demands six months or even a year's worth of rent up front, he's probably in violation of district laws. As a tenant, one of your few lines of defense is your ability to withhold rent for services not rendered or lease terms to which your landlord didn't abide. Don't sign a lease before asking the landlord what his security deposit is, and make sure that his terms for refunding the deposit are stated in writing on the lease.
This clause states how many people are allowed to live in your apartment during your period of ownership. If you decide to take a roommate, if you marry or have a child, you could violate the clause and give your landlord a reason to evict you.
Your lease should state clearly which utilities are your responsibility and which utilities are your landlord's responsibility.
Many tenants believe erroneously that their landlords are allowed access anytime to their apartments. Although most leases contain clauses which give landlords restricted access to the apartments under their management, no law grants them permission to have their own key and enter anytime. Instead, landlords are given "reasonable access" to your apartment -- in other words, if your unit needs repairs, your landlord should make an appointment with you to enter your unit and conduct those repairs during normal working hours. Forty-eight hours' notice is considered "standard" among landlord/tenant etiquette. This gives you the opportunity to be present when the landlord arrives. In the event of an emergency, however, your landlord may enter your apartment unannounced. Read your lease carefully for how these terms of access are stated.
Breaking your lease.
Most landlords will require 60 days' notice, but make sure you understand the penalties involved if you have to break your lease. In today's job market, transfers are so common that leases are broken constantly. Ask your landlord if he's agreeable to a sublet.
Your lease may contain verbage that alludes to certain "rules" to which all tenants must abide. Make sure the lease also lists those rules in detail on the lease. If the rules aren't listed on the lease, your landlord essentially reserves the right to create rules at his discretion. Another important point: If the landlord verbally revises any of the lease terms, you must get those terms revised on the lease (by crossing off the old term, writing in the new one and having the landlord initial it). If your landlord gave you verbal approval to have pets, and the lease states otherwise, you could find yourself facing a violation later and with no defense. If you're searching for an apartment in a white-hot market, you may have to weigh which terms are most important to you in order to secure the apartment you want. If you're hoping to negotiate the terms of the lease the landlord places in front of you, pick your battles carefully. There will be various clauses you can live with, and ones you feel you must negotiate. Remember that hot markets belong to landlords, and if you present yourself defensively or battle every minor detail of your lease, there's a line of prospective tenants behind you who won't contest those details. Granted, this isn't to say that you should agree to clauses that violate your basic rights as a tenant, but if you're tempted to argue or bargain with the landlord over aesthetic details or enhancements, you may wish to reconsider and determine your priorities.
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