What Your Landlord Hasn't Told You
Each of us know someone with a renting horror story (or else have one of our own), whether it’s the landlord who refuses to repair a bad pipe in the apartment or the security deposit you never got back in full. Here are some anecdotes and pieces of advice that will make your life as a renter easier and less dramatic. However, two points we do not make in this piece are that all landlords are evil (not true) and all renters are innocent (definitely not true).
Read the list before you sign your next lease and feel free to share your own horror stories and advice in the comment section.
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What Start and End Dates Really Mean
Once you and the landlord come to a consensus on the start date for your lease, the landlord has an obligation to make sure the property is ready on that day. If he delays, he must take responsibility for any costs you incur while waiting for the room to be ready. Similarly, the landlord cannot remove you from your home before the last day of your lease unless there is a legitimate cause for eviction (see slide 15 for more information).
Though your lease has an end date, many landlords require you to submit a 30-day notice if you plan to move so they can start showing the apartment. If you don’t, they may bill you for one or more additional months.
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Landlords Discriminate Against Tenants More Often than You Think
Landlords have been known to discriminate against prospective and current tenants based on their skin color, gender or even because of children. In one recent case in Boston, a landlord tried to deny a family because they had a 6-year-old child. Why? The apartment had some lead paint, which is dangerous for children, and the landlord did not want to be forced to remove it. The family was eventually able to settle the case in court.
In most cases, this practice is illegal under federal law. One exception is discrimination based on gender orientation, which isn’t restricted federally, though it is currently forbidden in 17 states. Yet, in some states, as many as one-third of gay people claimed to have experienced landlord discrimination. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is working to change federal policy now.
If you think you’ve been the victim of discrimination, check HUD’s Web site for a step-by-step plan.
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Leases Always Favor the Landlord in Court
Whether you’re signing a lease for a private residence or a business location, always remember that the lease is written to provide as much protection for the landlord in court as possible. Though you can never take home court advantage away from the landlord, there are certain clauses in a standard lease that you can negotiate with the landlord, and others that you may be able to add in to protect yourself. See the next slide.
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Clauses You Can Add or Remove From Your Lease
One of the first things you should look at in the lease is the rent escalation clause (both for commercial and residential properties). “Landlords will usually include an annual increase to your rent in your lease terms. If the landlord insists on keeping the clause, try to get a cap on the amount of each year's increase, and try to exclude a rent increase for the first year,” according to Yahoo Small Business.
Also, before you give your new place a makeover, be sure to specify in your lease that it’s allowed. The Los Angeles Times reports that the landlord may charge you for any unauthorized alterations to the room, unless you have written permission. You may also want to consider bargaining with your landlord to cover these improvements by signing a longer lease.
Here’s another scenario worth thinking through before signing a lease. Let’s say you have a crazy party and burn down your apartment or cause other serious damage making it unlivable. There is a clause in most standard leases that says you will have to continue paying rent even if you can’t live in the room for a month or more. However, according to BizJournal.com, most landlords have their own rental insurance, that ensures they won’t lose money for your rent. So try to get the landlord to remove the clause all together.
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More Clauses You Can Add or Remove From Your Lease
If you’ve had bad experiences in the past with landlords failing to repair serious structural problems in your room, the American Bar Association recommends including a clause that either gives you the right to pay a reduced monthly rent, or to cancel your lease all together.
Beware hidden renewal clauses in the lease. Many landlords try to hook you onto a longer term lease than you would like, by sneaking in renewal clauses for two or four year increments at the end of your initial rental period. On the flip side, don’t sign a lease that does not include the option to renew at the end of your term. In both cases, you should clarify this with your landlord at the lease signing. This is also a good opportunity to discuss and negotiate pre-scheduled rent increases in your contract.
Finally, it’s a good idea to add a clause to the lease specifying what would happen if you can find someone to move into your apartment in the event that you have to move out. This is a good way to avoid being penalized if you have to break a lease. For more about how to break your lease properly, see the next slide.
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How to Break Your Lease
While it’s never an ideal situation to be in, there are times when you can break your lease legally and not incur much of a penalty. USA Today reports that you can bail on the lease if the landlord fails to provide something substantial (for example, fixing a roof that has caved in). However, if you do still have a roof over your head, but you just don’t like it anymore, try to either sublease your place or else offer a lump sum buyout to your landlord. In the best case scenario, if you’re located in a hot spot area, the landlord might actually be happy to get you out of your lease so he can fill it with new tenants at a higher rent.
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The Bait and Switch
When you do sign your lease, be sure to triple check that the apartment number on the form matches the apartment you originally viewed on your visit. There have been multiple cases of renters finding out on day one that they are not living where they thought they were. This also happens on a smaller scale. One renter in Washington found out that the landlord had swapped out a luxury fridge with a tiny one sometime between the lease signing and the move-in date. If this happens to you, gather up all the proof you have and contact a lawyer.
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The Landlord Can't Enter Your Room Without Notice
The landlord must give due notice before entering your room. Though laws do vary state-to-state, there are relatively few reasons for a landlord to enter your apartment. Emergencies, agreed-upon repairs and showing the rental to prospective tenants all make the list. But in most cases, a landlord must provide due notice before entering (due notice can range from an hour to a couple days). Or else, you might find your landlord has broken into your room through a screen door with his assistant in tow. It’s happened before.
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You Are Allowed to Bring in An Extra Roommate
Though landlords often want you to believe otherwise, you are in fact allowed to bring in an extra roommate. Forbes.com reports that federal housing laws prohibit landlords from raising rents on tenants who take in an extra roommate or long-term house guest. According to the article, “there are limits, of course, so you can't pile in your whole extended family. What's typical is two individuals per bedroom, plus one. So, up to three people (including children) can reside in your one-bedroom apartment before the landlord can jack up the rent or issue an eviction notice.”
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The Downside of Rent-Stabilized Apartments
Some people would sell their soul for a rent-stabilized apartment in a nice area. But many landlords would do anything to get rid of tenants paying rent that is substantially lower than market value. In an infamous case that has dragged on for years, one landlord decided to convert his building in the East Village into a home for him and his family. But the tenants who had lived there for years with low rents (and are guaranteed automatic rent renewal under the law) refused to vacate the building, thus starting a battle over the location. In another case, one Brooklyn landlord refused to fix up the shower for an elderly tenant because she paid just $250 for her rent-stabilized room. The landlord currently faces $80,000 in penalties.
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Getting Back Your Security Deposit
Nearly every apartment requires a security deposit, but many fail to give it back in full. The landlord is allowed to take money out of your deposit for a few things, like repairs to serious damage you caused to the room and any rent you still owe. They are not, however, allowed to take your money for small nicks to the room that qualify as “wear and tear.” Still, if you’re worried about the amount of damage you’ve caused to your room, check out these cheap ways to fix it up again. If money is deducted from your deposit, the landlord is required to provide a statement explaining what your money paid for.
Ultimately, your landlord must return your security deposit in a timely fashion. While this varies from state to state, the timeframe is usually 30-60 days. And, technically, you are entitled to any interest that your money earned during the year or more that it was in your landlord’s possession. In most cases, this adds up to a pretty negligible amount, but it’s your money nonetheless, so claim it.
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In order to evict a tenant, the landlord must prove beyond a doubt that the tenant violated an agreement in the lease. Eviction claims are often baseless, but the threat is all the more reason to read your lease carefully when you sign. Forbes.com reports that yearly leaseholders are in a much better position than those who sign a month-by-month lease. The latter can be evicted without cause with only 30 days notice.
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