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Off Campus Housing: Things You Should Know Before Signing A Lease

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Living off-campus is a housing option for many students. Signing a lease may be the first legal agreement college students enter into. A lease or rental agreement is a contract that binds the landlord and tenant. A lease contains all of the terms and conditions a tenant has to follow. Carefully read every word of the document, noting any stipulations. Make sure you understand it well to avoid problems later. To be doubly sure, you can have someone else read the agreement before signing it. After you’ve read the contract, it is wise to ask the landlord any other questions you may have so that everything is clear before you commit. Sometimes lease agreements are straight to the point and may not include many other details. Make sure you know the following before signing a lease:

  • When is rent due? How should it be paid?
  • Do you charge a penalty for late payment? When does it apply and how much is it?
  • How long is the lease? Is there a penalty if you leave early?
  • Do you charge an application fee?
  • What utilities are included in the rent, if any?
  • Is there a parking fee? Is it included in the rent?
  • How many units are there in the building?
  • What security features are available in the rental unit?
  • Are pets allowed? (if you have one) Is there a pet deposit?
  • What is the security deposit? How and when do you get it back?

Other things that are good to know include:

  • The distance between the unit and school
  • Distance from a bus line or other form of public transportation
  • Are there noise rules?
  • Are laundry facilities available? If so, what is the cost of using them?
  • Is storage available?
  • How often is the building exterminated?
  • Can you paint?
  • Can you get cell phone reception inside the unit?
  • Are sublets allowed?

You may have other concerns that are not on this list. Write them down so you are sure to get answers. Don’t be afraid to ask any question. It’s the best way to get the necessary information you want. Make sure you understand what you are signing when you enter into a lease.

Some landlords will require students to fill out a rental application before agreeing to rent to them. There may also be an application fee. The application will include basic information – name, address, previous addresses if any, telephone number, employment or school information, and references (personal or past landlords). Most landlords will require a credit check. – the applicant must sign a section on the application giving the landlord permission to check their credit using the applicant’s social security number. Landlords may charge a fee for credit checks.

It’s not uncommon for new college students to have no credit history. If this is the case or if you have negative credit, the landlord might require a co-signer on the rental agreement. A co-signer’s credit and employment will also be verified. In the event the tenant breaks the rental agreement, the co-signer could be held responsible. In the event that you are not able to provide a co-signer, the landlord may allow you to move in after paying a non-returnable fee or paying extra rent in advance.

A lease is a written agreement between the landlord and tenant stating the following:

  • Contact information for the landlord and tenant
  • Term of lease – length of time the lease is in effect, usually 1 year
  • Amount of monthly rent and due date.
  • How much and what type of deposits the tenant will need to submit upfront.
  • Stipulations about upkeep of the residence, pets, entry, or other requirements.
  • Notice for vacating – for the tenant, this is tied to the term of the lease. If a tenant decides to move before the lease has ended, even with notice, the landlord would likely have legal standing to collect the total amount of rent for the remaining months of the lease.

In the case of roommates, a landlord might require all occupants to agree to a credit check and sign the rental agreement. The agreement might contain a “Joint and Several” clause. This means that if one roommate fails to pay rent, the other roommate will be responsible to pay all of it. Be sure to find out upfront what options will be allowed by the landlord if a roommate leaves during the lease term.

Most landlords will require a deposit. The purpose for the deposit must be stated in writing and can be for cleaning, security, or pets. The landlord keeps the deposits in a trust account. The deposits are refundable by law when tenants vacate the property and leave it in the “same condition” as rented. Confirm with the landlord the procedure for a refund. Tenants are entitled to earned interest on a security deposit after moving.

One of the most common housing complaints of students is not getting back their security deposit. Landlords can charge you for any problems not noted on your move-in sheet. It is essential to fill this sheet out thoroughly and completely. Note every problem, no matter how little. If anything needs to be fixed note this information on your move-I sheet. It’s a good idea to do your initial walk-through with the landlord. Keep a copy of your move-in sheet. Videos or pictures can be taken as well.

Landlords are required to maintain rental at a “livable” standard. This standard can be fairly minimal. A good way to gauge how things will be maintained is to look around. Large apartment complexes tend to have more ground maintenance and newer appliances. Some people find individual landlords easier to work with than property management companies. Landlords are not bound to any oral promises. Ask that everything be written into the lease. Have any promised repairs written into the lease too.

Most leases last a year, but it is possible to find one that rents month-to-month. Even if you’ve signed a one-year lease, you may have the option to find someone to sub-lease your apartment if need be. Students should find out their landlord’s policies on subleases before signing the lease. Some landlords require that a fee be paid for the privilege of subleasing.

A contract is a two-way street. The landlord must also sign the lease and not violate any law or agreed upon clause. Keep copies of every document related to renting the property and all rent/deposit receipts. Know the tenant rights and laws for your state or community. Know whether a landlord must give a tenant reasonable notice (24 hours) before entering the premises.

Know how much extra you will pay if you are late in paying rent. Find out when late charges start accruing. Ask what other charges are in the lease, such as: grounds fees, overnight guests, pets, returned checks, etc.

To get an accurate picture of the landlord, ask past or current residents about them. Knock on the door of the place you want to rent and ask the current tenants a few questions. Important questions to ask include:

  • Does the landlord make repairs when requested? How long does it usually take?
  • Does the landlord respect your privacy and otherwise treat tenants with respect?
  • Would you rent from this landlord again?
  • Would you rent this house again?
  • What did you wish you had known about the landlord, the house, the apartment, or the neighborhood before signing the lease?

Make sure that living off campus is the right thing for you. It is a big step. There are benefits to living in the dorms – you don’t have to cook, you’re close to class, you have a support structure, etc. If you decide living off campus is definitely the right option, do your homework and read your lease thoroughly. Start looking for housing at least six months before you plan to move in. The best housing is rented many months in advance. If you wait too long your choices may be very limited.


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