Tenants have rights in their leases

The University Student Legal Service will review leases for students before or after they are signed.

A week after moving into her new duplex, problems were already starting to pile up for Jessica Dunsmore.

Mushrooms grew outside the bathroom thanks to a leaking toilet, neither laundry machine worked, outlets were cracked, the shower leaked and blinds were missing on the bottom floor.

“There were warning signs,” Dunsmore said. “We shouldn’t have signed the lease.”

After they first toured, she and her roommates were sold on the duplex based on its location, she said. The landlord, Doug Doty, seemed like a nice guy, she said, but her gut told her something might be wrong.

Dunsmore said she spent a year living in the duplex: Inspectors came. Doty was fined. Some things got fixed. Others never did. The final straw came when he withheld their $1275 security deposit.

The courts decided in Dunsmore’s favor last September, but she has yet to receive her money back.

Now when she shops for a house, her first priority is finding a landlord she is comfortable with.

Six things to check in every lease:

Total rent due
Renters are jointly responsible for the entire rent due each month, not just their individual portion. Plan for the worst and prepare to be responsible for more than just one share of the rent.

Landlord’s name and address
Landlords are required to provide a property address and not just a P.O. Box. A landlord who avoids being contacted is a warning sign of future trouble.

Number of signature lines
If there are fewer spaces for signatures on the lease than roommates moving in, it is a sign of over-occupation.

Responsibility for utilities
Know who is going to pay for each utility. In properties with multiple dwellings and only one meter the landlord is required to pay.

Notice periods
Make sure landlords don’t require unreasonable notice times longer than a couple months and don’t charge fees equaling a month’s rent or more.

Co-signer requirements
Only allow a co-signer to guarantee a single tenant’s portion of the rent and not the entirety of the rent due.

When students are searching for their future housing it is important to find the right landlord, the right property and the right lease.

Tenant rights

Tenants have rights, and can exert them to get the law on their side when few other things are.

After reviewing a lease, it is fairly easy to get provisions added or wording changed to fulfill a tenant’s needs. Additions just need to be added to the end of a lease before it is signed.

Bill Dane, staff attorney for University Student Legal Service, said changing a lease may be especially useful and easy in the year to come. With the current housing market, students may be able to negotiate a shorter lease if they don’t plan to stay for the standard 12 months.

Tenants also have an absolute right to occupancy, meaning landlords cannot ask tenants to vacate their residence during the tenancy.

If leasers perform their own lawn care, such as mowing the lawn or shoveling snow, they qualify for a rent reduction or stipend.

While making requests, tenants have the ability to set deadlines and submit them in writing, which shows proof of the request and creates a timeline for the landlord.

Legal advice

Download samples of leasing-related documents

Vacating Notice
Inspection Checklist
Repair Notice
Demand Letter

Dane said almost half the landlord troubles he hears from students stem from misunderstanding or not reading the lease.

He said students need to be especially careful when signing a lease through a smaller apartment complex or single-family home because landlords sometimes don’t stay current with new laws or use poor language.

He said University Student Legal Service is always willing to look at a lease before or after it is signed to offer guidance and create a record in case something does go awry.

“We can do more for people on the preventative side than we can on the reactive side,” Dane said.

Dane said it is also important for students to not feel rushed to sign a lease after visiting a house or apartment.

If a student is interested in a property, they should not pay a deposit in advance unless they are positive they want to move in or the deposit is refundable, Dane said.

If a landlord is trying to rush someone into signing the lease or hurry through a visit, it is often a warning sign that something is wrong, he said.

Dane said that students should make sure six things are present in a lease and note them before they sign: the total amount due each month, the name and address of the landlord, the number of spaces for tenants to sign, details on who pays for utilities, time periods for notices and space for parent co-signers.

“You’re taking on much more responsibility than you’re ever asked to in the dorms,” Dane said.

Good landlords don’t make headlines

Finding a landlord to suit your needs is not always easy, but is doable with help and preparation, Spanish senior Kara Navin said.

The house Navin planned to live in during the 2006-2007 school year was condemned and a dispute over the rent and deposit almost ended in court, she said. Navin said she now has a new-found appreciation for finding the right landlord.

She said she thinks it has become the responsibility of students to make sure their future housing is to their liking and not trust landlords they may not know.

“Students need to wade through the sea of housing to find the right fit,” she said.

Both Navin and Dunsmore have both found landlords they are happy with this year.

Craig Janssen, owner of Elmwood Properties, said he thinks a majority of landlords should do more for their tenants and have earned a bad reputation for themselves. He said he thinks the stigma isn’t just in the campus area, but worldwide.

He often receives reactions of surprise when he answers his phone or makes himself available for repairs quickly, Janssen said.

“You don’t see any news reports about wonderful landlords,” he said.

The shopping process is especially important for first-time renters, Janssen said.

“Lots of people have never rented before, so things come as a surprise,” he said. “It’s all about if you can make a connection.”