Protect yourself from shifty landlords

Welcome to college. Welcome to wild parties, hellish 8 a.m. classes, long-lasting friendships, bureaucratic red tape, forging your own path and spending the next several years boxing your life and moving from one place to the next every six to eight months.
Most incoming freshmen leave mom and dad to spend their first few years in a dorm. They live among strangers, learn to share, cooperate, clean and communicate — skills not quite polished when one leaves home at 18. It’s not really complete freedom: You can’t cook, there are enforced smoking and drinking rules and the despised night security squadron forever lurks. But dorms are relatively stress-free. You move in, you pay, you leave. No hassle. In fact, most students don’t even deal with the paperwork involved; their parents do.
But like most students, one or two years in the dorms is enough. So, you scour the papers and housing services in search of a cheap place to rent. Since most people don’t come to college with cars, you need an apartment or house close to campus. When you finally find that place, you also discover tricky contracts, dishonest landlords and hefty deposits that always seem to disappear come payback time.
Renting is one of the hardest things with which a young person deals. The more you rent, the wiser you become. But sometimes even the best of us get screwed.
My friends — veteran renters — signed a lease two weeks ago on a nice place close to campus. The landlord wanted them to move in Aug. 1, but they couldn’t agree to move in until Sept. 1. She consented to rent to them if they paid a half-month’s rent to hold the spot. They did so on the condition they could come on Aug. 15 if need be. They signed the lease and paid. The landlord said they would get the keys halfway through the month, and so they planned to move in around then.
On Aug. 18 they had all their possessions in boxes and loaded into friends’ cars and trucks to move into their new place, but the landlord called them minutes before departure to tell them she changed her mind. They couldn’t move in until Sept. 1. After several unconvincing appeals, shed tears and extreme frustration, they decided to cancel the lease and just find a new place. When they went to collect the half-month’s rent they gave her, she refused to return it. Now they have no place to go, are short $400, and have to go through a lengthy court procedure to get the money back.
This example may seem unusual, but it’s not. If I have learned anything from life after mom and dad, it is that most landlords are never to be trusted — never, never, never. Everywhere I’ve rented has come complete with a shifty landlord who never seems to care about the condition of the house until it’s time to collect money for damages.
Take, for example, my last house. The bathroom needed new ventilation so badly that mold started growing on the ceiling above the bathtub. We told our landlord about this because mold is an indoor air pollutant which is hazardous to breathe. Months went by and he never did anything to take care of the problem. Fine, we all breathed in wonderful, green mold until we moved out, when he told us he would keep every cent of our $650 deposit. He charged us for having a moldy ceiling!
I’m not making this up, folks. Ask anybody who has ever rented, and they can probably tell you similar stories. The problem is even worse for younger people. Many landlords don’t trust kids, and just because you’re 18 doesn’t mean you’re an adult in their eyes. Most of them see you as snot-nosed little house-wreckers with a close link to mommy and daddy’s wallet.
You’re the perfect candidate to rent their homes. Why? Because most landlords with campus-area property don’t keep very nice houses. They don’t have to; kids have pretty low standards when it comes to houses because they don’t know — or they don’t care — any better. The landlords let them sign a lease and hope they don’t complain too much or break anything too expensive. From the moment you move in you notice chipped paint and carpets with stains, but you just throw a rug over the stains and put a few posters on the wall.
Then the lease expires, and you call the landlord up for your deposit, but they won’t give it to you. Why? Because they charge you for holes in the walls — where you tried to cover the chipped paint — and stained carpeting — because you added one new stain to the 20 other ones that were there already.
This isn’t fair, but it happens all the time. These lords of the land won’t use your money to replace the carpet or fix the walls, either. They might steam clean a few spots out and slather some new paint over the old stuff, but the major problems still exist. Why fix them when they can just charge the next sucker for the same thing? It’s an easy few hundred bucks every time a new lease expires.
Now, the laws of probability tell me that not every landlord could possibly be evil, but those who aren’t have long eluded my renting experiences. It’s really hard not to get screwed in the renter’s game unless you know your rights and you play it smart every time you sign a lease.
First, if you are lucky enough to have parents close by, involve them in apartment or house inspection, lease-signing and money matters. It defeats the purpose of doing things on your own, but you’ll need your parents much longer than you think — this is one time you definitely want them around.
With or without parents, before you sign a lease, go around the place with a pen and paper noting every problem you find. Write it all down: holes in the walls, stains on the carpets, leaky faucet, loose cupboard handles, crack in the window, scuffed tile, broken light fixture in the storage closet. Sign the list, and make the landlord sign it, too. Hopefully, you’ll find these things fixed by the time you move in, but at least you won’t be charged for them if they’re not.
Keep all your receipts, this includes deposit and each month’s rent. Also, call your landlord whenever something breaks. They should fix it right away; if they don’t, write that down, too. Keep records and receipts of any repairs you make to the house yourself. You want to have proof of keeping up your end of the bargain should you wind up in court disputing something.
Be a good tenant. Many landlords turn evil because past experience with bad renters drove them to become unyielding assholes. The flip side of this story illuminates the careless follies of indifferent youth. Throngs of students pour out of the dorms and into off-campus housing each year just dying to taste the thrill of independence. They bring with them loud house parties, underage drinkers and reckless disregard for property. Campus-area landlords are more like stern prison wardens than house or apartment owners. This doesn’t give them an excuse to swindle you. But don’t give them any more reason, OK?
Finally, before you move out, clean everything! Sweep and mop the floors, vacuum the carpets, scrub the bathtub and sinks, wipe the goo off the walls and clean the windows. Don’t just skim the surface here, either. Do the kind of job that would make mom proud. Landlords can and will charge you for cleaning expenses, so you might as well do it yourself.
It’s really not as overwhelming as it seems. Renting is just like anything else in life, you have to be responsible and on guard. The world is full of scheming people who can’t wait to take advantage of you. Be strong, choose your friends wisely and stay vigilant. Good luck.
Emily Dalnodar is a Daily columnist. She welcomes comments to [email protected]