International students getting a crash course in smart housing

Jia Guo

Kangyu Qiu , a Chinese student majoring in electronic engineering at the University of Minnesota, still remembers how aggravating it was when he got an email from the leasing manager at his apartment last year, saying that he and his four roommates would be charged $1, 015 from the security deposit due to broken blinds, unwelcome painting and chemical-eroded carpet.

He said that before moving in, they urged the leasing manager to repair the broken blinds, clean the wall and replace the old carpet. However, every time they received the same reply âÄî âÄúI know it,âÄù without any action.

âÄúWe did not have written note regarding the request,âÄù he said. âÄúNow, I learn how important it is to keep written evidence.âÄù

Lucky for Qiu and his four roommates, they got the money back through negotiations with the leasing manager, but some international students arenâÄôt as fortunate.

According to the University Student Legal Service , the cases brought to the officeâÄôs attention by international students increased since this summer. Twenty-five percent of all USLS cases are housing-related.

Barbara Boysen , a legal assistant at USLS, said that having written evidence like notes, e-mails or pictures are important to protect tenantsâÄô legal rights in cases like QiuâÄôs.

But the lesson is more than just learning to keep proper documentation. 

In some cases, international students pay their deposit and sign a prelease deposit agreement through a third party prior to their arrival into town.

According to Minnesota law, âÄúprelease depositâÄù means payment given to a landlord from a prospective tenant of a residential unit before the prospective tenant and the landlord have entered into a rental agreement.

Even though international students are eager to find a good place to live, they should come to visit the house and sign the lease by themselves, Boysen said.

âÄúFinding a representative on their behalf to sign a lease means nothing to the real party,âÄù Boysen said. âÄúIf a representative signed the lease on behalf of the real party, it is the representative âÄî not the real party who will take care of the rent.âÄù

She added that because international students have no financial credit, the prelease deposit is aimed at protecting landlordsâÄô rights by binding them to leases.

She also said that problems usually arose when international students arrived, but found that they did not want to live in the property they had signed a lease for. Students have turned away housing for various reasons including bad location, unsatisfying floor plans or after having found a better deal elsewhere.

Even after a student has paid the deposit but decides not to sign a lease, USLS tries to reach a settlement with the landlord to assist students in getting the refund.

Nan Zhang , a first-year Chinese student at the UniversityâÄôs law school, said there is a penalty for landlords if they fail to refund the prelease deposit within a reasonable period of time or under certain circumstances, which are on a case-by-case basis.

âÄúActually, I believe that the prelease deposit is designated to protect both tenants and landlords,âÄù he said. âÄúObviously, itâÄôs good for landlords to hold tenants tight; in the meantime, itâÄôs good for tenants because if students pay the prelease deposit, landlords should ensure that the house will be available for tenants to move in.âÄù

Zhang said that in addition to the price, international students should also take many factors into account, such as reputation of landlords, housing location and additional services like laundry, parking and computer labs.

Zhang said that students can go to housing review websites like YELP.com and apartment.com to find ratings and comments for options in the area. However, for many new international students, the Housing & Residential Life website is the most popular and reliable tool to find off-campus housing.

After their admission to the University, international students receive a new student guide that provides them links to temporary housing upon arrival.