Don’t get duped by landlords; be a smart renter

If you have never signed a lease before, all its jargon might as well be in a different language. You might view it as another strenuous reading assignment you need to do before you can return to more important matters. But just ask yourself: Will you think it’s so unimportant when you are bundled up in 12 sweaters, trying to type a final paper while wearing mittens because you realized your lease does not guarantee someone to repair your heating?

To ensure that doesn’t happen, one should learn how to read a lease.

Tanisha King-Taylor, director of Community Life and Tenant Services at the Tenant Union, gave some tips about frequently overlooked details students should pay attention to before signing on the dotted line, as well as some questions they should ask:

Know your landlord

Before even deciding where to apartment-search, check out the landlord’s complaint records, King-Taylor said. Knowing the nature of the complaints, i.e., whether there are breaches in the lease or breaches in the law, may be a deciding factor in choosing your apartment.

The significance of a lease

According to King-Taylor, another important factor to keep in mind is that once you sign, you are legally bound to the contract.

“Some students really have the idea, which is one of the myths we try to dispel, that they have a grace period after signing the lease,” King-Taylor said. “Students think that if they change their mind or find something better within three days, they can change their mind, and that’s just not the case.” 

Read every word carefully before signing

The Tenant Union has copies of leases from each management company on campus, King-Taylor said. The majority of them are the most up-to-date versions and have been reviewed and highlighted where the tricky clauses are so that if students come in before signing, they will know exactly what to look for. The Tenant Union can also prepare clauses and give the students the tools to negotiate unclear or unsatisfactory clauses, King-Taylor said. The best thing to do is to make sure it is taken care of before a particular aspect of a lease becomes an issue.

“It’s really easy to just sign and go on, but when issues arise or there’s things in that lease that you didn’t know about … students’ lives can be, I don’t want to be dramatic and use the word ‘ruin(ed),’ but it’s really inconvenient,” King-Taylor said. 

Lease copies

Make two copies of the lease, and take one with you after signing.

The landlord should sign both copies of the lease, and you should take the original, King-Taylor said. Do not sign until they have signed; this ensures that nothing will change without notification after you’ve signed it.

Unit specifics

Look for a complete description of the location of the rental unit, including the street address and apartment number, King-Taylor recommended. For a house, look at the number of bedrooms and if garage services is included.

Verifying the meaning of language like “furnished” and asking for a complete and detailed list of what the unit includes can also prevent problems farther down the road.

King-Taylor said she once worked with a student who was excited to sign a place with an in-unit washer and dryer, but it turned out to only operate with quarters.

“Sometimes it’s hard to interpret what some of that stuff means,” King-Taylor said.  “(The Tenant Union) already (has) highlighted difficult language and what it means, and we’re here to flush out what it means.” 

Know start and end dates of the lease

The issue, King-Taylor said, is that sometimes there is a turnover period between when the previous lease ended and the new one begins, which can displace tenants for a period of time. Knowing this ahead of time can prevent future issues.

“If you point that (date) out in the beginning, then you won’t be surprised,” she said. “Sometimes it does just sneak up on you.”

Renting and subletting fees

What are the fees for late rent payments?  Are there sublet fees and how much are they? Both are important questions to ask. 

Security deposits

When is the deposit due, how much is it and will it be returned?


Who will you pay for gas, electricity, water and garbage hauling? Is it something you must set up with separate companies? 

Parking spaces

Verify that the cost and space number are stated in the lease. Where is this spot? Is it difficult to park in or back out?

Repairs and services

Who handles pest control, snow removal, lawn care, etc.?  How and in what time frame are maintenance requests handled?

“Some leases have that they will not repair anything in the first 30 days because they have so much to do and there’s so much turnover,” King-Taylor explained.  “(The Tenant Union) definitely (asks) that (the landlord) take that out; they’re saying that regardless of the issue, they’re not going to come out.”

Privacy rights

Can a landlord enter your apartment whenever they choose?

The most important thing to know is that if any of the information is not included explicitly in the lease, it is not guaranteed. If the all-caps “Get it in writing” message on the back of the Tenant Union’s Lease Guide does not sum it up enough, King-Taylor also emphasized that this is the cardinal rule in lease signing.

“Generally you don’t have any rights unless it’s in the lease or if it’s the law,” she said. “So anything the landlord verbally tells you is null and void unless it’s written in that contract.”

Maggie can be reached at [email protected]