By Beau Brincefield
You’ve searched and searched and finally found the perfect apartment or rental house. You don’t want to lose it to another eager renter, so you sign the lease quickly, thankful the hunt is over.
The only problem is that you didn’t read the lease carefully. And it’s only after you move in that you discover that your cherished cat is not permitted – or that you’ve got to make room in your budget for carpeting to meet the noise requirements. Even worse, when it’s time to move out, you discover you have to give the landlord a lot more notice than you expected.
These unpleasant surprises can be avoided. “The most fundamental thing any renter should do is read the lease,” Alexandria real estate lawyer Beau Brincefield said. It sounds so obvious, but nobody ever does it.
“Most of the provisions in a lease are not legal trickery,” Brincefield said. But, he noted, there are provisions that could impose “fundamental restrictions on your lifestyle that you might not be happy with.”
With the rental market very tight in certain parts of the Washington area, there’s little, if any, room to negotiate, said Richard Luchs, a District landlord-tenant lawyer. “So a lot of tenants don’t bother” to read the lease and then are surprised at some of the restrictions they find, he said.
Here are some key provisions tenants should make sure they know about before they sign any lease:
In the District, is the apartment subject to rent-control laws? About 80 percent of District apartments are, which means landlords can raise rents only by a limited amount – usually by about l 1/2 percent to 2 percent a year.
Landlords with fewer than four units, or with apartments built after 1975, are exempt from rent-control laws. In these cases, “the sky’s the limit” on rent increases, Luchs said. But the lease should clearly state that the apartment is exempt from rent-control regulations. If it doesn’t, you shouldn’t assume that your rent increases will be limited; the landlord will simply be subject to a fine – while charging you the higher rent.
Lease Renewal Policies
In some jurisdictions, after a lease expires landlords by law are required to extend it on a month-to-month basis. Then, depending on the lease, tenants usually have to give a 30- or 60-day notice before vacating.
But that’s not the rule everywhere – and sometimes a lease automatically rolls over for another year unless the tenant notifies the landlord otherwise. In that case, if you decide to move out in the middle of your second year, you may have to pay all the rent for the time the apartment is vacant while the landlord finds another tenant.
If your lease calls for a month’s notice before you can vacate the apartment, make sure you don’t wait until the second day of the month to give notice. Some landlords will say that’s not a full month and may force you to pay another month’s rent. And if the lease calls for a 30-day notice, be sure you count your days carefully.
Most jurisdictions require that security deposits be put in escrow accounts to ensure the money still is available at the end of the lease. This is standard procedure for large apartment complexes, but not always for smaller buildings – or for a property owner who may be renting out a condominium or house. So be sure to ask that your security deposit be placed in an escrow account.
Some leases prohibit painting – or even nails and hooks to hang pictures. As a result, “you may get hit at the end of the lease with money taken out of your security deposit to repair the holes,” District lawyer Steve Skalet said. He advises renters to try to amend the lease to permit hanging pictures and allow minor painting in standard colors – as long as the tenant promises to restore the walls to their original condition before vacating.
One added expense: Many rental leases require that 80 percent of a floor be covered with carpeting to reduce noise.
To reduce noise, some leases require that 80 percent of an apartment’s floors be covered with carpeting. “It’s a very common provision, but a lot of tenants don’t read the lease,” Luchs said. “Then they move in and the resident below them complains, and the tenant will get a notice to install carpet” – a significant and perhaps unanticipated expense. In particular, people who do not like carpeting or have allergies should look out for such a provision.
Do you have a cat? Are you thinking of getting one? If so, make sure before you sign that your “Misty” will be welcome.
Ask any real estate lawyer about lease provisions that cause problems, and “pet policies” is at the top of the list. “A lot of people don’t read the pet restrictions,” Brincefield said. So if you have a pet – or think you may want to get one – make sure you read the lease carefully. Even if you don’t see a restriction in the lease, ask to make sure pets are permitted.
Washers, Dryers, Air Conditioners
Some older apartment buildings prohibit tenants from installing their own major appliances. Check the lease carefully.
Some leases restrict occupancy to the person or people who signed the lease. That means if you’re single and decide to get married, technically your spouse may not be able to move in without violating the lease. “As a matter of policy, most landlords don’t mind adding an occupant, as long as it doesn’t create illegal crowding,” Maryland lawyer Gary Everngam said. He advises tenants planning to add another occupant to contact their landlord first.
Children are a different matter: Fair housing laws require landlords to accept children as long as their presence doesn’t exceed occupancy standards.
If you’re renting a house or condominium from the property owner, make sure you know who’s responsible for upkeep and repairs. Who, for example, should replace refrigerator or stove if it goes bad? Who should cut the lawn and tend the garden – and just how much care is needed? “We’ve had cases where landlords have claimed sizable amounts of damages because the tenant didn’t maintain the yards and gardens,” Skalet said. “The landlord wanted to keep the security deposit. If you’re renting something with extensive gardens … then it’s a good idea to specify responsibilities.”
Reprinted from The Washington Times, Saturday March 6, 1999.