What you need to know about signing a lease
J. Tristan Routh is a staff attorney at Carolina Student Legal Services Inc. Former Daily Tar Heel staff writer Brinley Lowe spoke with him about what students should look out for when signing a lease.
What are some red flags students should look for when signing a lease?
J. Tristan Routh: I tend to find that the (leases) that look like they have been created in a Word Document tend to be the ones that have been written by landlords who write their own leases. And if they write their own leases, that means they may or may not have had them reviewed by an attorney. There is not one thing about a lease you should be concerned about. There are tons and tons of things, so that’s why I would encourage all students who are signing a lease to just come in and meet with us. It doesn’t cost anything to do that.
What are some rights of tenants that you see commonly violated?
JTR: I would encourage all students not to go into a lease with an idea in their head that they are just automatically going to lose their (security) deposit.
(Landlords) are required to hold a tenant’s security deposit in a trust account or furnish what’s called an insurance bond to cover the amount of the deposit. They can’t just take the deposit and deposit it into their own personal banking account or checking account or savings account…
Within 30 days of the lease ending, the landlord is required to send a written itemized accounting of any damages that the landlord is withholding from the tenant’s security deposit. So if they’re withholding $100 for a dirty carpet and $20 for a broken toilet seat and that kind of thing, they have to set that out specifically. They can’t just say, ‘I’ve withheld a thousand dollars for damages. Here’s the rest of your money back.’
A tenant only has to return a rental premises to the landlord in the same condition in which they found it minus ordinary wear and tear. So, if the landlord is trying to charge them because there’s a few scuffs on the wall or the carpet got worn down a little bit, that’s ordinary wear and tear and the landlord shouldn’t be charging for that.
The other big issues that I see tenants being taken advantage of by landlords is what we call habitability issues, quiet enjoyment issues and repair issues. (By law), a landlord is required to keep a premises in a fit and habitable condition. That means that if there is flooding or if there’s mold or if there’s a rat infestation the tenant is not responsible for, the landlord needs to do something about it.
Under statute, a landlord is required to keep in good working order heating systems, air conditioning systems, electrical, plumbing, appliances — basically anything that came with the house, or the apartment or townhouse or whatever it is.
Do you think college students are particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by landlords?
JTR: We have some very good landlords in this county and we have some very bad landlords. I do think that a lot of times landlords think that ‘they’re students, they probably don’t care. Maybe they have a low standard of habitability,’ but I definitely do think that students, especially younger students, are particularly at risk of being taken advantage of. I tend to see a lot of times landlords don’t take students seriously until they get a lawyer involved.
Is there any other advice you would give to students looking for off-campus housing?
JTR: One thing that I cannot stress enough is that when you move into a house, you should do a thorough move-in inspection, meaning go through that house with a fine-tooth comb before you move in your stuff.
Document the heck out of it, OK, because that way at the end of the lease, if your landlord says, ‘You put this hole in the wall’ and that hole in the wall was in there before you moved in, you got a picture that you took the day you moved in that says that hole was there when you got possession of it.
The other piece of advice is don’t let landlords walk all over you. Be assertive. Stand up for yourself. Don’t be worried about them retaliating against you. It’s blatantly illegal for a landlord to retaliate just because you’re asserting your right as a tenant.
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