How to read a rental contract

| February 6, 2023

Renting your first apartment (or house) is an exciting milestone; it’s also a big financial commitment. Here’s some advice on how to navigate the process.

1. Familiarize yourself with the general timeline of an apartment search. Here’s how it usually goes:

  • Evaluate your means and needs. What do you want and need from your housing situation, and what can you afford? What are your non-negotiables, and what are your nice-to-haves?
  • Get to know your neighborhood. Explore the neighborhood(s) that interest you, ideally in person or virtually if that’s not possible. What is the housing stock like? What are the approximate rents in your target neighborhoods? What local amenities (public transportation, grocery stores, etc) are available?
  • Narrow your options. See how your budget, your non-negotiables, and local housing stock line up, and choose which properties you’d like to pursue.
  • Reach out and apply. The Office of Off-Campus Housing generally recommends applying to no more than three options; applications often come with a fee and those can add up quickly. Also, keep an eye out for online applications that double as pre-leases. In these cases, once accepted and counter-signed by the property, the application acts as a binding lease! You could end up committed to a house or apartment that you don’t ultimately want.
  • Sign your lease. READ YOUR LEASE (See No. 2 on this list) and then sign it.
  • Make a plan for what you’re going to do before your move-in date. Will you need to sublet, or put stuff in storage? Do you need to schedule a moving truck or professional movers?

2. Read your entire lease before signing it. You are legally responsible for knowing and understanding what is in your lease. There are often hidden clauses and responsibilities buried in leases that could make your stay in the home more expensive, less comfortable, or both. Also, a lease is a legally binding agreement. Failure to abide by the terms can be costly.

You may only have a day or two to review your lease before signing. Don’t waste that time, especially if you need to check with roommates, the landlord, or other parties if questions arise.

If you have questions about a clause or section of your lease, reach out to the Office of Off-Campus Housing and the staff will try to help you the the best of our abilities.

Some common lease sections include:

  • The dwelling’s exact legal mailing address, including an apartment number if applicable.
  • The management company (or landlord’s) name and contact info. You want to have this information in advance so you know who to call if/when issues arise.
  • The beginning and end dates of the lease.
  • Options and instructions for renewal. This section tends to trip up a lot of renters. Often, there is a specific procedure and timeline for notifying your landlord if you do not plan to renew your lease. If you overlook the instructions for renewal and fail to notify your landlord about your plans, the landlord may be able to renew your lease for another year, whether or not you were planning to stay.

3. Understand exactly how much you owe in rent, security deposits, and fees. Leases typically include the rent amount, due dates, security deposit information, and acceptable payment methods (online payment, paper check, money order, etc).

A security deposit is any payment of money, including the final month’s rent paid in advance, that protects the landlord against non-payment of rent or damage to the leased premises. The maximum amount a landlord may require is the equivalent of two month’s rent. Upon notice to move out, tenants have the right to inspect the property with the landlord to assess any damage and the landlord has 45 days after the termination of the lease to return the security deposit if no damages were assessed.

Know if there is a grace period for late rent payments, and what fees you will incur if you miss the original due date and/or the grace period.

There may be other costs or fees (parking, pets, utilities, etc) associated with your lease that will be noted within the lease or community guidelines.

4. Understand what utilities and appliances are included in the rent, and what are not. Common utilities include electricity, water, gas, internet connection, cable television, landlines, and trash and recycling fees.

Regarding appliances, some properties include microwaves and in-unit laundry and others do not.

In the case of fully furnished apartments, you’d expect units to include a couch, a dining room set, and beds. Some might also include lamps and basic cookware.

There’s a lot of variation between properties on what is included in rent and what is not. The property with the lowest rent might not be the overall cheapest place to live if a more expensive property’s cost includes utilities and/or amenities (like in-unit laundry).

5. Understand who is responsible for maintenance and repairs. This point is an important one; disagreements over repairs can cost residents a lot of time, money, and stress.

In some rental agreements, the landlord is responsible for all repairs and maintenance. In others, the landlord might repair or replace major appliances but leave you responsible for smaller maintenance projects, like leaky faucets and shoveling snow.

Be honest with yourself about what you have the time, ability, and inclination to do when it comes to home maintenance.

6. Understand restrictions around and fees related to pets. First, if you have pets, find out if you are allowed to have animals in the dwelling at all. If your lease has a no pet clause and you violate it, your landlord has a legal right to evict you.

If animals are allowed, find out if there are any restrictions on size or breed or total number of pets, and if there are any pet fees. (Often, landlords will charge a fee in addition to your rent if animals are present in the home.)

If you have a service animal, ask if there are any special instructions or allowances.

7. Understand what your responsibilities are upon vacating the property. The lease should explain the following details:

  • How much advance notice is needed (a ‘notice to vacate’ date)
  • How the landlord would like to be notified (written letter, email, etc)
  • What condition you should leave the property in (what type of cleaning you are responsible for)
  • Rules on subletting (Is it allowed? Are you responsible for finding a tenant?)

8. Know the rules and policies of the property and the surrounding community. Look for information within the lease about:

  • Maximum occupancy. Can you add a roommate without checking with the landlord? How many nights in a row can guests stay?
  • Parking, including assigned parking, street parking, garage parking, and guest parking.
  • Prohibited items, like space heaters and water beds.
  • Landlord right of entry. Tenants often think that landlords are not allowed access to their space, but that’s not necessarily the case. Leases can include specific situations when a landlord can enter, even when they are not present, for repairs, inspections, or showing of the unit if they decide to not renew their lease.
  • Property alterations. Are you allowed to paint walls or do other home repairs?
  • Insurance requirements. Some properties will require tenants to purchase renter’s insurance to protect the tenant’s personal property.
  • Eviction rules. Know your rights.
  • Inspections
  • Quiet hours
  • Smoking policies

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If there is something you don’t understand, ask your landlord or property manager for clarification. Off-Campus Housing can also help you to the best of their abilities, but it’s best to get clarification directly from the landlord or property manager.

9. Keep a copy of the lease sign by you and the landlord. Store it safely and remember where you put it, so you can easily refer to it if issues arise.

10. Do a thorough property examination when you move in and document any existing damage. This step will help you avoid the loss of your security deposit by identifying what was damaged or missing before you took possession of the property.