College students across the country are preparing to head back to school and many of those students will be moving into off-campus apartments. It pays to do your homework and review all the key facts about this important financial commitment before moving in.
“Living in an off-campus apartment may be an option for students looking for alternatives to on-campus housing,” said Claire Rosenzweig, President and CEO of Better Business Bureau Serving Metro New York. “However, students need to check and understand their rights and responsibilities as a tenant before agreeing to sign a lease. You may think you will be saving money, possibly by splitting the rent with roommates, but it’s important to know if the lease permits roommates and what additional costs you are responsible for beyond your share of the rent, how to ensure you get a maximum amount of your security deposit back, and how to protect yourself from rental scams.”
Know your credit story before you shop for a place:
- Check your credit score first, if you have a credit history. You can check it for free at www.annualcreditreport.com once a year.
- If you don’t have a credit history and need a co-signer to guarantee your lease, be sure you and your co-signer understand what legal responsibilities might be triggered.
Don’t be in too big a hurry. Get the facts and negotiate:
Fear of losing a desirable space in a tight market often drives people into the arms of scammers.
- Always walk through a rental and check that it is in good order, before signing a lease. Never go alone; take someone with you on viewings. Notice if the building is well maintained.
- Ask questions about issues such as how long the property has been vacant, noise, any history of bedbugs/pests in the building, potential for foreclosure on the property, and neighborhood safety.
- Ask to see proof of the leasing agent’s identity, check contact information, and ask to see other evidence that this person is entitled to rent you the place.
- You can also talk to neighbors, ask for references from prior tenants, and check public records in the county courthouse concerning property ownership and foreclosure status.
- It’s okay to ask for a lower rent if you think a rental is overpriced. Try it. If you are a quality tenant, the landlord might agree.
Read the lease carefully before signing. Your lease should include:
- Correct information specifying the rental address, the identity of the landlord, and where legal notices relating to the lease should be sent.
- Names of all responsible parties who agree to hold the lease, to ensure that they will be covered by contractual rights and protections.
- When rent is due, the amount and exactly what it covers, such as any utilities, plus details about how to make contractually acceptable payments.
- Specifics on how all maintenance and repair concerns are handled and who is held responsible in the event that something breaks or needs repair.
- Information about whether pets are allowed and requirements concerning any pet deposits and associated fees.
- Building rules about guests, sublets, keys, limits on landlord rights of access, restrictions on home businesses, etc.
- Verbal agreements about any promised amenities should be listed in writing in the lease.
- Details about lease renewal rights when the term ends, lease assignment rights, and notice about what happens if you break the lease.
- The terms and conditions affecting your security deposit and how you are able to receive the full refund upon moving out.
Document everything to protect yourself:
- Take photos of your unit prior to move-in, so that you have documentation available if a dispute were to arise between you and the landlord after moving out.
- Document your apartment’s move-in condition. Note each and every flaw or defect on your move-in condition form, so that you aren’t held responsible for those damages later.
- Keep a copy of your lease in a safe place that can easily be referenced.
Be able to identify the red flags of a rental scam:
- This deal sounds too good to be true, ex – the rent is far too low for the neighborhood or a space of this caliber.
- High pressure to sign something or give money quickly is often a sign that you should walk away.
- The landlord is located elsewhere and prefers to communicate only via email.
- The landlord requires a substantial deposit before handing over the keys or even showing the property.
- You are asked for money before you have reviewed and signed a proper written lease.
- The landlord asks you to wire money through services such as Western Union or Money Gram, or will only accept cash.
- A leasing agent asks for a lot of personal financial information before meeting you or agreeing on a rental, either by phone or through a link sent by email.
- You spot the photo of your rental address on a real estate website, listed by someone else, and it might have been copied by a scammer.
- The landlord refuses to provide verifiable identify information, or is unable to show any evidence that he or she has the authority to rent you the living space.
Got more questions? Use these key resources:
- Check on real estate rental firms and other businesses at www.newyork.bbb.org.
- Get familiar with the New York Attorney General’s Tenant Rights Guide. http://www.ag.ny.gov/sites/default/files/pdfs/publications/Tenant_Rights_2011.pdf
- Find New York State information about rent control and rent stabilization here: http://www.nyshcr.org/Rent/factsheets/
- Many colleges have services that help students locate legitimate living quarters and can even help find compatible roommates. Ask your school whether they offer such assistance.