Don’t Sign That Lease Yet

You’re being transferred to a new city in another state for a position that you start in exactly two weeks. You fly to your new hometown to select an apartment. You have exactly two days to make a decision and sign a lease, so when, after much searching, you find a vacancy in a relatively decent property, you’re anxious to sign when the lease is placed in front of you. Resist the urge. As mentioned in previously in our report “Avoiding Tenants’ Tribulations,” wearing rose-colored glasses can easily fool you into believing that your best interests as a tenant will be protected. Your desire to find a home and wind up what can be an exhaustive search process can push you into signing on the dotted line before you’ve read and understand all of the fine print of your lease.

What’s the purpose of a lease, aside from your agreement to pay your rent each month and maintain your apartment in good condition? For starters, the responsibilities of your landlord are clearly outlined in this contract, so it’s obviously in your best interests to read the lease carefully. If you’re ignorant of the lease terms, you could find yourself blindsided several months later when your landlord holds you responsible for damage or other breach of lease, and subsequently asks you to move out. What if your employment situation changes five months into your 12-month lease, and you’ve got to move before your lease expires? Your lease will outline your financial obligations should you need to back out for any reason.

Some leasing offices and landlords will place a lengthy, “standard” document in front of you and downplay its terms — not necessarily to dupe you, but rather in an attempt to save you time and allow him or her to move on to other prospective tenants waiting in the leasing office. Don’t feel pressured; instead, move off to the side, allow the leasing agent/landlord to accommodate other visitors to the office, and continue reading the lease until you understand all of its terms. You may have signed many leases in the past, leading you to believe that they’re all the same. They’re not. Once you sign the lease, you’re usually locked into its terms. You’ll want to find out before signing what the consequences will be if you change your mind before moving day (will you get your full deposit back?).

Many consumers don’t realize that under the law, they’re entitled to request changes to the lease before signing it. In fact, consumers may request any modification they please, so don’t be afraid to propose any changes to its terms. If the landlord agrees to your terms, make sure that he or she makes those changes on the lease itself (in ink, not pencil) and writes the date and his or her initials beside them. And don’t leave the leasing office without a copy of the modified lease. Verbal promises will never hold up in the event that you have a disagreement over lease terms with your landlord in the future, or if only your landlord had a copy of the modified lease (or if changes were made only in erasable pencil).

If you agree to lease the unit only in the event that the landlord or management company replaces the unit’s carpeting, fixes the bathroom sink, allows your pet to live with you, includes a washer and dryer as part of the deal or other conditions, again, get it in writing with the date of signature. If the landlord refuses to put your verbal agreement in writing or claims a sudden attack of carpal tunnel syndrome which prevents him from writing, the red flag should be raised in your mind. Take your business elsewhere.

If it’s too late — you moved into your unit without getting verbal agreements in writing, and now you find yourself making repeated requests for maintenance or other repairs that are never performed — many real estate law experts agree that threatening to withhold payment on your rent isn’t a good idea. There’s a good chance your landlord will win in court if you withhold payment without a signed agreement preserving your right to do so. In addition to facing stiff monetary penalties, you could find yourself evicted from your apartment and out on the street. In fact, the State Bar of Texas states that tenants who use their deposits as rent when their leases did not state they could do so can face monetary penalties of up to three times the amount of rent they withheld.