Chapter Two - Before You Move In

You've found an affordable rental in a neighborhood you like, but wait! Before you sign anything or offer a deposit, do two important things:

  1. INSPECT THE PLACE CAREFULLY
  2. UNDERSTAND THE LEASE

Most tenant/landlord disputes arise because tenants are in a hurry – or are pressured – to seal the deal before they know what the real deal is. If the landlord becomes impatient in this stage of the process, there may be something he or she doesn't want you to know, or perhaps you're getting a glimpse of a bad disposition. In either case, you may want to shop around some more.

 

INSPECTING THE PREMISES

Request a key or meet the landlord to inspect the property. Make notes about things you want to research or discuss with the landlord.

Always check:

  • Type of heat & cost (call the local service provider and ask for a record of the past year)
  • Water pressure (turn on all faucets at once and flush toilets)
  • How well windows open and seal; are there storm windows and screens?
  • Storage and closet space – is it adequate for your needs?
  • Are there enough fully functioning electrical outlets?
  • Do appliances function properly? (Stove, fan, A.C., heater, etc.)
  • Do all doors and windows lock easily?
  • Is the number and placement of fire or smoke alarms adequate? Is there one in every room?
  • Is there an easy way to escape in case of an emergency?

Repairs

Always assume that you are renting the unit "as is." Promised repairs should be included in the lease. If repairs are not included in the lease, then make sure to have the landlord write them in and both you and the landlord initial and date the change. Even though the landlord may promise to fix the stove "as soon as you move in," it often doesn't get done. If you decide to rent the place, assume you are renting it “as is”.

PROTECT YOURSELF WITH A MOVE-IN INSPECTION
and return it to the landlord within five days of moving in. If possible, arrange a time to meet your landlord at the place of residence to inspect the apartment together. The landlord may provide a form; if not, list defects for his signature. Date and file it. Otherwise you may be charged for that damage when you seek return of your security deposit. If you ever have to prove the condition of the place when you moved in, take pictures.

 

UNDERSTANDING THE LEASE

The most important thing the tenant must do before moving in is to thoroughly read and understand the lease agreement. It is a binding legal contract enforceable in court. A clearly written lease is the best tool to prevent disputes between landlord and tenant. If the agreement is hard to read (tiny little type or old faded copy) and comprehend, ask the property manager to explain the "legalese" in plain language. Also refer to The Law section of this document at the end of Chapter 3.

Verbal Leases:  Some landlords do not offer written contracts, however the following provisions of the Residential Landlord/Tenant Act still apply to leases in Hamilton County:

  • If either party wishes to terminate the agreement, no "reason" need be given; however, "notice" is required. If rent is paid monthly, either party must notify at least 30 days before the next rent payment is due. For weekly rent, give 10 days’ notice.
  • The landlord must make repairs and keep the unit habitable.
  • The Tenant is liable for damage.

 IT IS WISE TO GET ALL AGREEMENTS IN WRITING!

Written Leases: All written leases will include the following, and must be signed by both parties.

  • Names of landlord and all tenants
  • A description of the property – including address and whether it is a house, duplex, or an apartment
  • Amount and due date of rent
  • Guidelines for late fees, returned checks, and eviction
  • Specific length of time lease is in effect
  • Any restrictions – such as a No Pets Policy

Many simple leases include only these provisions, with no extra conditions. Most agreements, however, are much more complicated. 

Typical Clauses Found in Complicated Leases May Be:

  • Automatic Renewal: Obligates you for another term unless you give notice NOT to renew at least 30 days before the lease expires.
  • Cleaning: You may be asked to leave the unit as clean as when you moved in, or pay for cleaning. Beware of high cleaning fees.
  • Defaults/Eviction: You may agree to pay the landlord's legal fees. In larger complexes, you might sign away your right to receive notice of eviction from the landlord for non-payment of rent. 
  • If you sign a lease with this type of clause and your rent is more than 5 days late, you'll have waived your right to receive a letter demanding full payment. You are "presumed" to be notified of the landlord’s intent to evict immediately, and he or she can obtain a detainer warrant immediately following the expiration of the grace period if you do not pay your rent.  Your first written notice could be from an attorney demanding full payment plus fees or it could be a detainer warrant. 
  •  Entire Agreement: States that there are no "oral agreements" other than what is written in the lease. Get everything in writing.
  •  Free Access: "Management or its agents may enter at any reasonable time." Are you sure you want this? See Access in Chapter 4.
  •  Housekeeping Inspections:  The lease may include a statement allowing the landlord to inspect the property at certain intervals or under particular circumstances. 
  •  Liability: You may waive all landlord liability for your possessions in case of flood, fire, leaks, etc. (See Renter's Insurance in Chapter 3). 
  •  Liens: Even though you agree that management can hold your belongings if rent isn't paid, this provision is not enforceable in court.
  •  Repairs: You may be required to give written notice when you need repairs, and to pay for things you break.
  •  Security: Landlord will not claim responsibility for your safety.

Watch Your Rights: It is advisable to avoid, revise or at least discuss these lease provisions:

  •  Waiving of Notice:  See "Default" above.
  •  Rent Escalation Clause: Beware of escalation clauses. Discuss how often and how much rent raises will be. Ask if you can terminate your lease without charge if you can't live with the rent raise. One of the benefits of a lease is guaranteed rent rate. In waiving this guarantee, you give up a lot. Negotiate to strike the clause if possible.
  •  Liability: Some leases ask you to forgo your right to hold the landlord responsible for his/her negligence which may result in your injury. Even though you may have "released the lessor from all claims and damages," this provision could not necessarily protect the landlord in court.
  •  Check It Out Before You Sign: The lease and "rules" that you sign will be enforced. These documents are often too complicated and lengthy, and tenants often don't take the time to ask:
    • "May I -"
      • . . . change the window coverings?
      • . . . Opt not to have my unit sprayed for pests?
      • . . . Make (specific) modifications for my disability?
      • . . . Paint or wallpaper?
      • . . . Work on my vehicle on the premises?
      • . . . Practice my music?
      • . . . Park my motorcycle, boat or R.V.?
      • . . . Let my guest’s park here?
      • . . . Add a roommate?
      • . . . Put up a ceiling fan?
      • . . . Decorate my balcony?
      • . . . Buy a waterbed?
      • . . . Install a dead-bolt lock?
      • . . . Have parties at the pool?
      • . . . Cook outside?
      • . . . Get a pet?
      • . . . Keep my kids here on weekends?
      • . . .  Invite my mother for 3 weeks?
      • . . . Use my shop equipment, ham radio, etc.?

 

If you rent a private house, find out who mows the yard and how often, who handles trash collection and on what day, how to prevent frozen pipes, how to operate the furnace, what maintenance people to call in emergencies, and so on.

 Finally, before you sign and "take possession". . .

  • Know the landlord's full name (get a card).
  • Know how to reach him or her by phone and by mail. If he/she won't give you an address, be wary.
  • Get a signed receipt for rent and deposit. No cash.
  • Get a copy of the lease agreement.

 

BASIC PROMISES TO EACH OTHER

The Landlord/Tenant Act deals with promises and obligations and is based on fairness and reasonableness.

Implied in any lease agreement are the landlord's promises to provide "quiet enjoyment" (non-interference with the tenant's peace of mind) and a "habitable" dwelling that is maintained in a fit and safe condition.

The tenant's basic promises are to pay rent on time, to take care of the property and to make proper use of the premises including obeying rules and not bothering other tenants.

If either party fails to live up to these fundamental covenants, the contract is breached (broken), and the injured party may have the right to sue.