When it comes to off-campus housing, just finding a property that has the desired price range, location and amenities can be difficult enough. And when it finally comes time to signing the lease, going through pages of legal jargon can be just as tedious, but don’t sign before asking yourself and your landlord a few questions.
Stacee Williams, director of IU Student Legal Services, shared some advise on leases and properties. Eric Sader, assistant director of Bloomington Housing and Neighborhood Development, which enforces code and inspects rental housing, explained how his office can assist students looking at properties.
1. Are these the people I really want to live with?
Sharing a house or apartment with other people can be difficult. Dishes pile up, shared spaces become cluttered or dirty, and unwanted guests may be hard to avoid.
With the right roommates, good communication and some ground rules, living with other people doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Ask yourself, "Do I trust these people?", "Are they responsible?" and "Will they be able to reliably pay rent?".
2. Is it a joint and several liability lease or a non-joint lease?
What happens when one of your roommates skips town?
“If it's a joint and several liability lease you're all bound to pay that full amount of rent whether most of the roommates move out or not and stop paying,” Williams said. “The landlord can go after one or all of the tenants.”
Some leases may be non-joint leases. This means that you agree to pay your portion of the total rent, and if your roommates suddenly leave or can’t pay, you are not responsible for their portion of the rent.
However, these types of leases do come with a downside if your roommate leaves.
“Most of those types of leases have provisions where the tenant is agreeing that the landlord can place anybody in their unit,” Williams said. “So you get people living together who don't know each other."
3. Is this a 12-month or 10-month lease?
If the property you are looking at has a 12-month lease, you will still be responsible for rent during the summer months. If you are not planning on staying the summer in Bloomington, the needless property can be a real drain on your finances.
Williams said that they are seeing more 10-month leases than they used to. If you can't get a 10-month, start planning early to find a subtenant.
“Students can also try and negotiate those leases with landlords, so that's something they should consider,” Sader said. “If it's not a 12-month by default or a 10-month by default then maybe that's something they can try and negotiate with the landlord.”
4. Do you allow subleasing?
When it comes to a 12-month lease, one way to cover rent over the summer is through subleasing, where you finding another person to pay your rent by allowing them to live in your house or apartment.
Make sure your landlord allows this and ask about any provisions they have, if they need to approve who is subleasing the property and whether or not there is a fee for subleasing.
5. What kind of fees might I be charged and are they fair?
Aside from the security deposit, your lease may include additional administrative fees or other unexpected expenses.
Williams said landlords are limited in what they can do with security deposits by law. Your deposit cannot be used for repair on the property unless damages are beyond the ordinary wear and tear.
“Essentially, landlords, in order to get around those limitations in the law in what they can do with security deposits, sometimes they will add on additional contract expenses like administrative fees,” Williams said.
Williams said that most landlords are upfront and honest about security deposits. In some cases, however, there may not be anything that is called a security deposit in the lease, when in fact they are collecting what is in reality a security deposit through fees.
These fees can be challenged by the tenant, but it’s difficult.
“If you're looking at a bunch of fees and you decide you don't want to pay all that stuff up front, your best option is probably to go talk to another landlord," Williams said.
6. Have there been any maintenance issues in the past?
The property you’re looking at may have had issues with a leaky roof or bad plumbing, but those issues might not be apparent on a tour.
Every Bloomington property within city limits should be registered with Bloomington Housing and Neighborhood Development.
Files on Bloomington properties are available at the Housing and Neighborhood Development offices in Showers City Hall on North Morton Street.
“In the files, the primary thing you'll find is inspection history, which includes any standard inspections as well as any follow-up inspections if there's anything wrong with those initial inspections," Sader said.
Sader said files will also show complaints that have been filed about the physical property and any follow-ups to those complaints.
7. Can I see the actual unit?
Williams said that some apartment complexes will tour prospective tenants through a unit that is only used to show what a typical room looks like.
“They've never been lived in and that's not a good way to judge what it is you're actually getting in signing that contract," Williams said.
8. Is renters' insurance required?
Some landlords require tenants to purchase renters' insurance, which protects your personal property and can cover expenses if the property becomes uninhabitable. Sader said that most renters' insurance is fairly low-cost insurance that all tenants should at least consider.
"If something goes wrong in the apartment, whether it's the tenants fault or not, chances are there's not going to be any other insurance out there to cover the loss of personal items,” Williams said. “And so, it makes sense for tenants to have something in place to protect their own stuff.”
9. Is the property pet-friendly?
If you are planning on bringing along your cat, dog or other pet, make sure to check that animals are allowed on the property. Keep in mind that some apartments may allow pets, but have a specific weight limit to keep out larger pets or a fee for pets.
Williams said that she gets a lot of questions about emotional support animals being allowed at properties. Emotional support animals may be a valid exception to properties that do not allow pets.
10. What are the expectations on move-out?
It’s important to be aware of how clean your landlord expects the property to be when you leave. If it’s not up to their standard, they may charge you with a cleaning or other fee.
If damages to the house have occurred, Williams said the landlord may keep your security deposit if the damages are beyond the ordinary wear and tear of living there.
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