Prepare today for year-end lease problems

Speaking from the bar

Welcome (back) to town! Even if you are a first time reader, the purposes of this column will be readily apparent. Through the good graces of the The Northern Star editors, the lawyers at the Students’ Legal Assistance Office have been given space on a regular basis to provide legal information pertinent to the NIU student body. Columns obviously cannot be particularized to the degree ordinarily necessary to resolve specific legal problems. If you have a legal problem, contact our office, 753-1701, for an appointment so that you can get individualized assistance.

By now you are hopefully serenely settled in your new living accomodation, your next door neighbors have invited you over for a get-acquainted barbecue, and your landlord has dropped by to tell you that you can use his private garage when it snows during the winter. Realize, however, that when problems arise, they usually begin early-on in the tenancy or housing contract period. The following are steps you can take immediately to help prevent hassles and to be prepared for them should they occur.

1. Keep records. If you don’t have a copy of your lease and/or room condition or check-in report, get one. Be persistent. If oral requests to the landlord or manager don’t do the trick, write a letter and keep a copy requesting the document(s) in question. Also keep records of all rental and other payments related to the tenancy. If you pay rent in cash—and it is not advisable to do so—be sure to get and keep a monthly receipt. Finally, you need to give thought to how to preserve your records; a file or file box should be used.

2. Document the condition of the apartment. More tenants lose ground by neglecting to make out and keep a room condition or damage report than any other act of omission. Your legal duty as a tenant is to return the premises in as good or better condition than you found it, except for ordinary wear and tear. In a court of law, the condition of the premises at the beginning of a tenancy is a question of fact; consequently, you need the best evidence possible to be able to demonstrate your apartment did not resemble the Taj Mahal when you took over.

If you failed to make out a condition report when you moved in two weeks ago, don’t despair; a condition report made out now is much better than none at all. Forms are available in our office. Take pictures as appropriate, particularly when structural damages are involved. When you get the pictures developed, list on the back of the photo the date you took the pictures, who took them and where the pictures were developed.

3. Contact your landlord about promised repairs and improvements. If your landlord has promised to make improvements, but hasn’t done so, contact him and get a commitment about when the improvements are to be made. The same procedure applies with damages. A working relationship is a two-way street and reasonableness is the keyword to successful dealings with most landlords. However, if it becomes apparent that your landlord is evading his responsibilities, you need to confront the issue. Depending on the problem, it is advisable to write a letter detailing you complaints. Submitting “work requests” is fine, but has the disadvantage that you may not get a copy for yourself. Make a separate written record of any work order you submit to your landlord or management.

The city of DeKalb has a housing code that specifies minimum conditions of health and safety that lessors of residential property must provide for their tenants. A complaint to the city will lead to an inspection of the premises by a code enforcement officer. If violations are shown to exist, a directive to the landlord will be issued for them to make repairs.

4. Check with your parents’, homeowners, or rental insurance to determine if property you brought up to school is covered in the event of loss by fire, theft, etc. If not, consider getting renters insurance, especially if you are keeping a stereo, color TV or other valuable items in the apartment. The landlord is not necessarily responsible for such losses, unless he contributed to the loss through his own negligence.

5. Try to establish common ground with your roommates. Having roommates is a little like sharing a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean; survival dictates that the ruling principle should be one for all and all for one. The applicable legal doctrine is “joint and several liability,” meaning that in the standard lease situation each tenant, both individually and as a member of the group, if fully liable for all the obligations contained in the lease for payment of rent, observance of rules and regulations, etc.

A written roommate agreement, forms for which are available in our office, can clarify such matters as apportionment of utility bills, over-night guests, quiet hours and limitations on subletting. If you run into conflicts that seem impossible to solve, seek assistance from some neutral third party. Our office is prevented from taking one student’s side against another, since this constitutes a conflict of interest. A mediation service is offered provided both parties agree to participate in a good faith effort to resolve their differences. The Ombudsman’s office also offers mediation of roommate conflicts.

Living in an apartment can and should be a lot of fun. Keep track of the potential legal and interpersonal problems involved and it will undoubtedly be so.

Don Henderson

Lynn Richards

Students’ Legal Assistance