Legal advice to know before signing leases

Once entered into, a lease contract binds both parties to perform on the promises contained in the lease, and gives rise to a claim for damages in the event one party breaches its duties to the other. Since you can wind up owing a landlord literally thousands of dollars if you default in rental payments, it is vital to be as knowledgeable as you can about the process before you sign a lease. Consider the following:

First, if a deposit of any sort is required, for example, in conjunction with a credit check the landlord wants to run on you, clarify in writing the purpose of the deposit, whether or not the deposit is refundable, and if refundable, on what terms. Don’t be afraid to negotiate for the refundability of your deposit.

Second, never sign a lease without reading it. Since a lease is usually full of legalese, you should ask for a copy of the lease so you can read it over carefully and understand its terms, objecting to and/or negotiating with the landlord on matters which concern you. Failure to read the lease or understand or bargain over its contents will not relieve you of the obligations thereto.

The staff of the Students’ Legal Assistance Office will be available to the students on the shortest notice possible to review your lease with you before you sign it. Just call.

Third, the cardinal rule to follow in signing any contract, and particularly so with respect to leases, is that any promises made by the other party which you are relying on in signing the contract need to be written into the contract—before you sign it. Do not rely on a manager’s or landlord’s oral promise that you will have new carpeting, or that the apartment will be cleaned when you take possession. Oral promises are too often empty promises, unmet or reneged on later, and difficult to prove in court. If the promised performance is important to you, get it in writing.

Fourth, negotiate with the landlord. It is typical for a landlord to present his contract as a take it or leave proposition. But a surprising number of landlords will discuss changes in their pre printed lease; all of them will if they believe the apartment is going to go unrented. There is strength in numbers—the more NIU students insist on negotiating with DeKalb landlords, the sooner landlords will come to accept that negotiating is part of the rental process.

What to negotiate about? A short list would include the following:

a) Rent. Why not? Better to get a rent term you know you and your roommates can handle than sign a lease hoping to find an extra (possibly illegal) roommate so you can cover your expenses.

b) Terms of the lease. If several of you are graduating in May, or know you will not be living in DeKalb over the summer, try to negotiate for a 9 month lease. Even if you will have to pay a somewhat higher rent per month, your savings can be substantial.

c) Push for a clause which allows early termination of the lease, or modification of the rental terms, if a roommate leaves for good cause, i.e., flunking out of school, becoming ill, etc.

d) Provide that each tenant shall be responsible only for his or her share of rent rather than being “jointly and severally liable” for the rent. This is particularly appropriate when the landlord mixes and matches you with other persons you do not know.

e) Negotiate about eliminating or modifying prepaid rent requirements and insist on being paid interest on your prepaid rent.

f) Clarify the “access” clause which allows landlords to enter the premises at certain times and for specific purposes. Insist that you be given 24 hours notice except for emergencies.

g) Inserting a clause which makes the landlord responsible to you for enforcing anti-noise and disturbance provisions which he had included in other tenants’ leases. Too often, landlords take a hands off attitude when residents of one apartment are disturbing others.

h) Supplementing the provision which makes you responsible for the landlord’s court costs and attorney’s fees if he has to sue you with a parallel clause which makes him responsible for your costs if you have to sue him.

Negotiating will make you more aware of the lease and your obligations, it may also improve your position.