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What are some tips for renters before signing a lease?

Asked by Trulia, San Francisco, CA Tue Mar 6, 2012

What are some things to be aware of? What are some tips when negotiating a lease?

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Neil Blumberg’s answer
You have a right to get 100% of your security deposit back if you comply with the terms of the contract. The key phrase found in most contracts in the boilerplate language is "fair wear and tear excluded", or something similar. In other words, if you leave the apartment in the same condition as when you took possession, with the only deterioration due to that caused by normal usage, you're in the clear and must receive back your security deposit. You are in CA, and different laws may apply. But it should all be spelled out in your contract.

When I became divorced about 20 years ago I moved into an apartment run by a pretty reputable company. I was a great tenant. No loud music, kept the place clean, paid on time etc. And when my daughter wanted to draw on the wall I contacted a friend of mine who worked for the local newspaper and got huge sheets of news print paper to put on one wall and she drew to her heart's content. At the end of the lease they tried to withhold my deposit on some spurious grounds. I refused to allow them to do that and was prepared to fight at all levels. I got my money back, as I should have.

I have been dealing with landlords all my professional life, as both attorney (outside the US) and as realtor. Some are very good friends of mine. But landlords are like everyone else, some good, some bad. I can tell you that in some purchase analyses some landlords do in assessing the return on investment for multi-unit complexes, they look at the amount of late fees and withheld deposits as separate parts of their revenue stream. There was one I saw that it amounted to 3% of gross income. Not all security deposits are justifiably withheld - know your rights.

So....check out the landlord, but also prepare in advance to defend yourself by doing a walk through prior to signing with the landlord or his representative, and meticulously note those items that are defective. Get the landlord to sign off on it. And if you notice a defect or it becomes apparent only after you move in, bring it to the landlords attention in writing immediately and get him to agree it is not your fault (if you can). And then do a walkthrough just prior to leaving with the landlord or his representative.

This is just one of many things you need to know about your lease. Find a competent realtor or attorney - those rental contracts are very heavily weighted against tenants in favor of landlords and the terms may be negotiable. If not and the term is important, walk away. Know your rights.

Fact is most leases are going to be OK. But we purchase car and home insurance or accidental disability insurance because we know that sometimes things go wrong. Be prepared.
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2 votes Thank Flag Link Tue Mar 6, 2012
I'll be honest, if you already have a place in mind, I do not see the need to consult a realtor--unless there is some reason that you do not trust your prospective landlord. And, if that was the case, I would find another place.

An attorney would be a better choice, but leases tend to be fairly simple. While I would never say to NOT contact an attorney for liability reasons, you should be able to determine if you need one. I could see using one if your landlord is inexperienced (like in renting someone's home). You definitely need a lease that outlines what your status is as a renter and for how long you are committed.

Also, today's world of digital cameras makes it very easy to photograph EVERYTHING in detail. Do that before you move in. Even with that, don't expect to get your entire deposit back upon moving out.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Tue Mar 6, 2012
(1) Get details of bank account into which your escrowed money will be placed. Don't back down on this.

(2) Your escrowed money is for certain purposes ONLY. Contact a realtor or attorney to find out those purposes. Know the law and your rights BEFORE you sign.

(3) Take photos of any defect in the property and have your landlord acknowledge they exist. Don't blindly sign that the property has no defects. Insist on a walk-through PRIOR to signing.

(4) Check out the landlord. Ask tenants in the building about him. Do your research BEFORE you sign.

This is a very short list. The main thing to do is to contact a competent realtor or attorney and understand the contract.
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1 vote Thank Flag Link Tue Mar 6, 2012
My professional opinion is : Do not sign a lease until you have a chance to do a move in walk through with the management. Take photos with date stamps and notes of all the damages and wear and
tear visible prior to your move-in. This will help protect your security deposit upon you vacating the residence.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Thu May 2, 2013
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