Chris La Barbara returned from a tailgate to find a hole in his ceiling. Water from a toilet on the floor above had leaked through, damaging the structure of the house as well as destroying clothes, a mattress, and other belongings. La Barbara could see it was a mess. He just didn’t know it was a legal one. The owners of the property, which La Barbara rents with six other roommates, requested the tenants pay over $2,000 for repairs, citing the responsibilities lessees face when signing a housing contract. La Barbara said that while he feels requiring him to pay for the damage is an attempt to take advantage of him, he admits that he didn’t read the contract as carefully as he could have. “I signed and I got the keys and I left.”
La Barbara is not alone. Landlord-tenant disputes are among the most common types of cases dealt with by student legal services at colleges across the country. They accounted for 37 percent of all legal consultations at the University of California Berkeley’s Student Legal Services in the academic year 2014-15, more than double the second-most common issue, according to UC Berkeley’s SLS Annual Overview. You don’t have to be one of them. If you live off-campus or are planning to do so in the future, taking these simple steps before you sign a housing contract can keep you out of a legal dispute.
1. Review Your Lease with an Attorney
“Reading the lease and knowing what you’re responsible for is first and foremost,” said Nora Kilroy, Director of Off-Campus Life at the University of Florida. It sounds obvious, but contracts aren’t always written plainly. Many colleges offer free legal review with SLS attorneys, who can interpret esoteric legal concepts and help student understand exactly what the lease says.
“You have to understand what you’re signing before you do anything. That’s the most important thing,” said Paul Johnson, attorney at Iowa State University SLS, adding that students who sign contracts without full knowledge of what it entails can find themselves in a difficult position. “They could be in a situation where they end up owing thousands of dollars because they’ve done something contrary to the lease when they didn’t understand the lease.” Lawyers are trained to understand exactly what a lease says—if you’re in any way unsure about your lease, have a professional look at it.
2. Know Your Landlord’s History
Not all landlords are created equal. Knowing if your potential landlord has a history of legal battles with tenants could keep you from signing a lease that’s more trouble than it’s worth. Again, SLS can be a good resource for students. “We’ve been here for a considerable amount of time, and we know which are good landlords and which are problem landlords,” said Brian Jeffries, attorney at Michigan State University SLS. “We can steer clients away from problem landlords that we’ve dealt with.”
If your university doesn’t have an SLS program, there are still ways to research landlords. “You have to know who the landlord is,” Jeffries said. “You can always go to the court and check out which landlords have been involved in a lot of cases.”
3. Keep a Record
From the very beginning, get in the habit of documenting your communications with your landlord. “We usually recommend that you communicate in writing, so that you have a written record of what happened,” said Valerie McIntyre, a paralegal at Colorado State University SLS. “If you talk to the landlord verbally, we recommend that you follow that up with an email saying, ‘just to verify what we talked about today…’ That way, if you do end up in small claims court or end up in front of a judge, you have proof of the progression of what happened.”
“The worst-case scenario of a legal battle with a landlord probably won’t happen to you, but it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Annie Hamilton, director of the University of Montana SLS. “You have to take the process seriously, stay organized and document everything,” she said. “Too many students come in with horror stories but have no evidence, no pictures, no proof.” Should you end up in a legal dispute with your landlord, you’ll likely want documentation of your communications stretching back to the very beginning.
“To me, if my things were to be damaged in a way that wasn’t caused by me, I would never have assumed that I would still be liable,” said La Barbara. “But that’s the problem. I was assuming.” Assumptions are dangerous in the world of off-campus housing. Awareness of the realities of your contract, knowledge of the resources at your disposal and a willingness to document everything will help keep your off-campus housing dream from becoming a nightmare.