Many students have expressed frustration with one of the most important parts of living in off-campus housing — the contract. Indeed, there are numerous areas where students can be confused or taken advantage of by Ann Arbor landlords if they do not understand the fine print on a contract or if they simply do not know their rights as a tenant.
Under law, a lease is only required to specify the cost of rent and the duration of the lease, said Doug Lewis, the director of Student Legal Services at the University.
But beyond the price and the dates, Lewis said landlords have the power to design contracts to meet their needs, regardless of the concerns of potential renters. This can often result in conflicts between landlords and tenants. For example, tenants can find added provisions like house rules — limits on what a tenant can flush down toilets or the volume of music — overly restrictive.
LSA senior Franklin Branch knows firsthand what can happen when a landlord adds clauses to a contract. His landlord raised the rent $25 per person, per month after the lease was signed. Branch said he was unaware that according to the contract, his landlord can increase the rent if maintenance costs rise. He said he and his roommates were confused by the increase, resulting in a delayed response to paying the additional rent. The landlord then called each of their parents before contacting the tenants, threatening eviction from the house.
“I feel like there are a lot of people in this exact situation,” said Branch about students who may not be aware of details in their leases. He added that students should ask the landlord about any clauses on the contract before they sign for a house.
While lease clauses such as the one in Branch’s contract are uncommon, Lewis said there are many other clauses landlords have been known to add to their contracts that can easily confuse students.
Lewis said one of the most notorious examples of this is the joint and several liability clause, which many students do not understand in its entirety. What this clause means is that if several lessees have agreed to share the expenses of renting one housing unit, each of them is actually responsible for the total.
“It’s not that person A owes $100 a month, it’s that person A potentially owes $400 a month and so does B and so does C and so does D. As long as everyone is paying it’s fine, but if any one of those people drop out, the remaining persons are liable,” Lewis said.
Other terms he said can be tricky for students are “prep fee” and “cleaning fee,” because students are often unaware of what each entails — and knowing what the terms mean can prevent being ripped-off. A landlord cannot charge a tenant a cleaning fee that would be used to clean the house before his move-in date because Ann Arbor’s city code requires landlords to clean housing units before tenants move in. On the other hand, it is legal for a landlord to charge a cleaning fee in advance for cleaning that will done after a tenant’s lease expires. This cleaning fee, however, cannot be deducted from the security deposit.
As for the use of prep fees, Lewis stresses that the lessee needs to ask the landlord exactly what this fee is going to cover.
“Some of them are outrageous,” said Lewis, who said the fee is legal when applied toward the costs of certain procedures like background checks.
Even if a tenant and landlord make it through the year without too many troubles, the security deposit can pose it’s own set of issues. Many students agree that this can be a grueling process in which landlords often make unreasonable or unwarranted deductions.
Lewis suggests the best way to avoid these deductions is to thoroughly fill out the checklist given to tenants during move–in.
“Probably one of the most important steps in keeping your deposit at the end of your lease is writing a very good security deposit checklist at the beginning of your lease and documenting the condition of the apartment when you move in,” Lewis said. “Tenants need to go room by room and be as picky as they can be. Don’t ignore little things,” said Lewis, who recommended tenants take incoming and outgoing photos as additional evidence.
These checklists can be compared to those made by the landlord during move-out, distinguishing any prior damage from damage caused by the current lessee. By law, a landlord cannot charge for damage due to natural wear and tear on the unit, Lewis said, adding that is also illegal to charge for cleaning required after move-out.
“I have watched landlords try and nickel-and-dime those deposits,” he said. “I have seen some that charge $5 for replacing a burnt-out light bulb.”
Beyond the concern of unwarranted deductions, some students are worried their landlords may never refund their security deposits at all.
LSA junior Wajeeha Shuttari has been unsuccessful at getting her security deposit back. Shuttari and her former roommates, whose lease ended last August, have yet to get their $1,200 security deposit from their former landlord. A few weeks ago, she called the landlord to ask for the deposit but said her landlord brushed her concern aside, leaving her frustrated and without the deposit.
One of the factors she said played a part in the debacle is that her and her roommates never received a copy of the lease, preventing her from knowing what the lease said about security deposit return policies like forwarding her deposit to her new address.
“I want students to make sure they have a copy of the lease,” Shuttari advised. To better ensure the security deposit return runs smoothly, Lewis said students must provide an address where the deposit can be sent to the tenant upon moving out. This must be completed within four days of moving out of the housing unit. Once this phase is complete, the landlord has 30 days to either return the security deposit or send a written statement explaining why he is deducting money from the deposit. If a tenant receives a list of deductions, he then has seven days to respond with objections. If there are objections, the landlord then has a total of 45 days from the date of moving out to either sue the tenant in small claims court or reach an agreement with the tenant, Lewis said.
Lewis added that students frequently think they cannot pay the last month’s rent and instead rely on the security deposit to cover the rent. This is not a strictly legitimate practice unless the landlord agrees to this, although most do not because they want to have the full security deposit in case they need to make repairs to the apartment that would be deducted from the deposit.
Students often do not realize they are allowed to withhold rent if the landlord fails to make housing repairs after he has been notified in writing and given a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem, Lewis said. The tenant is not obligated to pay full rent if the documented repairs are not made. Lewis warns this may not be as easy as it seems. Landlords who contest the claims can sue the tenant in court, where a judge will decide who is at fault and if withholding rent was warranted.
If the tenant does not want to withhold rent, he can deduct and repair. This is when the tenant tells the landlord in advance that he will make the minor repairs himself and then bills the landlord for the repairs or deducts the cost of the repairs from his rent.