By Sarah Guy
As a former property management professional, I’ve gone over countless lease agreements, and I couldn’t tell you how many times, in the midst of all the paperwork, I’ve heard the crack, “I feel like I’m signing my life away!” Given the pages and pages of legalese and clauses involved in any lease, it’s understandable why anyone would feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the agreement being signed.
The truth is, however, if you don’t take the time to read and understand your lease, you could very well be signing your life away- or if not your life, then at least some very significant components of it- your money, your credit, and your rights to mobility for the term of the lease. The consequences of breaking or violating a legally binding lease can be dire.
However, the lease contract doesn’t exist solely to protect your landlord- your rights as a tenant are a vital part of the lease agreement as well. Making sure that you read and understand your lease completely is the greatest step you can take to advocate for your rights as a renter. While property management staff will go over the whole lease with you, they will usually sum up large, complex sections, and skip others altogether. You have the right to request a copy of the lease to read and review prior to signing, and you have the right to a copy of your lease once you’ve completed the signing process. I suggest you exercise both these rights. Once you put pen to paper and sign your lease contract, you are agreeing to the terms therein and you’ll have limited recourse to protest them, so don’t sign anything that you don’t agree with and can’t abide by.
While it would take dozens, maybe hundreds of pages to outline your rights as a tenant, my aim in this series of articles is to address common issues related to moving out. Hopefully, armed with my advice, you’ll be able to avoid the worst of the sticky situations that can arise at the end of your tenancy
Ending Your Lease
The number one place I have seen good, honest renters get burned is when it comes to ending their lease. Often, this occurs because they don’t give their notice in time. Rules and policies governing the required notice to end a lease will vary from state to state and from company to company; however, you can expect to always have to give some type of advance written notice. Most leases will have a clause which states that your lease will automatically renew on a month-to-month basis if proper notice is not given. Many companies charge a hefty rent premium for a month-to-month lease, so if you give notice at the last minute, you could find yourself owing up to two extra months of rent plus fees. If you try to avoid the issue by dropping your keys in the rent box and neglecting to leave a forwarding address, you may find yourself getting collection calls for thousands of dollars a couple months down the road.
To avoid problems at move out, you need to make sure read all the lease ending policies at move in. If you keep a day planner or a wall calendar, flip ahead to your “60 day mark (or however many days notice you are contractually required to give)” and label it in big red letters. You might also program your 60 day mark into your cell phone as an event so it alerts you when that critical day rolls around. It’s very easy, when you get involved in the details of day-to-day life, to forget little details like when your lease ends; however, allowing yourself to lose track could translate into big bucks if you don’t choose to stay in your dwelling.
On the flip side of this issue, however, there is probably a clause in your lease which requires the landlord to give YOU written notice of your approaching leasing ending date. For instance, in the standard Texas lease, the landlord must notify the resident no more than ninety days and no less than five days prior to the day they are required to give notice. If the landlord fails to do this, then the tenant is only required to give a 30 day written notice.
Breaking Your Lease
Sometimes, situations arise where a renter has no choice but to break their lease and move out early. If you find yourself in this situation, however, you need to proceed with extreme caution. If not done the right way, a broken lease can affect your ability to rent elsewhere for years to come.
It’s important to weigh your options very carefully when choosing to break a lease. Sometimes work transfers or family emergencies necessitate a move that can’t be avoided. However, if you have just had it up to HERE with your next-door neighbors, or you had your car broken into and you don’t feel safe, or your AC has broken three times and you’ve just had enough, think twice before you made a rash decision. Unless your management company has clearly been in breach of their contractual obligations to you, your move will be viewed as a broken lease, and all the good excuses in the world aren’t going to help you if that broken lease shows up in your rental history.
The requirements to break a lease will vary depending on where you are renting and from whom. Some companies do not allow lease breakage, period. You’ll owe them for the remainder of the lease term whether you live in the apartment or not. Oftentimes, your rental company will require you to pay out the required notice, pay back any concessions (“free rent”) you received, and pay a lease breakage fee. This can get very expensive, particularly if you have to move suddenly and can’t give the proper notice as required by your lease. Remember, when you signed your lease contract, you agreed to the terms governing lease breakage with your landlord- so your cries of “highway robbery!” will, unfortunately, get you nowhere.
Your best bet, if you find yourself in this predicament, is to see if your management company will set up a payment plan with you. Most rental companies won’t hold a broken lease against you if you’ve paid it off. If you don’t, however, the account will get sent to collections, the debt will be added as a negative line item on your credit report, and you can forget about getting approved for an apartment until it’s been resolved.
Be sure to speak with your apartment manager about the possibility of your apartment getting rented out again quickly. For instance, if you being held to paying two months rent after you’ve already moved out, but the complex turns the apartment and gets a new tenant in after three weeks, then legally you don’t owe for the last five weeks of your notice period. It’s illegal for a landlord to collect double rent. Don’t rely on this too heavily to help you out, however; your complex is going to rent out vacant apartments before they rent one out that is still being paid on.
Move Out Inspection and Damage Charges
You have the right to be present at your move out inspection, and it’s always a good idea to exercise that right. By doing so, you will know if you’re being charged for any damages, how much security deposit to expect back, and it will also give you the opportunity to protest any charges you feel are unfair, or to remedy small cleaning or repair issues. Pay close attention to the clause in your lease regarding your move out inspection, as it’s likely that you’ll be required to schedule the inspection in advance.
Whether or not you are able to be present for your move out inspection, it’s vital that you remember to give your forwarding address to the rental office. If you don’t, you may never see your security deposit check- or you may be in for a nasty surprise a few months down the road when collections start calling about a balance you weren’t aware of because you never received your final account statement.
A Final Word
No matter the circumstances when you move, you will always fare better if you’ve taken the time to read and be aware of your community’s policies and regulations beforehand, and deal with the rental staff in a calm and respectful manner. If issues arise with your management staff, or you feel there’s been any breach of contract on management’s part, politely but firmly ask to speak to the next level up of management. A negative rental history will stay with you nearly as long as your bad memories of the rental itself, so it’s essential to be well informed about the terms of your lease before you enter into a legally binding contract.