6 Ways To Avoid Being Burned By Hidden Terms In Your Lease

1. Find out who pays utilities

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Just because utilities were included with your rent in your last apartment doesn’t mean that the same policy applies everywhere. Utilities like electric, gas, and water are often not included in the rent. And because utilities can be a significant part of your overall rent budget, make sure you know what you’ll be responsible for paying before you sign on the dotted line.

2. Pay the rent on time

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You know you need to pay rent, but it’s just as important to pay it on time. Even if you’re a day late, your landlord could give you a notice to pay rent or vacate. Sure, you can pay rent at that time and stay (you usually have three days to do this), but this practice will probably strain your relationship with your landlord. And besides that, you might be on the hook for late fees, and that could get expensive. “Typically, a lease will state that rent is due on the first of a month, but late charges do not begin to accrue until the fifth,” says Cody C. Branham, a Wichita, KS, attorney. “Be aware that late charges can often be very high, even up to 25% of the monthly rent.” Note: Most states don’t limit how much a landlord can charge for late fees, but some do.

3. Always ask before you sublet

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Landlords almost universally will not let you sublet unless you run it by them first and obtain written consent. Why? They want to screen potential tenants. If you think you might want to sublet at some point, there is a way to help ensure you can: “Tenants can protect themselves with language requiring that the landlord’s consent shall not be unreasonably withheld,” says Marc A. Rapaport, a New York, NY, attorney. “It is also helpful for tenants to request a provision providing that if the landlord does not respond to a request for consent to subletting within a particular period of time, the landlord is deemed to have consented.” Keep in mind, however, that some landlords won’t allow you to sublet at all. If that’s the case with your lease, just doing it anyway could get you evicted.

4. Give proper notice before moving out

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You might assume that your lease ends when the term is up. For example, if you’re renting from June 1 of the current year to May 31 of the next year, you can leave on May 31 if you like, end of story, right? This is typically the case … unless your lease requires you to give notice anyway or has an automatic renewal clause. “Many leases require that the tenant give a full month’s notice,” says Michael Vraa, a Minneapolis, MN, attorney. “So you’d have to tell the landlord during the 10th month that you are leaving at the end of the lease.”

Usually this notice has to be in writing. If you don’t give notice and your lease requires it or automatically renews, you’ll probably be on the hook for the next month’s rent or, in the case of automatic renewal, until the place is re-rented. Terms vary, as do local and state laws, so it’s best to know before you sign the lease what your exit plan needs to be.

5. Don’t make any alterations

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If you don’t like the paint color in the living room, leave it anyway. Too hot during a summer heat wave? Don’t install a window AC. Even thumbtacks can be a no-no. “Thumbtack holes are typically OK and fall under normal wear and tear, but if the lease says ‘no,’ the landlord can charge a tenant for the cost to repair the tiny holes via the security deposit,” says Wegener. And unless you get permission to paint, expect the expense to paint it back to come from your security deposit as well. Regarding the window AC? It presents a falling hazard, not to mention an increased utility bill, which might fall under your landlord’s jurisdiction. (Opt for a creative fan strategy instead.)

6. Get renters insurance

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Whether or not your lease requires you to have renters insurance, it’s a good idea to have it. Renters insurance covers your belongings if they’re stolen or damaged, pays your hotel bill in case your rental unit is unlivable because of damage from a storm or fire, and covers medical expenses if someone is hurt while in your apartment. If your lease requires you to have renters insurance, you must get it or face possible eviction. Renters insurance costs vary, but expect to pay around $15 a month.