When you sign a lease with a landlord, you are signing a legal contract which carries responsibilities and benefits for both the landlord and the tenant. Most leases are for terms of one year or more. As a result, you want to make sure you understand the lease well and ask any questions you may have before signing it. Failure to review the lease carefully or to understand it, could result in financial or other liability down the road. At a minimum, the lease should state: (1) The beginning and ending dates of the lease; (2) The name(s), address(es) and phone number(s) of the property owner or manager; (3) The amount of the security deposit (if the lease requires any); (4) The amount of last month's rent required up front; (5) The amount of rent to be paid and when it is due; (6) Who pays utilities and other services; and (7) The legal procedure for the retention and return of the security deposit. Remember to get all promises in writing. If it's not in writing, it never happened.
Illegal Lease Terms
If a lease has an illegal lease term (a provision in the lease that is against the law) it is unenforceable and you are not obligated to follow it. A landlord may also be violating the consumer protection laws for including illegal lease terms in the lease. While it is impossible to list all the possible illegal lease terms, some common ones include:
(1) Utilities such as gas, oil, electricity and water: You can't be required to pay for utilities unless there is a separate meter measuring only the use of your unit AND it's written in the lease that the tenant is responsible for the utilities (there are special laws and regulations which apply to water/sewage charges);
(2) Late payment fee - A landlord can only apply a late payment fee for late rent after 30 days; and
(3) Garbage removal: A tenant can only be obligated to pay for garbage removal only if there are fewer than 3 units in the building/home.
Before Moving In - Statement of Condition
If your landlord accepts a security deposit from you, then s/he is required to provide you with a Statement of Conditions. This is a very important form which describes the condition of the apartment when you first move in. When you receive this Statement of Conditions, you should walk through the entire leased premises and document any damage or other conditions issues on the form. You should also take pictures of the premises in the condition you found it and save these pictures (you may need them as proof later if a dispute arises). If you do not receive a Statement of Conditions, then you should still document the damages and conditions and give it to the landlord. You may be able to find a helpful form at the Mass Legal Help website (a link is provided below). By taking these steps, your landlord cannot then hold you responsible for damage that already existed before you moved in (and try to keep your security deposit).
Security Deposit - It's YOUR Money
A security deposit belongs to the tenant until such time that a landlord can lawfully deduct from it. That is why the law imposes strict requirements on how landlords must handle a tenant's security deposit. For example, they must place the security deposit in an interest-bearing account, located in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and out of the reach of creditors. When you give a landlord a security deposit, you should receive two receipts: the first when you pay your deposit and the second within thirty days of paying the deposit. The second receipt is the most important as it should provide specific information, including the name of the bank and the account number where your deposit is being held. The security deposit law imposes many other requirements and penalties for noncompliance. If a landlord does not properly comply with this law, a tenant may be entitled to recover up to three times the security deposit in damages, in certain cases.
Joint and Several Liability - What Does That Mean?
If there is more than one person on the lease listed as tenants, more likely than not your lease has language regarding "joint and several liability" of the tenants. It's important that you understand what this means, particularly if you will be sharing the premises with housemates that you do not know very well. This provision means that you and your housemates will be held responsible for the rent and any damage to the unit individually as well as collectively. For example, if your housemate causes damage that you were not involved in causing, you can be held responsible. Also, if your housemate leaves before the lease expires and does not pay rent, a landlord can collect the unpaid rent from your security deposit. (So choose your housemates wisely!)
What Can a Landlord Legally Charge Me Before Moving In?
A landlord is limited to what s/he can charge you at the beginning of a tenancy. Under the law, a landlord can only charge for:
(1) First month's rent;
(2) Last month's rent (which is no greater than the first month's rent);
(3) A security deposit (which is no greater than the first month's rent); and
(4) Cost of a purchasing and installing a new lock and key
THAT'S IT! Some landlords will try to charge application fees or "finder's fees." While some realtors and property managers may be able to collect these fees (because they are not the landlords), these fees are not allowed if charged by a landlord. If you have questions regarding these fees, you should speak to an attorney who may help you determine whether such fees were legally assessed.
General Tip During the Tenancy - Put It In Writing!
Good communication between landlords and tenants is an important part of a successful tenancy. When things go wrong, and maybe even end up in court, proving things can be a challenge, particularly if the communication was over the phone or in person. Therefore, when you give your landlord notice of a bad condition in your apartment, you should try to communicate this notice in writing. Under the law, in certain situations, you are not considered to have notified your landlord of a condition unless it is done in writing. This is especially important if your landlord is not responding to phone contact. Also, save copies of all your communication to the landlord and his/her response.
As a tenant, you have many rights in landlord/tenant disputes. If you would like further information about any of the topics discussed on this guide, or other problems with your landlord, check out MassLegalHelp.org or speak to attorney. Further, if you're worried a landlord may try to keep your security deposit unlawfully, or has not returned your deposit within 30 days of the end of the tenancy, you should contact an attorney as soon as possible. Some attorneys will handle security deposit issues on a contingency-fee or mixed-fee basis, so it's worth getting more information.
Additional resources provided by the author
Massachusetts General Laws, ch. 186, s. 15B (security deposit statute);
Attorney General's Office, Consumer Protection Division: (617) 727-8400;