LEGAL GUIDE
Written by Avvo Staff | Nov 3, 2015

Tips for renting your first apartment as a student

Everything you need to know about living off-campus.

Part of the college experience is learning to live on your own, and having your own off-campus apartment gives you that opportunity for growth. Of course, as with all privileges, renting your first apartment also comes with a host of responsibilities. Before moving in, make sure you're aware of all your rights and obligations as a tenant.

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The application process

Before you can rent an apartment, you need to go through the application process. This will vary by location and landlord, but it usually includes a credit report inquiry, a background check, and a security deposit.

Credit check

Remember the landlord will need your authorization in writing to run your credit. The landlord will look to see if you have a long enough credit history and if it's good or bad. Landlords look for bankruptcies, late payments, delinquent accounts, judgments against you, and your credit score, if included.

As a college student, even if you're diligent about paying your bills, you might not have enough financial activity to convince the landlord you're reliable. In that case, you might need a parent or someone else to co-sign for you.

Background check

Applications also typically include a criminal background check. Some landlords will look not only at convictions but also at arrest and charge records. Whether the law allows this will vary by location, so contact your local housing authority if you have questions.

Generally speaking, landlords can deny housing based on criminal history, even without a conviction. However, they must apply the rule uniformly to all applicants and cannot use it to discriminate against a potential tenant.

Security deposit

Before you can take possession of the apartment, your landlord will likely want you to pay a security deposit in addition to the first month's rent. State laws can limit how much landlords can charge for a security deposit, typically 1 month's rent.

Before you sign a lease

Once you've found off-campus housing that meets your needs, the next step is signing a lease. If possible, try to tour the unit you'll be renting before you sign anything. Ideally, an attorney should look over your lease before you sign it, as well.

Many landlords in college towns have rented to thousands of students over the years, so they've probably perfected their lease with experience. Landlords usually also have lawyers help them draft an enforceable agreement. That's why it's smart to consult a lawyer of your own.

If that's not possible, at least read your lease over thoroughly, and ask questions if you don't understand any provisions, or clauses. Your lease should contain the address, term length, rent amount, rent due date, security deposit information, and the landlord's as well as your own rights and duties.

Watch out for the following red flags:

  • "As-is" clause. Unless you've inspected the unit, don't agree to accept it as is. Although the courts are unlikely to enforce the clause, you're better off erring on the safe side.

  • Disclaimer of all liability. If you see a provision in your lease where the landlord essentially says that they accept no liability if anything goes wrong, don't sign. These are known as exculpatory clauses. Most states will not enforce them, especially when applied to housing contracts.

  • Abuse of right of entry. Most states have laws that restrict when landlords can enter your unit and how much notice they must give before they do. For instance, Nevada requires 24 hours of notice for non-emergency entry while Vermont requires 48 hours.

  • Eviction notice waiver. Signing a lease with this clause might allow a landlord to initiate eviction proceedings without informing you.

  • Excessive or unreasonable terms. Look for how much you'll pay in fees if you're late with rent. Also, make sure your lease is for a reasonable term. Your plans may change in the next year, so don't overcommit.

Renewing your lease

Unless your lease guarantees you a renewal option, the landlord does not have to renew your lease when it expires. If the landlord allows you to renew, you usually have to sign the new lease a few months in advance to secure the unit.

Remember that the landlord can raise your rent in the new lease. However, landlords usually can't make changes to the rent amount during the lease term.

Tenant rights

Renting your first apartment is a learning experience. Know your rights, before you run into any problems.

Understanding the Fair Housing Act

For the most part, landlord-tenant law is determined by local regulations and the common law of the state. However, some areas are governed by federal law -- namely, the Fair Housing Act. Under this law, it is illegal for landlords to discriminate in housing on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Presence of children

Note that landlords can neither deny housing for any of these reasons nor can they set different terms for discriminatory reasons. If you believe your landlord has discriminated against you, complete a housing discrimination complaint form with the Housing and Urban Development Department.

Understanding your rights as a tenant

  • Quiet enjoyment and use of the unit and common areas
  • Security deposit refunded or explanation given for withholding it
  • Repairs assumed by the landlord in the lease
  • Adequate notice from the landlord to enter the apartment
  • A returned deposit or a written explanation why it was withheld
  • Lawful eviction

Adding roommates

Sharing an apartment has advantages. More roommates means lower rent for you. But taking on new roommates can also cause problems.

  • Don't give in to the temptation to make an informal agreement with your new roommate. For example, only your name goes on the lease, but your roommate promises to pay you every month. If your roommate doesn't pay, that makes you responsible for paying the entire rent amount.

  • Your landlord might require you to include anyone staying with you for more than a few weeks to the lease. That person might have to go through the landlord's tenant-screening process, as well. You might also have to sign a new lease.

  • Before you agree to take on a roommate, make sure you won't exceed the occupancy limit of your lease or your local laws. Every complex and location is different, but the general rule is 2 people for every bedroom plus 1.

Remember that taking in tenants without the landlord's permission can violate the terms of your lease. That could be grounds for eviction in some cases.

Getting your security deposit back

Before you leave your old apartment, make sure your former landlord has a valid mailing address for you. That will help expedite the return of your security deposit.

Each state has different laws on how long landlords have to return your deposit or offer a written explanation why they withheld it. The time can range from 14 to 60 days. Keep in mind that your landlord cannot withhold your deposit for ordinary wear and tear to the unit. If your landlord fails to return your security deposit on time, you can sue in small claims court.

Moving into your first apartment is an exciting and important life milestone. To get the most from the off-campus housing experience, make sure you fully understand your rights and duties as a future tenant.

Eviction

If you violate the terms of your lease, your landlord may have the right to evict you. Eviction proceedings will depend local laws as well as the provisions of your lease. Grounds for eviction might include:

  • Failure to pay rent as agreed
  • Violating the lease (e.g, pets, illegal use, unauthorized occupants, etc.)
  • Damaging the property significantly
  • Violating city ordinances
  • Interfering with other tenants' quiet enjoyment
  • Creating safety or health hazards

The landlord sets eviction proceedings in motion by giving you a formal notice of eviction. This will tell you how long you have before you are evicted and what, if anything, you can do to stop it.

Student resources

If you’re unsure about some aspect of your lease or your landlord's actions, there are several ways you can get help.

  • Post a question on Avvo's free Q&A forum. Anonymously ask a question, include any relevant details, and local lawyers will offer their advice within 24 hours.

  • Talk to your university's student legal services. Many schools offer free or discounted legal help from current law students.

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