Housing hunting for dummies

By Kimberly Wilson

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Excited about getting off campus and finally living in your own apartment or house next year? Make sure you’re aware of your rights and what to look for before you sign that lease.

Looking for apartments or rental houses can be both exciting and stressful. There are so many factors you have to think about before you commit to a lease that it can be overwhelming. However, if you know your rights as a tenant before you sign on the dotted line, you’ll have a much easier time deciding on a future home.

The hunt is just one piece of the puzzle, but luckily there are many resources to assist in the search. Craigslist and many other websites offer lists of available apartments. Even UMass has a website full of information about off-campus housing: www.umoch.org. The Internet is a great source of information, but it is also a breeding ground for scammers, so be careful; verify the website’s credibility before entering any personal information. And check out a few properties before making a thoughtful decision. Remember, you’ll be living and paying for this place for at least a year.

Making the decision about which apartment you want to commit to should not be done lightly. Take time to think about your options and figure out the best home for you. Try to figure out what your budget for living costs will be for the following year, including rent, electricity, heat, groceries, transportation and other costs. Undertaking these basic steps should help you determine what you can really afford before you’re locked into a lease that’s too expensive.

Make sure you look at the property before you agree to sign the lease. Create a statement of conditions, and put any necessary repair agreements in writing with your landlord to ensure they will be completed (and you will not be charged). Talk to prospective neighbors to see how the property is managed, and what the neighborhood’s like.

Don’t put any money down to hold an apartment unless you’re positive you’re going to rent. Although, according to the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, your money should be returned to you before the landlord takes you on as a tenant, it may be difficult to recover the funds.

Once you decide on your apartment, it’s time to look at the lease. State regulations require a landlord to include certain information in the written lease, including the names, addresses and phone numbers of owners and other people responsible for the care and repair of the property, the people authorized to receive notices of violations of law and to accept notice of lawsuits on behalf of the owner, and the amount of the security deposit and your rights under the Security Deposit Law. Before you move in, the landlord can only require you to pay first month’s rent, last month’s rent, one month’s rent as a security deposit, and fees for installing a lock and keys.

We all know rent has to be paid, but there are some things you might not know: You cannot be demanded to pay anything more than what is listed above before moving into your apartment; you cannot be charged interest or penalties for late rent until 30 days after the rent is due; the landlord can, however, begin the eviction process as soon as the rent is late, even if it’s only by one day; an increase in the amount of rent you pay can be any amount however, the increase cannot be applied until your lease term expires.

If you pay a security deposit on an apartment when you receive a receipt of the deposit or within 10 days of your tenancy you should receive a statement of the present conditions of the property, a list of all items, their conditions, and any existing damages. There is room for negotiation, but a corrected copy of the statement must be returned to the property holder within 15 days of your receiving it. If you do not return the corrected copy of the statement and decide to sue later for the recovery of your security deposit, the court may not rule in your favor.. It would be awful if there was a hole in the wall when you moved in, and you got charged for it when you moved out. Any corrected list must be returned to you by your landlord within 15 days of signing, along with a written response of agreement or disagreement. These signed statements are used to judge any future charges resulting from new damages. If a statement is not given to you by your landlord, you should write your own and send a copy to your landlord. In order to have your security deposit returned to you, you must leave the apartment in the condition it was when you moved in. Be sure to clean up when you’re moving out.

If you have complaints against your landlord or have any questions about your rights, you can always contact FTC Consumer Response Center by phone, at 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357), or online at www.ftc.gov. You can also call the Consumer Protection Divisions of the District Attorney’s offices; Franklin County (413-774-3186), Hampshire County (413-586-9225) for informal mediation between you and the company. The University also offers assistance through Student Legal Services at (413-545-1995) or email at [email protected]

Kimberly Wilson is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]