Are you among the thousands of folks who are renting an apartment? Whether you’re a college student looking to live off campus or a young professional settling into Greater Boston for work, there are some things you should know about your legal rights as a tenant.
We asked Stephen Callahan, a professor at Suffolk University Law School and director of its Evening Landlord-Tenant Clinic, and attorney Adam Ponte of the law firm Kenney & Sams, PC, for insight into tenant-landlord rights. Check out what they have to say before you sign your lease.
What are you getting by signing a lease? “A residential lease is a contract in which the tenant pays rent in exchange for the exclusive possession of the premises,’’ says Callahan. “That means that the landlord may not enter the apartment without notice to and consent of the tenant.’’
Bear in mind, there are some exceptions. After giving the tenant proper notice, the landlord may enter:
• If the premises appear to be abandoned
• To inspect the property within the last 30 days of tenancy
• To make repairs
• To show the apartment to a prospective tenant, purchaser, mortgagee or its agents
• In accordance with a court order
The landlord should be reasonable and attempt to arrange a mutually convenient time to visit the apartment. If the landlord insists on entering the apartment in an unreasonable fashion, you may file a temporary restraining order.
Ponte says before you sign your lease, make sure everything orally promised by the landlord is clearly and explicitly written in the lease.
“For example, the landlord may have promised to install a dishwasher or new refrigerator before the tenant’s move-in day, and the tenant should make sure this promise is written into the lease, including the date upon which the new appliances will be available in the apartment,’’ says Ponte.
Ponte says by law your lease must include the contact information (name, address, telephone numbers) for the property owner(s) and other individuals or entities responsible for maintaining the property, and the contact information for the person(s) authorized to receive written notices of violations related to the property.
Some apartments require a security deposit. So what do you need to do to ensure you see your security deposit again? Adam Ponte, an attorney with Kenney & Sams, PC, says the trick is to pay close attention to your lease.
“Reading the fine print carefully will help a tenant avoid any surprises,’’ say Ponte.
In Massachusetts, a landlord must give the tenant a “statement of condition’’ within 10 days of receipt of the security deposit. The statement of condition describes the condition of the apartment and any damage that exists at that time. A tenant has 15 days to add to the statement of condition or make changes to it. A tenant should be sure to fill out the statement of condition, return it to the landlord and to keep a copy of it for their records.
Ponte recommends taking pictures showing the apartment’s condition and documenting any and all damage. Make sure the photographs contain timestamps. This ensures that if a landlord tries to withhold the security deposit for something you did not do, you have proof.
In addition, Ponte points out that the landlord is “required to hold the security deposit in a separate, interest-bearing account and must give the tenant a receipt and notice of the bank account number.’’
Finally, because a landlord can only deduct from a tenant’s security deposit for repairs that go above and beyond normal wear and tear (landlord is obligated to pay for normal wear and tear), a tenant should clean before vacating the apartment and repair damage that is easily fixed (i.e. repair drill holes, paint the apartment if you initially painted).
As a tenant, you are entitled to a safe and habitable living environment from your landlord. This means your are entitled to the following conditions:
• A functional heating system
• Adequate water (hot and cold)
• A proper kitchen with a sink and a stove
• A structurally sound apartment
• An apartment free of rodents and/or insect infestation
If your landlord has been notified of any problems and has failed to provide you with a habitable residence, Callahan says you may consider withholding a portion of the rent until repairs are made if you are not behind in your rent payments.
In Massachusetts, snow and snowstorms can be big headaches. So who is responsible for clearing snow after snowstorm? The tenant or the landlord? Well, that depends, says Ponte.
“Massachusetts regulations require landlords to ensure that exits are free from snow, trash and other obstructions,’’ says Ponte. “This only applies, however, to properties with more than one dwelling, such as an apartment building. Massachusetts law, however, provides that cities and towns may issue their own ordinances requiring property owners to take even greater precautions in removing snow.’’
Ponte says it is important to note that a landlord can insert a provision in your lease requiring you to remove snow, so long as your “dwelling has an independent means of [exit], not shared with other occupants,’’ as compared with a common area of an apartment complex.
It is against the law to lock a tenant out or remove his or her belongings without a court order following an eviction proceeding. Disregard for due process “is a violation of the law and a tenant can successfully seek a restraining order to prevent a self-help eviction,’’ says Callahan.
In an eviction case for no cause (without fault) or for nonpayment of rent, a tenant may raise counterclaims against the landlord for violation of the State Sanitary Code, violations of the lease, or other rights of the tenant to peaceful enjoyment of the premises. If the eviction is for some other alleged violation by the tenant, the notice must state the reasons and the tenant has the right to respond to the charges in the eviction case.
“Remember that a landlord cannot retaliate against a tenant for exercising his or her legal rights,’’ says Ponte. “For example, if a landlord attempts to raise your rent, or terminate your lease within six months of you contacting the board of health pursuant to sanitary code violations in your apartment, the landlord’s conduct will be presumed as retaliatory. The landlord will then have the burden to prove that his or her conduct was not the result of the tenant exercising his or her rights.’’
Perhaps most important, remember that discrimination in housing is against the law in Massachusetts. As Stephen Callahan points out, “The landlord may not discriminate against a tenant or a prospective tenant on grounds of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status (e.g. whether there are children), physical or mental disability or handicap, receipt of public assistance, receipt of housing subsidy, age or gender identity.’’
Here are a few very important things to consider before you sign a lease. Do not put money down unless you are sure you want the apartment. You might be legally entitled to get your money back until the landlord formally accepts you as a tenant, but that money might be diffiuclt to recover.
Also, remember to calculate the anticipated costs of the apartment’s utilities (heat, electricity, etc.) to make sure the apartment is affordable.
Know what is expected of you in terms of pre-payments or a finder’s fee and check to make sure the apartment is in acceptable condition. Ask the neighbors about the landlord’s reputation.
If there is a problem with plumbing or broken appliances, check the arrangments for a response to an “after hours’’ emergency.