How to protect your rights — and your money — as a renter

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If you’re one of the nearly half a million renters in Boston, chances are good that your lease is pegged to Sept. 1. Whether you’ll be heaving boxes into a U-Haul this weekend or staying put for another year, here are tips to protect yourself and your money when you’re renting.

Read and understand your lease, paying special attention to addendums. This should go without saying, but it bears repeating. “Leases can be long and complicated, and people may not look at them very carefully, but I’m in court all the time for disputes over specific lease language,” said Christopher Saccardi, an attorney with Broderick, Bancroft & Saccardi who represents both tenants and landlords. “Everything in that lease is there for a reason, and people should understand what they’re signing, because they’ll be held to it down the road — and a violation of any one of those items could be the basis for eviction.”

While the standard apartment lease has been heavily vetted over the years, “where you might run into trouble is if there’s an addendum,” Saccardi added. “A landlord or realtor often writes those themselves, not necessarily with an attorney, and that can have some illegal provisions.”

There are limits to what a landlord can charge in fees. There are only four things a landlord can legally charge at the beginning of a tenancy, Saccardi said: first month’s rent, a deposit for the last month’s rent, a security deposit of no more than one month’s rent, and the actual cost of changing the locks. “If there are other fees, like application fees, pet fees, amenity fees, those sorts of things are illegal under Massachusetts law,” Saccardi said. “That’s something we see a fair amount of, and you need to keep an eye out for.”

About that security deposit … Massachusetts has a very strict statute about how security deposits are handled, Saccardi said. If you pay a security deposit, you should get a receipt acknowledging the amount of the deposit and, within 30 days, “a statement with information about the bank and the account number in which the security deposit is placed,” Saccardi said. “Under Massachusetts law, it remains the tenant’s money until the landlord has a lawful claim against it.”

Document any damage. When moving in, take photos to record the existing condition of the apartment, including pictures of the floors, walls, bathroom fixtures, and appliances. If you notice any damage or other issues, alert the landlord in writing. “Those communications should be done in writing so there’s a record of both the communication and the issue,” Saccardi said. When there’s a security deposit involved, you and your landlord will generally sign a statement of condition form, which is your opportunity to make a note of any damage you see. “It’s important that a tenant takes photos and that they take the statement of condition seriously, because at the time of move-out, if there’s any dispute about the return of deposits or if the landlord is seeking damages for something the tenant says they didn’t cause, that record from beforehand can be helpful in resolving those issues.”

You have a right to decent habitability. All residential tenants in Massachusetts have “an implied warranty of habitability,” Saccardi said, which requires that the rented property comply with minimum standards in the state sanitary code. “It doesn’t have to be a beautiful apartment, but it needs to be safe and sanitary,” Saccardi said. If your apartment isn’t living up to those fundamental requirements — if the toilet or heat isn’t working, for example, or the door locks are broken — document it by taking a picture and communicate that to the landlord in writing.

Your landlord can’t barge in on you. Unless there’s an emergency, “a landlord needs to give reasonable notice before entering the apartment,” Saccardi said. “The flip side is that a tenant can’t deny access unless there’s a really good reason.”

Be careful subletting. It happens all the time, and everything usually goes smoothly, because most people aren’t terrible. But it’s worth noting that when you sublet your apartment, you’re still liable for your share of the lease. “The original tenant needs to be careful, because they could be responsible for the actions of the subletter, and most likely are,” Saccardi said. “So if that subletter causes damage or doesn’t pay rent, the tenant is likely on the hook for it.”

Get your deposit back. Unless it’s lawfully being held to cover damage beyond reasonable wear and tear, your security deposit must be returned within 30 days of your tenancy. “The statute in Massachusetts does provide for triple damages plus attorney fees, so if a landlord is in the wrong in refusing to return a deposit, a tenant does have recourse,” Saccardi said. “My advice is typically to send a letter in good faith. Say ‘Listen, you need to return the deposit. We’re not interested in going to court. Just give it back,’ and in the vast majority of cases that works.” But if the landlord ignores your efforts, you may want to get an attorney involved, he said. “Those cases are strong cases, because the statute is a pretty powerful tool for a tenant in that situation.”

Everybody just be reasonable, please: Saccardi stresses that most tenants and landlords are trying to act in good faith and that a lot of issues can be worked out before they get too contentious. “I’m a litigator, so I see things when they go wrong, but I spend a lot of time trying to avoid court,” he said. Sometimes it can take awhile to find an available contractor, for example, and it’s not for lack of effort on the landlord’s part. “I think if both sides can be fair and reasonable, things typically go well.”

Jon Gorey blogs about homes at Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at