8 Tips for Tenants: Before You Sign the Dotted Line…
Review the Lease. Before signing a lease, read it carefully. If you are unfamiliar with a specific term or provision, don’t be afraid to question it. If you don’t agree with something, discuss it with the landlord and ask that it be removed or modified. You will be obligated to comply with the terms of this lease, so you should make sure you are comfortable and that your rights are represented. If you and the landlord cannot agree to rental terms or if you feel your landlord is ignoring your rights or their obligations under the law, it might be in your best interest to keep looking.
Document Everything. A potential landlord may appear to be trustworthy, but always get everything in writing. Landlords will agree to provide improvements or cover a certain expense because they are eager to get the property occupied. But, they are not obligated to do anything not included in the written lease. In fact, most leases contain a clause that specifically excludes any oral agreements you may have had. If the property is sold or you get a new landlord, the new landlord is not obligated to uphold any verbal agreements. If you have issues during the lease, make sure you send written notice to the landlord and keep good records for yourself of these occurrences. Don’t ever count on being able to prove anything that you don’t have in writing, whether the landlord’s own promise, or your own complaint.
Get Renters’ Insurance. Your landlord’s insurance policy will not cover your personal belongings. A renters’ insurance policy is a must because it protects you in the event of theft or damages by people or natural disasters. It also protects you if you are sued because of any accidents that may occur inside your rental unit.
Protect Your Security Deposit. Make sure the security deposit language in the lease is clear with regard to allowable deductions the landlord can make. Prior to moving in, do an extensive walk-through, document any existing issues at the property, and provide a copy of your list of issues to your landlord within the first two weeks of living there. Make sure to keep a copy for your own records. Always pay your security deposit as a separate payment to the landlord. Even if the landlord requests this, keep your initial rent payment separate from your security deposit payment. Security deposits must be deposited into a separate, interest-bearing account in a Massachusetts bank. Tenants must be provided with a security deposit receipt from the landlord, as well as a receipt from the bank indicating the name and location of the bank as well as the account number. If your landlord fails to comply with this law within thirty days of receiving your security deposit, you may request the full amount back. Send the landlord written notice with your request (Certified Return Receipt). If they refuse to immediately refund your security deposit, you may be entitled to three times the amount of the security deposit and any earned interest, as well as court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees Many lawyers will take security deposit cases on a contingency fee basis.
Be Safe. If you are moving to an area you are unfamiliar with, it’s a good idea to inquire about the safety of the building and neighborhood. The landlord is not required to provide you with this information, so it is up to you to investigate and ask around. Depending on the area’s crime rate, the landlord may be required to equip the property with certain safety mechanisms like deadbolts and window locks. Local law enforcement can provide you with a background of criminal incidents that have taken place recently in the area.
Demand Your Privacy. Landlords can’t show up unannounced. They must provide you with reasonable notice if they need to enter the property. Your lease should include a provision with the amount of notice and specific reasons they may be allowed entry. Landlords can only enter a property unexpectedly in an emergency situation.
Expect a Livable Space. Tenants have the right to a habitable rental unit. Housing codes are established by the local Board of Health with regard to habitable standards for heating, plumbing, electrical, structural, and sanitary guidelines. Unless otherwise stated in the lease, it is the landlord’s responsibility to make repairs to the property. If your landlord does not comply after receiving a written request for repairs, the tenant has several options including withholding rent, reporting the landlord to the local building inspector, or abandoning the property altogether.
Communicate With Your Landlord. It’s best to try and maintain a good relationship with your landlord. If an issue comes up, try to resolve it in a friendly way, knowing the landlord also has an interest in keeping good renters and probably wants you to stay. If they ignore your request or do not treat you with respect, send them a request and documentation on the issue in writing, preferably with delivery confirmation. If they still ignore your request, seek legal assistance to enforce your rights.
There are many laws and regulations that govern the relationship between landlords and tenants in Massachusetts. These laws apply whether you live in a single family home, a multi-family property, or a large-scale apartment building. Before you sign on the dotted line, know your rights and make sure your new lease includes them.
Helpful links on Massachusetts tenant rights: