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Things to Know Before You Sign a Lease

Things to Know Before You Sign a Lease

So you're moving out of the dorms? When making the decision to rent off-campus, one the most important factors to consider is your lease agreement. A lease agreement is a binding contract governing the terms of your residence in the rental property. Notably, these are very difficult to terminate. Private landlords are much less likely to be accommodating to unforeseen situations than University Housing would be.

Lease Agreements

A lease agreement is a binding contract which is very difficult to terminate. Once you sign a lease, you are responsible for the entire monthly rent for the term of the lease. This means that you may have to pay rent for a roommate if that person moves out!

You can have the lease reviewed by Student Legal Services prior to signing.

Tips For Finding Rental Property

Does it comply with the city code? You should first check to see if the rental unit has a valid permit, as well as the maximum occupancy limit. If a unit does not have a valid permit, it is probably due to a health or safety violation. You also want to make sure that only the number of people allowed to live in the unit are on the lease. DO NOT LET LANDLORDS TALK YOU INTO UNAUTHORIZED ROOMMATES AND THEN NOT INCLUDE THEIR NAMES ON THE LEASE.

Permit & Occupancy Information

Iowa City Housing Authority

Look Early

Apartments in Iowa City go fast. The following are good resources for finding available properties and roommates:

  • Rentals, roommates, sublets, furniture, etc.: University of Iowa Off Campus Housing:
  • Websites such as www.craigslist.com and Facebook.
  • Local Newspapers.
  • Bulletin boards postings in grocery stores, laundromats, etc.
  • Friends are often aware of possible vacancies.

Real Cost Of Renting

In addition to the rent, you should account for these additional costs:

  • Gas/electric/water: Contact the utility companies to get the average bill/month
  • Security Deposit (1st & last month’s rent) and Application Fees.
  • Moving expenses
  • Rental insurance
  • Parking
  • Cable T.V./Internet
  • Purchase of furniture, other items
  • Bus stops nearby?
  • Is there adequate security?

Try to talk to the current tenants without the landlord to find out more about the rental unit, utility costs, and reliability of the landlord.

Check out "rate your landlord" websites:

www.apartmentratings.com

www.apartmentreviews.com

www.ratemyapartments.com

WARNING: NEVER RENT A RENTAL UNIT WITHOUT FIRST LOOKING AT THE EXACT UNIT YOU WILL BE RENTING. Some landlords will show a "model" unit which will be in a much better condition than the unit you will actually be renting. Make sure that the address of the unit you are shown is what is shown on the lease agreement.

Illegal Lease Provisions

Automatic Carpet Cleaning Provisions:

Lease provisions that require the tenant to pay for carpet cleaning at the end of a lease, regardless of actual damage, are illegal and unenforceable.  This is true even if you have already signed the lease agreement.

A landlord cannot make you pay for carpet cleaning automatically.  The landlord must prove the carpet needs to be professionally cleaned to put the apartment in the condition in which you received it. This means the landlord can make you pay to clean up stains from spilled drinks or pets, but the landlord cannot force you to use a specific cleaning service or company. 

If you already signed a lease with an automatic carpet cleaning provision, here's what you can do:
-Write your landlord a letter saying the provision is illegal, consider including the links at the bottom of this article for reference.  By informing your landlord about the illegal nature of these provisions, you could negotiate with your landlord instead of going to court after the landlord has taken money from your security deposit.  Even if you do end up in court, your letter could serve as evidence showing the landlord acted in bad faith (they knew they were acting illegally) and this may make them liable for punitive damages to you worth up to two months rent.  
-Vacuum and clean your carpets before you leave, then take a video of you wiping a clean white cloth across the carpet and hold up the cloth to show it isn't dirty.  This can serve as evidence in court that your carpet did not require professional carpet cleaning. 

News stories:

http://www.kwwl.com/story/25047791/2014/03/22/judge-rules-iowa-city-apartment-lease-clauses-illegal

http://www.clintonherald.com/ianews/x334205579/Judge-Iowa-City-rental-lease-clauses-are-illegal

http://ctrei.blogspot.com/2014/03/illegal-rental-clauses-that-could-land.html

http://qctimes.com/news/local/judge-iowa-city-rental-lease-clauses-are-illegal/article_abb35962-b10d-11e3-abb7-001a4bcf887a.html

Iowa cases:

http://www.ictenantsclassaction.com/DeStefanoORDERDistrictCourt.pdf

http://www.ictenantsclassaction.com/BarkalowOrderSumDecJudg2.pdf

No-Pet Provisions and Fines

Even if your lease has a no-pet provision, the landlord cannot impose a fine without showing specific damage. 

“Iowa Code § 562A.12(3) requires a landlord to provide the tenant with a specific reason for withholding any of the rental deposit, and also requires the landlord to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, the reason for withholding any of the rental deposit, with ordinary wear and tear excepted.”

A lease provision that requires automatic fines for having a pet in a unit is illegal because the landlord is required to prove there is specific damage to the unit as a result of the tenant keeping a pet. The District Court in Johnson County has held that a landlord is not entitled to impose fines or deduct from the deposit without showing actual damage caused by having the pet. See:

http://www.ictenantsclassaction.com/BorerDistrictCourtRuling.pdf

Resources for Moving Out

Rental Deposits

You probably already know what you should do to get your rental deposit back after your lease ends. It's a good idea to take date-stamped pictures of any existing damage when you move in, clean up thoroughly before you leave, and leave the landlord an address or instructions for where to send the returned rental deposit.  However, there are other things you should know about your rental deposit. 

In Iowa, Chapter 562A of the Iowa Code is the relevant law in landlord-tenant issues.  It's known as the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act.  You can find the full text of it here: http://www.lawserver.com/law/state/iowa/ia-code/iowa_code_chapter_562a

Rental deposits are discussed in Section 562A.12, available here: http://www.lawserver.com/law/state/iowa/ia-code/iowa_code_562a-12

You can read 562A.12 for a full understanding of the laws covering rental deposits.  Otherwise, the summary below covers the main issues.

Amount of deposit

A landlord cannot demand a rental deposit larger than two months' rent [562A.12(1)].

Return of the deposit

A landlord must return the remaining deposit to you within 30 days of the end of the lease, as long as the landlord has a mailing address or return instructions from you.  The landlord must include a written note detailing the specific amounts and reasons for any deductions made.  If the deposit is withheld to repair the property, the statement must specify the nature of the damages [562A.12(3)(a)].

If a landlord fails to return the deposit and a written statement detailing the deductions within 30 days of the end of the lease and receiving a mailing address, a tenant can recover the entire rental deposit from the landlord [562A.12(4)].  Tenants can do this by filing in small claims court, and tenants can recover the cost of filing a claim in small claims court ($85) if the judge sides with the tenant and orders the return of the deposit [562A.12(8)].  Note: even if a tenant recovers the entire deposit, the landlord can still bill the tenant for damages and other deductions that would have been taken from the deposit. 

If the landlord is not given a mailing address or return instructions for the deposit within one year of the end of the lease, the tenant will have forfeited their right to the deposit and the landlord can keep the entire amount [562A.12(4)] 

Reasons a landlord may deduct from the deposit

A landlord may make deductions from the deposit for a few reasons.  The rental deposit can be used to remedy a tenant's failure to pay rent or other costs like utilities [562A.12(3)(a)(1)].  The landlord can use the deposit to recover expenses incurred in forcing a tenant to surrender the premises at the end of a lease [562A.12(3)(a)(3)].  Most likely, the deposit will be used to restore the property to its condition at the beginning of the lease, excluding ordinary wear and tear [562A.12(3)(a)(2)].  This means the landlord can withhold the deposit if you damage the property, but not if the damage was a result of the normal and ordinary use of the premises.  For example, it's legal for your landlord to charge you for carpet cleaning to remove stains from pets or spilled drinks. It's not legal for your landlord to force you to pay for professional carpet cleaning for just normal wear on the carpet. In fact, the recent case of DeStefano v Apartments Downtown decided that automatic carpet cleaning lease agreements are unenforceable.  

In a case concerning the rental deposit, the landlord has to prove the reasons for withholding the deposit [562A.12(3)(b)].  If the landlord retains portions of the deposit in bad faith, the landlord will be subject to potential punitive damages amounting to no more than two months’ rent in addition to actual damages [562A.12(7)].  This means if the landlord knew the deduction was illegal, the tenant can recover the deduction AND up to two months' rent as a legal punishment to the landlord.   

If you think your landlord will violate the law in using or returning your deposit, tell your landlord about it in writing and feel free to cite this article or 562A.12.  By informing your landlord about the law, it will make it more likely that a judge would rule the landlord acted in bad faith.  Plus, it might help you avoid going to court in the first place by negotiating with your landlord instead. 

Remember, this is just a basic explanation of the Rental Deposits section of the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act.  If you have any questions about this entry, or are worried your lease/landlord may be in violation of the Act, contact Student Legal Services!

Resources for Moving Out

Tips For Finding An Apartment

General Tips For Finding An Apartment

Start Looking Early: The process for finding apartments starts early. The following are possible resources for finding available properties:

  1. Local Newspapers
  2. University of Iowa Off Campus Housing Listing website. 
  3. Friends or classmates are often aware of possible vacancies.
  4. Bulletin boards in laundromats, etc., may have rental postings.
  5. Websites such as www.craigslist.com and www.facebook.com. However, DO NOT rent or agree to rent a property without seeing it first.

Precautions to keep in mind: NEVER RENT A LIVING UNIT WITHOUT FIRST TOURING THE EXACT UNIT YOU WILL BE RENTING. The amount of rent and other provisions in the lease, as well as the physical condition of the unit are key factors in determining whether to sign a lease. Before you even start looking, you should determine what your housing budget will be and stick to that amount . You do not want to get into a situation where you cannot afford your rent. Be aware of the length of the lease agreement you are signing. Most landlords offer a lease for a full year; in the Iowa City area they typically begin on August 1 and end starting late July. 

When your are looking for an apartment, you should also investigate the reputation of the landlord and manager concerning maintenance, return of security deposits and genera relationships with tenants. Look at the locks on the doors and windows, and the lighting around the apartment to evaluate the security of the apartment against theft. Consider the quality and the age of the construction and insulation as it will affect the cost of heating and cooling: Iowa City generally has hot summers and cold winters. Current and former tenants are good sources of information, as are neighbors. Ask lots of questions when looking at the property, find out what the average utilities are, and go visit the property at night to see if you feel safe in the neighborhood and if the area around the property is well lit. Check out "rate your landlord" websites: www.apartmentratings.com, www.apartmentreviews.com, and www.ratemyapartment.com.

Finally, before you sign a lease, Consider Signing a Roommate Contract

It is extremely important that you and your roommates are clear on your expectations. It is beneficial to all tenants to spell out your individual responsibilities in a roommate contract. By providing written documentation of each roommates responsibilities to each other, a roommate contract can help avoid disputes later on and help ensure that all roommates contribute equally to household tasks and cleaning of the apartment. Fill out your own roommate contract.

Miscellaneous

Moving In Checklist

Both before and as you move in to your new apartment, there are several important things you should do to protect your rights later on.

Fill out a Move-In Checklist and take pictures

  • You should walk through the entire unit before moving your furniture in, and document any and all damages/problems that you see. It is to your benefit to fill out the Move-In Checklist (PDF Document), make a copy for your records, and provide a copy to your landlord within the first 7 days of the lease term. KEEP A COPY FOR YOUR RECORDS!
  • Take photographs/video of the unit making sure to turn on the date stamp function on your camera. Look for anything that could possibly be described as less than perfectly new and take a picture of it. Then save the photos in-case you need to use them in court.

Utilities

  • Your lease determines your responsibilities for utility activation and payment. Many landlords will pay for the water, but you are usually responsible for all other utilities; gas, electric, telephone, cable, internet, cell phone, etc. Contact the utility companies at least 2 weeks in advance of the move in date.
  • When doing your budget, you not only have to consider your rent each month, but also utility costs on top of that. Generally speaking, the cost of utilities may be the greatest when living alone. If you are sharing an apartment/house, you are also able to share the cost of utility bills. You should spell out how you will share your utility bills in your roommate contract.
  • Utility costs greatly vary. If you are living in an apartment complex versus an older home, the quality of insulation can be quite different. Houses tend to be a larger area of space to heat/cool.
  • Ask tenants that currently live in the apartment complex/house how much they pay for their utility bills on average. Gas, electric and water can vary based on usage. You can call the cable, internet and phone companies to get price quotes for the various packages they offer.

Purchase Renter's Insurance

Get renter’s insurance. Your lease may require you to have Renter’s insurance. Landlords typically have property insurance, but this does not cover your personal property. You want to make sure to have insurance to replace your belongings if they are damaged in a fire or stolen from your apartment, for example.

It tends to be cheaper to add a policy to the same company as your car insurance.. You may also be added to your parent's home owner's insurance (check with their company's policy for details). If either is not an option, it is still inexpensive to purchase renters insurance.

Miscellaneous

Renters Insurance

Renters Insurance

If you think renters insurance is not necessary, you are sadly mistaken. Even though you may not own the home, apartment or unit, you do own the property that is inside of the home. If your items are lost or stolen, your home floods or catches on fire, or some other unforeseen accident occurs, you will need to replace those items with your own money. These items are things you purchased over the years, but when disaster strikes, you do not have years to replace your personal property, especially your everyday necessities. It could be really expensive to replace your personal items, which is why you should protect your investments. When it pertains to protecting your personal property, renters insurance is your most affordable option. 

To find out more information about renters insurance, visit The Zebra's website.

For more information on why renters insurance is important, visit the NOLO website

Resources for Moving Out Miscellaneous

Fall Break: Tips, Safety, Parking

[embed width="800" height="450" class="leftAlone" thumbnail="https://i.ytimg.com/vi/AuYm3X-qkoY/hqdefault.jpg?r"]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuYm3X-qkoY&[/embed]

48 Hour Parking Rule

If you're heading away, but your vehicle will stay, refresh yourself on the details of this rule and avoid being towed and fines.

Frozen Pipes

As temperatures take a nose dive, take precautions to keep household pipes from freezing and avoid damage to your home and belongings. 

When the Snow Falls

Ready or not, it'll be here before we know it.  Know what your responsibilities are so that all people have access to your neighborhood's sidewalks for getting around.  Also, learn what to do when the City declares a snow emergency, as on-street parking will be limited to allow plows to fully clear the streets after an extreme winter storm.

SourceIowa City Update - Your source for Iowa City news and information.

Resources for Living Off-Campus Miscellaneous

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