Renting? Look before you lease

Brittany Westerberg

Brittany Westerberg

Since coming to college, students living in the dorms look forward to moving into their house or apartment.

“As a student,” said Sandra Ruesch, a recent graduate of SDSU’s nursing program, “I was excited because [the apartment] was close to campus, but it wasn’t worth it.”

Ruesch’s excitement at moving into an apartment didn’t last long. There was black mold growing on the ceiling that the landlord blamed her and her roommate for, the deadbolt on the door was broken (which came in handy when she locked herself out of the apartment once) and the kitchen window was “jimmy-rigged shut so that in the South Dakota winter winds it wouldn’t fly open like it did in the fall.”

“My favorite,” Ruesch said, “was when I was taking a nap one afternoon and woke up to [the landlord’s] lovely face opening my bedroom door to show off the apartment when he never called beforehand to give me a heads up.” She said he did the same thing during finals week when she was studying for a difficult nursing exam. This time, however, he did call beforehand, but after she told him no, he came into the apartment uninvited and showed it off to potential tenants anyway.

Ruesch is not alone in her experience. Many students and other first-time renters have gone through lazy landlords, insensitive neighbors, bad roommates, overflowing toilets, broken appliances and the list goes on.

Protecting yourself from scams

1. First-time renters don’t always realize how many rights they have under state laws. For example, if you are paying rent, the apartment or house is your private home. Landlords can’t enter your apartment at will. Make an effort to learn your rights.

2. The landlord is not your friend. It is a business relationship, and should stay that way. You should check your landlord’s reputation. The easiest way to do that is to knock on a potential neighbor’s door and ask them.

3. Read the lease thoroughly before you sign it. It is a binding legal document, and if you have any questions about it, make sure they are answered completely to your satisfaction before signing.

“Whatever the landlord includes in the lease, the landlord intends to enforce,” says Pat Lyons, Legal Aid Attorney for the Students’ Association. “If you don’t understand portions of the lease, get an appointment with the legal aid attorney on campus.”

4. Location matters when you rent. Check into the neighborhood and visit it at different times of the day. Some places could be quiet and nice on a Monday afternoon, but on a Thursday night or a weekend, that could change drastically.

5. Be nosy when you first get a tour to inspect your new apartment. Don’t let the landlord push your quickly through every room. Examine utility closets and appliances. Flush toilets to make sure they work and run three or four different faucets at the same time to make sure there aren’t any weird noises and the water runs smoothly. Look at the overall condition of the place and make sure you’re satisfied.

“It is usually a good idea to talk to the existing tenants,” says Lyons. “They might be able to tell you of problems that your inspection didn’t reveal. Also ask how cooperative the landlord is when there is a problem.”

Also, some landlords aren’t quick to call you back if you have a problem. If something breaks in your apartment, keep calling the landlord until it gets fixed. Getting minor problems fixed as quickly as possible will keep them from turning into bigger problems.

6. Utilities, such as electricity and water, are things that some first-time renters might forget. If they are included in your rent, figure out how much control you have over their use. It wouldn’t be good for the weather to turn cold before the time when the landlord wants to turn on the heat. If you have to pay for utilities on your own, figure out how much the bills were last year, either from talking to other renters or the utilities companies, and remember to figure that into your budget.

7. Roommates will never be completely perfect, but if you communicate with each other at the beginning, things will be easier later on. Sitting down and setting ground rules about bills, chores and privacy before you sign a lease together will help minimize potential problems.

“Select your roommates very carefully,” says Lyons. “The legal aid attorney sees as many students about roommate-roommate problems as he does tenant-landlord problems.”

Remember also that when you sign a lease, if your roommate(s) don’t pay their fair share, you could be stuck with the entire bill.

8. Get renters’ insurance. Your landlord is not going to reimburse you if someone breaks into your apartment and steals your stuff. Insurance can cost little, and could save you thousands if your belongings are destroyed or stolen. Renters’ insurance can also cover liability claims, such as if a guest falls in your apartment or your dog bites someone.

“No one thinks about this stuff until it happens,” says Robert Bland, chairman and founder of “But if they don’t have it [insurance], they’re going to have a rude awakening.”

9. Make sure that you add household costs into your budget, such as cleaning supplies, small appliances, pots and pans and things like light bulbs and a plunger. If you know a friend who has enough to share, borrow or beg some second-hand pots and pans or silverware from them. Garage sales and pawnshops might also often have items that would be perfectly usable.

10. Know that you are in charge of your own safety. Normally, landlords won’t let you out of leases early without penalties, no matter what the reason. Look at crime statistics, know where the smoke alarms and fire extinguishers are, and know what to do in case of an emergency (like a fire) before you sign a lease.

#1.883522:3358585113.jpg:Homes1.cs.jpg:Many students sign up for more than they expect when they sign their first lease.:Courtney Smith