The Sam Houston State University Student Legal and Mediation Services is working to provide students with information regarding their rights as tenants to properly prepare them prior to signing housing leases.
According to Gene Roberts, director of Student Legal and Mediation Services, there’s more to signing a lease than just initialing and dating the appropriate pages.
“Signing a lease is a significant event,” Roberts said. “An apartment lease is a contract that can impose obligations upon the renter and the landlord. Before a student signs a lease, they can come to our office for a free lease review, so I can talk to the student about the obligations.”
Despite what the majority of student do when signing leases, which is signing when told without regard to what they are actually committing to, Roberts said reading between the lines is crucial in knowing your rights as a tenant.
“Typically, leases are written by the landlord or a professional apartment association, which means the terms are in the landlord’s favor,” Roberts said. “Students need to make sure that all of the blanks in the form leases are completed, that they understand their rent obligations—such as how much rent is, where it is to be delivered, the method of payment and when it needs to be paid.”
An important piece of advice which tenants should follow upon beginning the process of moving into a place of residence includes carefully documenting the conditions of their dwelling prior to moving in.
“Before moving into the apartment, we recommend that students complete the move-in checklist in detail,” Roberts said. “No apartment is in perfect physical condition, so note everything that’s wrong with the apartment and have the landlord sign the checklist. Also, take pictures of the walls, ceilings, floors and appliances before you move in. This way, if the landlord claims that you damaged the property, you’ll have proof of the condition when you moved in.”
According to Roberts, another vital part of being a proactive tenant is documenting all communication with the landlord throughout your lease.
“It’s also important to know that all communications with your landlord need to be in writing,” he said. “Oral communications are generally not sufficient under the typical lease or the Texas Property Code. We encourage students to confirm oral communications later in writing so that there is proof that the tenant communicated with the landlord.”
Student Legal and Mediation Services has produced a handout entitled “Rules for Renting” which aids tenants in the process of signing leases. In addition, they are currently working on a comprehensive booklet relating to renting for students.
“One of the great services the university provides to students is access to a free attorney,” Roberts said. “Take advantage of this service and make an appointment to speak to the attorney about your rights and responsibilities when it comes to an apartment lease.”
In addition to legal issues between landlords and tenants, Student Legal and Mediation Services also aid in resolving conflicts among roommates.
“Our office also offers free mediation services for students who find themselves in conflict with each other,” Roberts said. “It can be tough living with someone you don’t know and mediation can help resolve issues before they escalate.”
According to Roberts, in the academic year of 2013-14, approximately 17 percent of consultations provided by Student Legal and Mediation Services concerned landlord-tenant issues. The conflicts ranged anywhere from roommate conflicts to unaddressed maintenance requests to students wanting to leave their apartments before the end of the lease term.
Sophomore agriculture major and tenant Kirsten Lee said that when signing previous leases, she wished she knew this service existed.
“I read a few things when signing my lease, but of course, not every line because they try to rush you through it,” Lee said. “Had I known this service existed, I actually think I would have utilized it because I had a lot of problems with my lease last year, so I definitely think it would be something I would have taken the time to look into.”
Lee said that she feels that taking advantage of this service is something she will definitely look into in the future.
“I think it’s really important that the school provides a service like this, because not all kids have access to a lawyer or even know what they are signing before they sign it—especially the first time living on your own,” Lee said. “I know after two years of experience, I’ve had to learn a few things the hard way when dealing with a complex or renter.”
Students can contact Student Legal and Mediation Services by calling 936-294-1717, emailing them at email@example.com or by visiting their office in the Lowman Student Center in room 330.