The number one piece of advice for a new student renter is to read one’s lease and know one’s rights and responsibilities as a tenant. That means knowing what one can and cannot do in one’s apartment, particularly in regards to noise control, making modifications, owning indoor pets and moving out upon one’s end of lease term or terminating one’s lease. Landlords and apartment owners need to know what is going on in their properties, especially if there are emergencies of any kind. If one does not communicate (in writing) with his or her landlord, he or she may be looked at as being at fault, and assessed heavy charges for repairs, which if not paid, can go on the renter’s credit report; this may prevent a renter from leasing another apartment (unless he or she can find a co-signer with good credit). A renter must know how important a good credit rating is in today’s world. Losing credit points can prevent a renter from getting a good-paying job, a new car, credit cards and even a home.
According to Gene Roberts, JD, Sam Houston State University Attorney, Mediator and Director for SHSU Student Legal and Mediation Services, it is important for a student who wishes to live off-campus to know their rights and responsibilities as a tenant.
“Entering into a lease agreement is a big financial commitment for the student and the student’s guarantor,” Roberts said. “Students are adults and will be treated as adults by the landlord and the management company. It’s important for students to understand their rights and responsibilities before signing the lease, during the lease term, and even after the lease has terminated. State law affords tenants safeguards in many situations when a landlord may try to take advantage of our inexperience. Most landlords are good landlords, and even in those situations, it is important for students to interact with the landlord in a responsible way.”
According to Roberts, most landlords provide the renter with a standard lease.
“Landlords and managers can belong to professional organizations, and those organizations may provide a sample or model lease for members to use, such as the Texas Apartment Association,” Roberts said. “Landlords and management companies are free to use their lease, however.”
Generally, the lease will tell the renter how long the lease is for, how much the rent is every month (and late fees if rent is not paid on time), what happens if the renter moves out early, what kind of modifications can be made to the apartment, if pets are allowed (if they are not allowed, how much the landlord will charge if a pet is found on the premises), what must be done upon moving in and moving out to avoid charges for repairs and what to do in emergencies (such as a flood in one’s apartment – some landlords require renter’s insurance for such casualties).
“We recommend that students report issues with the property immediately,” Roberts said. “The lease agreement typically informs the student of how to communicate with the manager. While a phone call or entry into a repair portal is okay, we recommend follow-up by a letter delivered by certified mail, return receipt requested. That constitutes official communication under the Texas Property Code.”
The key piece of advice for a student renter is to read one’s lease, have a copy of it ready to discuss with the landlord, and any receipts for deposit (both security and pet deposit) ready for proof of payment.
“Tenants need to understand that the lease agreement is a contract where the student is agreeing to pay several thousand dollars,” Roberts said. “Before entering into a contract of any type, I think it is essential to understand what you are signing. It’s also crucial for the student to know how to communicate with the landlord or the management company, how to preserve their rights, and how to make sure their rights are protected.”
However, it is also important to know what a tenant’s rights are if the landlord does not live up to the terms of the lease. According to Roberts, “managers have a number of responsibilities, including collecting rent, protecting the property from damage, effecting repairs, and any other obligations that they assume under the lease agreement and that are required under the Texas Property Code.” And vice versa. Roberts says that “a tenant has a right to occupy the property and a responsibility to pay rent as outlined in the contract. The tenant has a responsibility to return the property to the landlord in the same condition that it was provided to the student.”
Roberts also indicated that, “Students need to review their lease agreement to see what it says on how to report issues. Most lease agreements that I’ve seen have a provision outlining how to report problems to the manager. If students have questions, they can make an appointment to see one of the attorneys in our office.”
It is very important to know what one’s rights and responsibilities are when living off-campus; knowing these rights and responsibilities will help the renter and landlord have successful communication, both verbally and in writing.
Roberts advises those who need legal advice regarding their apartment and unresolved problems with their landlords to visit the Legal Services Center. Students can make an appointment at shsu.edu/slms or by calling 936-294-1717.