It’s the law: Landlords and tenants

More stories from Patricia LeBoeuf



Disclaimer: Although I am a dedicated student of the law, I’m not a lawyer. Please consult a qualified legal professional for specific legal advice.

Note: This column applies specifically to Massachusetts renters.

Ah, fall. Crisp autumn leaves, tailgates, Halloween, and the start of the off-campus housing Hunger Games.

You could read the Massachusetts Department of Consumer Affair’s guide to tenant rights or the enthralling full text of state laws — or you can sit back while I tell you (most) of what you need to know.

Q: I found a house on Craigslist, but when I went on a tour, it looked like it came straight out of a horror movie.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. UMass Off Campus Student Services provides rental listings on their website.

Before you look for housing, register for UMOCSS’ online Living Off-Campus Certification — many landlords require it. When you find a promising place, talk to other tenants and meet your possible future landlord.

It’s a good idea to get renters insurance, too. For about $20 a month, the policy will insure your belongings and include personal liability coverage if a klutzy friend (like me) falls down your stairs.

Q: What’s the point of the lease?

If you absorb nothing else from this, just remember: Read everything extremely carefully.

Tenancy can either be at will or based on a lease. At will agreements allow either party to terminate the agreement with 30 days notice, or one month before the due date of the next rent payment, whichever is longer, according to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s guide to landlord/tenant rights. Landlords can also raise rent with the same notice.

A lease is a binding legal agreement for a specific period of time with a set monthly rent.

Everything agreed to should be written in the lease. Make sure you understand everything. If you’re having trouble, Student Legal Services will look over your lease (for free).

The lease must provide the name, address, and phone number of the owner, the maintenance person, and the person you may give copies of formal notices, complaints, or court papers. All parties should be named. It’s wise to keep your own copy.

According to the Consumer Affairs guide, illegal terms in the lease include: those requiring you to pay for the cost of ordinary wear-and-tear on the apartment, repairs beyond your apartment, forbidding you to sue the landlord, report violations of the Sanitary Code or tenants’ union, and those requiring late fees if the rent payment is just one day late.

Q: What is ‘joint and several liability’?

The thing that plays in your landlord’s head is, “any and all tenants better have my money,” not, “each tenant better have their portion of my money.”

Joint and several liability is a provision in which each tenant and their guarantor(s) are ultimately responsible for the entire rent. If your housemates skip out, you’re the one on the hook.

Speak up at the first sign of trouble, as it’s your potentially-ruined credit on the line.

Q: I’m having some money troubles, and I don’t think I can make this month’s rent.

If you truly can’t come up with the rent, talk to your landlord about an extension. Paying rent late is not a habit you want to get into, but if you really have to, know that it’s illegal for the landlord to charge interest until 30 days after the due date. The landlord can, however, begin the eviction process immediately.

Q: The landlord wants a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, and an application fee. Is that legit?

In Massachusetts, the landlord may only require first and last month’s rent, a security deposit equal to one month’s rent, and the cost of a new lock and key. The landlord must give you a receipt for the first two.

When you move in, take pictures noting any damages. When you move out, clean thoroughly and do the same thing.

All security deposits for Massachusetts must be deposited in interest-bearing accounts in Massachusetts banks within the first month of tenancy. The landlord must give you the name and address of the bank and the account number.

Any landlord who accepts a security deposit must give you a signed statement of condition within ten days after the start of the tenancy. You must agree or disagree in writing with this assessment.

When you move out, be sure to leave your landlord a request to send your deposit to your forwarding address. According to the Consumer Affairs guide, the landlord must return it within thirty days, provided there is no extreme damage to the apartment, all rent has been paid, and there is no clause in the lease for payment of increasing real estate taxes.

Q: The landlord emailed me yesterday because they came by to look at some potential damage. Can they do that?

The landlord must arrange in advance with you before entering the apartment to make repairs, show the premises, or inspect the condition of the space. Permission is not required in an emergency that threatens to damage the whole building or when the space appears abandoned.

Q: The heater is broken. I called the landlord days ago and he hasn’t responded.

Ah, this is tricky.

Make sure you send further requests in writing and keep copies. This will help prove your case in any potential dispute. According to the Consumer Affairs guide, you may be able to withhold a portion of the rent from the date the landlord has notice of the violation, but don’t consider this step without extensive professional advice.

Q: So, what do I have to do from day-to-day?

You must pay rent on time (shocker), keep to the terms of the lease, and accept responsibility for damage beyond normal wear-and-tear.

The landlord must provide an apartment in compliance with the Massachusetts Sanitary Code and he or she must keep to all terms of the lease.

Living off-campus can be an excellent adventure, but all adventures have to start with some sort of plan. With me, UMOCSS, and Student Legal Services on your side, you’re set for a great one.

Have a legal question? Email Patricia Leboeuf at [email protected].

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