So you're ready to abandon dorm life. In exchange for leaving behind RAs and having your dorm mate walk in at the wrong moment, you'll learn the joys of renting an apartment: bedbugs, deadbeat roommates, erratic heat, and lost security deposits.
Fortunately, Massachusetts has some of the most tenant-friendly laws around. Landlords can't leave problems unfixed, barge in without an appointment, or keep your security deposit for no good reason. You can protect yourself as long as you pay attention and know your rights before, during, and, especially, after you sign a lease.
Make sure you see the actual apartment — not just one in the same building as the unit you'll be renting. Choose your roommates carefully, because if your roommate moves out before the lease is up, you'll be responsible for the entire rent check.
The legalese in the lease may be about as tedious as an iTunes user agreement, but unlike with iTunes, you actually have to read it. Make sure you know what is says about things like whether subleasing is allowed (in case you want to find someone to take your room while you go off to join the Sandinista revolution for a few months) and whether rent includes utilities like gas and hot water. "Sometimes a realtor will say one thing but the lease will say another and a tenant will sign the lease not reading it carefully," warns Lori Fanara, legal counsel for the City of Boston's Rental Housing Resource Center.
Fanara also cautions about paying would-be landlords a "holding fee" to take an apartment off the market before a lease is signed. "We've seen cases where the tenant will find something better but then have trouble getting that holding fee back," she says. If you do pay one, Fanara says to get in writing whether or not the fee is refundable.
Another thing to do is get insurance — before you get robbed. "One of the biggest mistakes a tenant can make is not getting renter's insurance," says Fanara.
Also keep in mind that the City of Boston no longer allows more than four unrelated undergrads from living together, so that punk-rock squat house of your dreams is right out. And you shouldn't let your landlord break the law by packing students into a small apartment, so make sure your name is on the lease if you're paying rent.
Landlords who are understandably eager for students' money but worried about their place getting trashed will ask for a security deposit up front, along with first and last months' rent. But many don't bother to follow the law when it comes to those payments.
"It's important for tenants to know whether they are paying a security deposit or last month's rent," advises A. Joseph Ross, a Boston attorney who frequently handles landlord/tenant disputes. "When they write the check, they should put in the memo which one it is."
But the landlord isn't allowed to just pocket the security deposit. Instead, they have to place it into an escrow account, and send the tenant the account information within 30 days. "Make a copy for everyone," says Ross, "and store it somewhere safe."