As if finding an awesome apartment isn't enough of a challenge, deciphering the lease can you give a migraine. Many landlords still rely largely upon a standard lease form, which is often designed to protect the landlord more than the tenant. It's also wise to note that many other landlords and management companies view these leases as "take-it-or-leave-it" offers to rent.
So, while some, most, or all of what you're about to sign may or may not be negotiable, you should at least know what you're signing up for before you sign on the dotted line. Here are the top issues to keep an eye on:
Renewal clauses and renewal policies
If your lease has an option to renew for one or more years, check to see if there is an escalation clause, which would raise the rent in subsequent years and is typically based on a fixed dollar amount, a percentage of the first year's rent, or cost of living increases. While none of the methods of calculating an escalation are necessarily better than any of the others, the important thing is to understand what the escalation is going to be in dollar terms.
With regard to options to renew, it would not be an enforceable provision if it didn't state what the rent term would be during the renewal term. That's a material term that is necessary to create a valid option to renew.
Renewal policies vary and are typically more lenient in smaller buildings. Tenants should be sensitive to the date by which leases have to be renewed. If you miss the assigned deadline for the renewal date -- usually 30, 60, or 90 days prior to expiration of the current term--the right to renew can be lost. This is more so the case nowadays because the inventory of available apartments is so tight.
Some landlords -- especially in buildings where apartments aren't separately metered or submetered -- may include utilities in the monthly rental price. But usually only the water and heat are included. If this is not the case for you, then find out whether you yourself are responsible for utilities past your lease term, or whether it would still be covered once your resign.
The landlord's insurance does not, despite what many people believe, cover the tenant. Most renters do not get renter's insurance (which covers damages and or health issues arising from staying in your current apartment. Standard leases actually state that renters must insure his or her own property against fire, theft and water damage, as well as personal liability damages, which can result from individual negligence if you accidentally start a fire that destroys part of the building and injures someone, or more commonly, if your bathtub or sink overflows and causes damages to the apartment below you. Be very wary of this fact moving forward with your rental, as it might greatly affect your financial situation, especially if you're in a "high risk" apartment and or neighborhood.
Not everyone loves animals, and having a dog or a cat can be potential trouble spot - especially if you plan on getting one after you move in. That's why if you intend to do this, make sure that the lease explicitly acknowledges this ahead of time so that the landlord won't withhold his or her consent to do so. In some instances, there's also a surcharge or a "pet fee" involved.
Furthermore, if you're renting in a co-op or condo that is represented as pet-friendly, review the corporate bylaws to ensure that tenants of owners or shareholders are permitted to have them, which sometimes they aren't. Additionally, there may also be a double standard for amenities like gyms and roof decks. Be sure to check.
Lastly, if pets are allowed, be sure to find out whether there is a weight and/or breed restriction to avoid any problems. It is the owner's prerogative to allow or restrict certain types and weighs of pets, especially depending on the make and material of the apartment.
Some landlords may restrict the number of units you can have -- or prohibit them altogether -- due to outdated wiring in the building.
In addition, air conditioners can create a sticky situation because standard leases typically don't allow you to hang anything out of windows, particularly on higher floors. Always ask first before taking matters into your own hands. Even where AC's are allowed, you may need to hire someone else to install them.
Some landlords won't allow their tenants to install their own units because they're afraid of safety or liability issues and you could face penalties of up to $100 or more if you put them in yourself (though this is hardly the case for most apartments in Massachusetts).
Be sure that your right to use the outdoor space is specifically mentioned in the lease. Otherwise you won't be entitled to a rent abatement if the space becomes unusuable for some reason. If you're subletting from an owner whose apartment has a terrace, be sure you're clear up front about who is responsible for maintaining it while you're living there.
Subletting, roommates and visitors
Most standard rental leases require landlord approval to sublet, so you will likely need the landlord's consent to sublet. However, Massachusetts rental law mandates that the landlord may not unreasonably withhold consent.
That said, if you are going to leave the apartment permanently and want someone to take over your lease, this is called an assignment. The landlord can refuse an assignment, but if your request to assign is denied, you are allowed to cancel the lease. if there is a possibility you will need leave before your lease is up, you should discuss this with the landlord ahead of time to determine whether or he or she will want you to go through the formalities or whether you can just terminate. You may also be able to work this out with a landlord before the lease is signed.
As far as roommates and significant others, you are allowed to have at least one additional occupant living with you while you're there even if the lease is just in your name as long as you notify the landlord first.
Before you go and paint that blank wall on your apartment, find out first if you actually can. If the landlord has agreed in advance to let you make improvements or alterations to the apartment, make sure you get this in writing in the lease. Otherwise, you will be responsible for the cost of returning the apartment to its original condition. In most cases, improvements and structural reconfiguration often tends to be more work than people expect, so make sure you know what you're doing before you remodel, as costs could skyrocket easily.
If the apartment is furnished, the lease should also contain a list of all furniture that is to be included, as well as a confirmation that all of these items are in place when the lease begins. If there's something you don't like or would want remove, tell the landlord right there and then. This could also be a point of negotiation for the total price of the lease, or additional apartment storage space at the least. Make the argument with the owner that you'd need flexibility with the items currently in the apartment. Oftentimes, they'd welcome you being straight forward than hiding your true intentions.
Getting your security deposit back can be a challenge; getting it quickly can be even harder. In Massachusetts, the law only requires that the landlord return your security deposit within a reasonable period of time, so just as an extra precaution you may want to add a provision to the lease that stipulates exactly how many days your landlord has to give it back to you once your apartment has passed its final inspection. Make sure this goes into writing as well, as you can never be too careful.
Showing the apartment when the lease is up
It's not uncommon for landlords to include a provision to show your apartment to prospective tenants near the end of the lease. However, the exact terms of the arrangement should be looked at closely, as should such factors as how many days before the end of the lease is acceptable, are there any restrictions on the time or days of the week, who will be permitted access and whether or not you will be required to make the apartment available for open houses. Massachusetts law provides that landlords and or the management company (whichever is in direct contact with the occupant), inform the tenant at least 24 hours prior to a showing; otherwise residents can reject entry into their living space.