You can protect yourself as long as you pay attention and know your rights before, during, and, especially, after you sign a lease.
PRIOR TO SIGNING THE LEASE:
1. Always rent through an agent
Some try to skip the agent and ultimately skip the broker fee. In most cases, you end up paying a fee anyway and without an agent by your side you are doing yourself a disservice. The listing agent's job is to protect the owner of the property, so who's protecting you? Find an agent you like and stick with them through the entire rental process. Things will go much smoother.
2. View the unit
Make sure you see the actual unit - not just one in the same building.
3. Read through the lease
Although it's tedious, make sure you read through all the details of the lease especially in regards to sub-leasing policies, pet policies and what utilities are included.
4. Be wary of "fees"
Pay attention to different fees such as a "holding fees," to take a property off the market. If something falls through, then you may have a hard time getting that money back. Always get something in writing stating whether or not your deposits are refundable.
5. Get renters insurance
Always get renters insurance to protect your assets. It's not very expensive and will be well-worth it in the end.
6. Security deposit
Most landlords require a security deposit, (equal to one month's rent). The landlord is required to place the security deposit into an escrow account, and send the tenants the account information within 30 days. Make a copy for you and your roommates and store it with your lease. When you move out, your landlord is required to return your security deposit (as long as there are no damages) along with the interest earned throughout your lease.
DURING YOUR LEASE
1. Condition statement
Make note of the condition of the apartment. The first day you move-in you will receive a "statement of condition." Go through the apartment and make note of any damages that are not already listed. Make sure you do a thorough job, otherwise you may be held liable at the end of your lease and could lose part or all of your security deposit.
2. Never pay rent in cash
Always send rent via bank transfer or check. This way, there will always be a record of it.
3. Habitable living environment
Boston law requires the building to have a functional heating system, hot and cold water, a proper kitchen and free from rodents, cockroaches, and insect infestation. Both Boston and Cambridge have inspectional services departments to call, and Boston also operates a "no heat" hotline. No-heat complaints are responded to very quickly in heating season.
4. Late rent
Your landlord cannot evict you or charge you a late fee if you are a few days late in rent (unless your lease specifically states otherwise). They can take action after 30 days.
5. Entry of premises
The landlord is not allowed to enter your unit without your permission, unless there is an emergency. If they do, you can charge them with trespassing.
ONCE YOUR LEASE HAS ENDED
1. Take note of condition before leaving
Take note of the condition once more prior to leaving. Hold up that days newspaper to prove the date the pictures were taken.
2. Document your security deposit
The landlord has 30 days to either send you the full security deposit with interest or explain why not. If they are making a deduction for any damages, they need to send an itemized list stating the nature of the repair, and it must be signed under penalty of perjury above the landlord's signature. If the landlord fails to follow the security deposit law, they might be doing you a big favor -- it allows you to take them to court and collect three times the security deposit.
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