Editor's note: This piece was first published in February 2020.
As the spring semester flies by and plans for the future are being made, there is one thing on students’ minds for next year: Where am I going to live? Whether you are considering re-signing the lease on your apartment, obsessively cruising Craigslist for housing listings or calling up various leasing companies in the area for properties, it can be tough to find the right place.
But what happens when you find that perfect place? It is too often that tenants sign leases without reading and understanding the lease themselves. Most students are not equipped with the knowledge of the law to understand their rights as renters. This misinformation makes it easier for landlords to prey upon their tenants.
Have no fear –– there are resources to prevent hoodwinking, like the New River Tenant Union. NRTU has taken initiative in creating a supportive organization that aims to protect tenants against unlawful housing practices, even helping those in need of legal aid. They believe in the importance of any tenant knowing their legal rights.
Adam Ryan, one of the founding members of the NRTU, recognizes university students as a target group for landlords to take advantage of.
“They’re a transient population –– most students aren’t from here and it’s very easy for them to get away with things like taking away people’s security deposits and not giving it back,” Ryan said. “And that’s partly why students and tenants need to know their own rights. Because if you don’t know the entire process from moving in to moving out as a tenant, it’s very easy for them. It becomes your word against theirs.”
Some apartment complexes in the area have been notorious for not complying with lawful housing practices. In light of the recent emails Terrace View sent to its tenants, as well as presenting apartments in unsatisfactory conditions, it is crucial to understand your position as a renter.
Thoroughly read your lease
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a move and quickly sign a lease without thoroughly understanding its parameters. As a tenant, it is your responsibility to know what you are agreeing to, like how much the monthly rent is, what repairs you might liable for and where to pay utility bills to.
If you find any red flags on the lease, it might be helpful to talk about them with your renter. After signing the lease, you are legally binded to follow its rules, so sign mindfully.
Take pictures of everything.
Upon moving into your new pad, it’s wise to inspect the space and take note of its condition. Snap pictures of each room and record all sorts of details like carpet stains, wall scratches, etc. Compile a list of everything you see, save a copy for yourself and give one to the landlord. This ensures that you have proof of the original condition of the place.
“It’s very easy for landlords to manipulate things, take folks’ security deposits, deny repairs, use the threat of eviction to keep a tenant from speaking out or trying to get some sort maintenance or remediation,” Ryan said.
Hopefully your space is damage-free and ready to go. If not, know that it is absolutely within your rights to notify your landlord and have them rectify the situation.
When it comes time to move out, you and your landlord will know what sort of damage you may have caused versus what was already there. You can even be there for the move-out inspection to ensure that the report is accurate. This allows you to get as much of your security deposit back as possible.
Know your rights for repairs
Under Virginia State Law, landlords must keep your house or apartment in a safe and habitable condition, appropriately following housing codes. If this code is not met, you as a tenant have a right to complain.
For example, if there is mold in the house or if there is a problem with the plumbing, water, heating, etc., your landlord should be able to take care of this within reasonable time. Here is a list of all the things that Virginia State Law recognizes as exactly what landlord responsibilities to your domicile are.
If your landlord disputes or refuses to take care of the issues promptly, you have a right to take your landlord to court and even withhold your rent until these repairs are made. This may only be necessary for very severe cases, and not many college students have time to dispute these sorts of issues.
Alas, it is important to know that it is an option, and there are unions out there to support you. The New River Tenant Union has a comprehensive Tenants Defense Guidethat is a reference that gives in depth information on tenant rights.