Renter beware: Devilish details lurk in leases

If you're a UVA student who's also a renter, I want you to ponder this statement long and hard; you may never again encounter such a whopping understatement: "Landlords vary greatly in competence and responsibility." Then I want you to bookmark the website where I found it,, and plumb its depths when you finish reading this.

The website is UVA Student Legal Services' (SLS) guide to renting in Charlottesville (or anywhere), and it's got excellent advice and links. The following pointers are a combination of their advice and my own, which is based on five years' worth of hearing about and investigating tenant– and occasionally landlord or neighbor– complaints. I've divided them between what you can do in your current rental and what you can do when shopping for the next.

First, be sure you have renter's insurance. You may already be covered under your parents' homeowner's policy, but if you're not, call an agent and get insured. It'll cost you less than $10 or so a month, yet could save you thousands– and, as SLS points out, you're not just covering your own stuff; you're also buying protection in case you accidentally damage someone else's stuff (or, heaven forbid, someone else's body).

Next, fill out a thorough move-in report; the SLS website has one you can download. Better yet, take pictures; best of all, do both. No matter how much documentation you gather, be sure to mail copies to your landlord and ask him or her to initial one copy and return it to you. There's an obvious reason to do this– so you can challenge unfair deductions from your deposit– but there's a subtler reason as well: You're telegraphing your expectation that the upcoming business transaction will be conducted in a fair and professional manner.

Finally, if you didn't read the lease carefully when you signed it, read it now. In my last trip into Landlord-Tenant Land ["Fleaced?" July 29, 2004], I wrote about tenants who were mighty unhappy about how long their deposit was being held. Then it turned out that the lease allowed it to be retained for up to three months. The landlord claimed that when tenants have pets– as two of the four tenants in that case did– it can take that long to make sure the property is free of fleas and other conditions.

The time limit allowed by the Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act, incidentally, is 45 days. As in this case, however, the lease's terms can override that.

The SLS website really shines when it comes to advice on what prospective renters should look for. "Choose a landlord," it states, "who has a history of providing professional service. That quality is essential." Amen. And the best way to find that out is to interview the current tenants and "ask specific questions– e.g., does the basement flood?"

The next tip could literally save your life: "If the property, or your walk to school and back from the property (at night!) seems unsafe, look elsewhere." This covers a lot more than chancy neighborhoods; a rotted step, inadequate wiring, or deck waiting to collapse the first time you have a party can be just as dangerous.

Which brings us back to that so-important-but-so-often-unread document, the lease. SLS will review your lease for free; you can download a model lease from their website, along with a model sublease form and a roommate agreement.

Speaking of subleases, find out exactly what the terms are. As one UVA student renting from one of the large management companies learned to her chagrin ["A little steep?" April 18, 2002], those terms can be forbidding.

Finally, ponder this: Landlords may vary in competence and responsibility, but so do tenants. Take reasonable care of the property and treat it with respect; that's what you promised to do when you signed the lease. And while you're at it, do the same for your neighbors.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.