Knowing when not to sign
It's October, and you found that perfect sophomore year house, still within earshot
of Markley. Your six roommates are psyched to sign the lease before someone else
snags it, and your first instinct is to seal the deal as quickly as possible. But what you
really need to do is take your time and read the lease closely - there are a variety of
tricky clauses that can cause trouble with your landlord.
Wednesday, October 28,209-Th icignDat
Moving into a mess
Excited to move into your new house, you find that the cute older house you
toured last year has transformed into a pigsty. There is rat poop in the cupboards and
mysterious carpet stains in every room. On top of that, the kitchen sink makes an
ominous gurgling sound like it might not hold out much longer. If there are problems
from the onset, you need to be prepared to deal with them later on.
Any student renter in Ann Arbor has heard horror
stories about exploitative and negligent landlords.
Students are too often at a disadvantage in lease
agreements because they don't know what rights
housing laws afford them.
It's time for that to change.
Ann Arbor's "Rights and Duties of Ten-
ants" handbook lists a number of unlawful
clauses that landlords sometimes include
in lease agreements to discourage tenants
from taking legal action against them. For
example, the law does not allow clauses
that prohibit you from attaininga jury trial
or stipulate that you must pay for the land-
lord's legal fees. These clauses are unen-
forceable by law, and landlords know this
- don't be intimidated.
Gayle Rosen, an attorney at Stu-
dent Legal Services who handles hous-
ing disputes, said that she does not see
many unlawful clauses in the cases she
handles. But if something in your lease
seems suspicious, have a tenant lawyer
at Student Legal Services examine it.
In the case that the clause doesn't hold
up, you'll be able to move into your new
place with the knowledge that you would
be entitled to your full legal rights if you
ever needed to use them.'
But there are plenty of subtler problems
that can be spelled out in leases ahead of
time. Landlords cannot waive the abil-
ity to sue for negligent upkeep, but they
can transfer some of the responsibility for
keeping the house up to code to tenants.
For example, many leases require tenants
to take the trash out or shovel snow from
the walk. Think about the place you're
looking to rent - in a big house split into
several apartments, these jobs might be
bigger thanyou want to take on.
One trend that Rosen warns about is a
security deposit waiver, which would have
you sign over your security deposit to the
people who move in the following year.
The expectation is that the new tenant
would then be responsible for paying you
the value of your deposit. Landlords most
often present this waiver when only some
See SI-GNING LEASE, Page 8B
Don't let your landlord off the hook for
not cleaning your place. You're paying to
live in a residence as if it's your own, not
to have the privilege of rifling through the
former tenants' old junk.
"You have the right to a clean, sanitary
dwelling before you move in, even if your
lease says it does not have to be clean,"
reads the city's "Rights and Duties of Ten-
Some landlords push tenants to sign
cleaning waivers absolving them of the
obligation to clean between leases. Such
waivers are only legal some of the time -
such as when tenants waive cleaning for
the chance to move in early. If you signed
one, show it to a tenant lawyer to see how it
checks out. If you didn't sign one, you can
demand that your landlord have the place
cleaned regardless of when you moved in.
In the instance that your landlord fails
to comply with your request, you may be
able to receive compensation for cleaning
the place yourself. First, Rosen recom-
mends that you take time-stamped photos
of the condition of the house when you
first moved in. Then log how many hours
you worked to get the house in satisfac-
tory condition. Compiling evidence might
be enough to compel your landlord to give
you credit toward rent.
But unwashed floors might be the least
of your problems. If you suspect that your
house isn't up to city housing codes, your
landlord is required to show certification
of compliance upon request. But even that
might not be reliable - city inspectors
often get backed up and sometimes issue
temporary certificates without completing
When dealing with prolonged housing
issues, recording evidence should be your
prerogative. Even before major problems
See MOVING IN, Page 8B
Jessica Vosgerchian and Sam Wainwright I Magazine Staff Writers
Prompting repairs by withholding rent
You have been badgering your landlord for weeks to replace the dishwasher that died.
Washing dishes by hand is a major inconvenience, and not what you signed up for when
you agreed to the cost of rent. You feel your landlord has cheated you by failing to pro-
vide an amenity that makes the house valuable to lease. It's time to take bolder action
than leaving angry messages - legally refuse to pay rent until the repairs are made.
Securing your security deposit
The end of your lease rolls around and you move out of your house. You think you've
left the place in decent condition, but you're worried your landlord might take a chunk
out of your security deposit for something ludicrous - those years-old coffee stains
in the living room, for example. You don't have to accept the judgment your landlord
makes, as long as you follow the rules.
"I find that when you start withhold-
ing rent, things start to move forward,"
Student Legal Services attorney Gayle
So your landlord will take you seri-
ously, you want to go about withholding
rent as carefully as possible. Collect all
the rent money from your roommates as
usual, but instead of paying your land-
lord, open a checking account at your
bank and deposit the full amount of
rent. Then write your landlord a letter
explaining why you're withholding rent
- you might want to include the bank
statement from your new account so your
landlord knows you're not just trying to
Often, taking the initiative to with-
hold rent will prompt landlords to fix the
problem in order to get their money as
soon as possible. But in other situations,
your landlord might want to contest your
claim or you might want to fight to be
compensated for the inconvenience.
"Depending on how long it lasted and
how bad it was, we would want to talk
about an abatement of rent," Rosen said.
"I'd want to argue that if you don't have
heat in the middle of winter, you deserve
that full day's rent."
_ If you plan to take legal action, com-
pile a list of instances when your landlord
failed to complete necessary mainte-
nance. Dated e-mails will demonstrate
how your landlord's negligence has been
an ongoing problem. If seeking com-
pensation for a short-lived but extreme
occurrence - such as water damage from
busted pipes or whole days without heat
- photo evidence can be especially help-
ful. Take time-stamped photos of your
damaged belongings or of the thermostat
at an inhospitably low temperature.
In retaliation, your landlord may sue
or begin eviction proceedings against
you. Since withholding rent is legal, you
won't have to worry about being forced
from your home, although you may have
to appear in court. Student Legal Ser-
vices will represent University students
free of charge, but you will have to pay
The first thing to do is send your land-
lord your forwarding address in writing
four days after you move out at the latest.
This is crucial, because doing so obligates
your landlord to provide an itemized bill
listing damages and the cost of repairs.
You also don't want to risk your secu-
rity deposit notice getting lost in the mail
for a few days - you only have seven days
after your landlord sends your security
deposit to dispute claims by mail.
But your landlord is also under dead-
line. If you haven't received your secu-
rity deposit within 30 days of moving out,
your landlord is obligated to return the
full amount and bill you later.
Let's say you did provide your forward-
ing address, you get the itemized bill and
oddly enough, you disagree with your
landlord's assessment of the damages: you
don't think it costs $200 to clean a piece of
gum off the carpet or that those scuffs on
the couch qualify as anything more than
normal wear and tear.
You also want to consider the worth of
the original item and the cost the landlord
cited for repairing or replacing it. Even if
you did break a rickety old table during a
kegger, you don't have to pay for a spank-
ing new one - you only owe the value of
the table that broke.
Afteryouobject tothe damages claimed,
your landlord then has the option to kind-
ly return your security deposit in full, cor-
dially negotiate a different amount or take
you to court.
Your landlord has 45 days to initiate a
lawsuit or return your deposit in full. If 45
days pass and you are neither a defendant
nor reunited with your money, you have
the right to counter-sue for double dam-
ages, or twice the amount of your security
deposit. You can actually stand to make
money on the whole inconvenience.
If your landlord does sue, make sure
that you remembered to fill out that ini-
tial inventory checklist with obnoxious
attention to detail, because this is when
it becomes important. It is your primary
document to dispute the claims, but to win
a case in small claims court, you're going
See SECURITY DEPOSIT, Page 8B
Tenant lawyers recommend photographing anything that is wrong
with your residence in case you need evidence to defend yourself
against your landlord later on.