Getting your first apartment or place on your own is a huge step toward adulthood and very exciting. However, it’s also a big adjustment and fraught with potential mistakes, some of which could be costly. Although there’s nothing like learning from your mistakes, it’s even better if you can avoid them in the first place. Here’s what you need to know from a legal standpoint when you’re on your own for the first time.
These tips and tricks come from a great resource for young people, What Every Teen Should Know About Texas Law.For even more great advice in further detail, pick up a copy from University of Texas Press.
Know Your Lease Terms
Made a verbal agreement with a buddy about living in the spare room? Probably not a good idea. Although a verbal agreement can function as a lease, it doesn’t leave you many rights as a tenant. A lease put in writing, even a simple one not drawn up by a lawyer, is considered a binding document if it’s dated and signed by you and the landlord.
Be wary of month-to-month leases. While the flexibility is great, the landlord can also give you just 30 days notice to pack up your things and find another place to live – not an easy thing to do.
Last but not least, read your entire lease. Yes, it may be long and your landlord may be standing over your shoulder, but once you sign, those terms are legally binding and you need to know what you’re agreeing to. If you’re uncomfortable with something in the lease, it’s better to ask now and see if the landlord is open to changing it, rather than be stuck with it down the road.
Finding Your First Apartment
Although craigslist, HotPads and Facebook Marketplace are all the rage, they’re not the only place to find an apartment. For example, many cities have free apartment finding services that can help you find what you’re looking for, especially helpful if you’re new to a place. Apartment associations, tenant associations and your university guide are other great places to search. If you’re looking at an apartment complex, ask around to see if you know anyone who has lived there. They can tell you what it’s really like to live there, beyond photoshopped pictures and glossy brochures.
Make sure you ask to see the actual apartment that you would be living in, not a model apartment or one like it. You never know what the landlord might be trying to hide.
Apartment Applications and Deposit
Don’t fill out an application unless you actually intend to rent the apartment. While the landlord may not offer you the apartment, if they do, you’re required to accept it. In addition, don’t pay a deposit on an apartment if you aren’t sure that you want it. You may lose all or part of your deposit if you don’t move in.
Take an Inventory
When you first move in, make sure to take an inventory of the entire place, noting any damage like holes, marks, stains or cracks. You don’t want to be charged in a year or two for something you didn’t do. Taking pictures is even better.
Get Renters Insurance
In most cases, if a flood, fire or burglary happens, your landlord is not responsible for replacing your things. Get renter’s insurance – it’s inexpensive and will save you a lot of money if something bad happens.
Need a Repair? You Still Have To Pay Your Rent
In Texas, it’s illegal to withhold your rent because your landlord hasn’t made a repair. If you do so, the landlord can sue you for damages and one month’s rent, plus $500. If your landlord is being derelict about repairs, learn the legal steps you can take to get a repair completed from Texas Tenant Advisor.
Moving Out Early and Giving Notice
When you’re ready to move on to greener pastures, make sure that you re-read your lease for instructions. If you decide to move on before the lease ends, there may be a fee you have to pay. Your landlord may be able to work with you, especially if you help find another renter ASAP so they don’t lose money on their property sitting empty. In most cases, you need to give 30-days notice and do it in writing. Ask for move out instructions and follow them to the letter so you don’t end up losing your security deposit.
Don’t Get Your Deposit Back? Learn What You Can Do
If you don’t get your deposit back in a timely manner and you followed instructions when moving out, there are legal steps you can take to get your deposit back. Learn what you can do and when it’s time to file in small claims court.
For more detailed advice, including what to do about a deadbeat roommate, what to do if you think you’re the victim of discrimination, or what could happen if you’re evicted, pick up a copy of What Every Teen Should Know About Texas Law. Written by an attorney and a judge, it is a valuable resource for any young Texan learning to navigate the adult world.