Understanding rental agreements crucial to off-campus living

December 15, 2009

University Park, Pa. -- One of the myriad rites of passage for many college students is transitioning from a structured residence hall life to independent apartment living. The appeal of deciding where and with whom they will live is alluring to many students, but an array of responsibilities accompanies that freedom of choice.

Arguably, the most important responsibility comes long before move-in day: signing a rental agreement. To the uninitiated, a rental agreement is considered simply a document saying that a student intends to live in a certain apartment unit and pay rent. However, it is much more complicated than that.

"In some ways it's like buying a house," said Penn State Assistant Director of Off-Campus Living Loretta Doss. "It's a legal, binding agreement."

Among the countless questions a prospective renter might have, here are some of the most important:

-- Must prospective tenants submit an application for a lease?
-- Is a fee required with my application? If so, what happens to that money?
-- Does the act of submitting an application commit me and/or my parents to sign a lease?
-- What are my obligations if my application is accepted?
-- Can you give me a copy of the lease at this time?
-- Who is the landlord and/or the landlord's property manager? What are their addresses?
-- Will the lease be written or verbal?
-- What rules and regulations must I follow upon signing the lease?
-- How much notice is needed to renew or terminate the lease?
-- How much is monthly rent?
-- Will my rent payments have to be guaranteed? If so, why and by whom?
-- How many of us may rent and live at this rental address?
-- May I rent from you for a 12-month, nine-month or lesser time period?
-- Do I pay for: heat, water/sewer, parking (guest parking), air conditioning, garbage collection, repairs, pets or cable TV?

That's a long list, but it doesn't include all of the potential questions. That's why, Doss said, it's important to be absolutely certain when choosing a prospective roommate. "If you're going to have a roommate, make sure that person is definitely who you want to live with," she said.

Once a student has made up his or her mind and located an apartment, that doesn't mean the work is over. Instead, according to Off-Campus Student Union President Meghan Furey, that's when roommates have to buckle down and study the rental agreement.

"When I went over my contract, I knew specifically what to look for -- the security deposit, whether maintenance items are my responsibility or the landlord's," she said.

"We all sat down and read the contract together. We mapped out how the payment plan would work and addressed everything that could go wrong. We considered it a preemptive strike against what could happen. You have to have good communication between roommates before you move in. If your roommate doesn't read (the rental agreement), it could harm you."

Part of the process is determining what type of lease you're about to sign and understanding the differences between the two types of leases.

"Students need to make sure they know what type of lease it is," Doss said. "There are two types: Joint and Several, and Individual. Students should understand what their responsibilities are as an individual or as a group."

Under a Joint and Several Lease, a student is responsible not only for his or her portion of the rent but for the roommates' share also, if they do not pay their portions. With an Individual lease, a student is responsible for paying only his or her portion of the rent, no matter if the roommates pay or don't pay their portion.

Doss said that when it comes to signing a lease, students should approach it like they would a class on campus -- there are no dumb questions.

"Even before signing, go over the lease with the landlord or get someone to look over it to explain your responsibilities, and get answers to questions about gray areas or things you're not sure about," she said.

Last Updated April 18, 2017