Opinion | From the other perspective: Landlord advice for prospective tenants

By Loretta Donoghue, Staff Columnist

College comes with many firsts — one of the most exciting is renting your first apartment. Yet, if you are unprepared, the renting process can quickly become a dreadful source of stress.

Several individuals in the local landlord community have offered valuable advice about how to keep that excitement alive as you venture into this new phase of independence. Pitt’s Student Government Board hosted two nights of tenant workshops this week to help students navigate the renting process, with panelists representing all aspects of the renting process, from Oakland landlords to Pitt police.

Every panelist stressed the need for open communication with your landlord. Through every step of the renting process — from the first day you view the apartment to the final days you live there — you need to have a working relationship where you can openly communicate your questions and concerns.

Panelist Lizabeth Gray, neighborhood quality consultant for Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, a nonprofit community development organization, stressed the need for communication about any questions regarding the terms of the lease.

“Read your lease,” Gray said. “Actually read it, from the top of the first page to the bottom of the last page. Then go back and read it again.”

As Gray stresses, the lease is a legally binding contract between the renter and the landlord, so you want to make sure you understand and approve of the terms. If you have any questions or concerns, ask your landlord to clarify.

Since it is common for prospective tenants to meet landlords and discuss these elements before signing the lease, tenants can be tempted to skim the lease and assume everything that was discussed previously won’t change. However, it is still necessary to thoroughly read the lease because what is communicated in casual conversation is not legally binding. The lease may reflect changes in rights and responsibilities that you were not aware of when speaking to your landlord in person. The lease is how the landlord communicates your rights and responsibilities as a tenant — it is up to you to maintain that channel of communication by reading the lease and sharing any concerns you have.

When thinking about specific aspects of renting, there are a few that panelists emphasized, namely utilities. Utilities, or the services you use while renting, include everything from electric to internet. Costs add up quickly, with the average cost of utilities in Pennsylvania coming in at more than $400 per month. Most landlords will usually cover some utilities in the rent payments, like water, but what is covered can vary with each apartment. Clarify with your landlord which utilities they cover so you can get a better idea of how much your living costs will be.

Understanding the basics of utilities is a good starting point, but there are several other items that you need to fully comprehend when it comes to what you and your landlord are each responsible for. Yard maintenance is a key part of any renter’s experience. Property care can include anything from mowing grass to snow removal, with the amount of responsibility placed on tenants varying from landlord to landlord.

Taking care of your yard may seem like a small chore, but when you’re busy cramming for a final or heading off to a club meeting, the small task quickly becomes a huge task. For college students, finding the time, money and energy for property care can feel overwhelming — especially if you were not aware of this responsibility when you moved in. Yard maintenance can be a real hassle, so be sure to start a conversation with the landlord about what your responsibilities would entail if you rent from them.

Without proper communication with your landlord, there’s no way to know what protections you have as a tenant. Another important right you need to understand is when your landlord can and cannot enter the property. There are certain instances where landlords are allowed to enter the property without notice, like if there is an emergency. However, in most situations the landlord must give reasonable notice before entering, in accordance with the covenant of quiet enjoyment. The details of when and how your landlord can enter the property should be clearly communicated in order to create a safe living space. Additionally, this line of communication should continue to be used, as your landlord should give you notice before entering.

Communication is key in deciding on an apartment, but even after you sign a lease, this channel of communication with the landlord should continue. Although you are officially a tenant and the lease is already signed, there will still be questions you have. Whether it’s letting your landlord know that your porch light is out or clearing up any discrepancies in rent payments, communicating your situation with your landlord keeps them in the loop and prevents any misconceptions from taking root.

Even in situations where you are worried about the consequences — say you broke a term in the lease or accidentally caused damage to the property — communication should still be respected. As panelist and local landlord Bob Kelly explained, landlords value honesty.

“If you’re honest with them, they’ll work with you,” Kelly said.

Kelly shared an anecdote about a tenant he had who broke a window in one of his properties. Although the tenant was responsible for the damage, Kelly was willing to pay the replacement costs because the tenant had been honest about what happened. He emphasized that instead of trying to cover up the damage or deny responsibility, you should just explain what happened to your landlord.

Renting an apartment can be a newfound source of freedom, but in order to get the most out of your time as a tenant, take these messages from landlords seriously — after all, they know better than anyone what it takes to have a successful renting experience.

Loretta Donoghue primarily writes about politics for The Pitt News. Write to Loretta at [email protected].