Residential leases for the college-bound |

Residential leases for the college-bound

Matthew Trinidad
Pro Bono Publico

Something magical happens when you turn 18. In addition to having the right to buy cigarettes and lottery tickets, you now have the capacity, under law, to enter into binding contracts. One of the first and most consequential contracts that young people will enter into is the residential lease, so you would do well to understand the basics of leasing. This article should help orient you to the subject.

A residential lease will include or address at least five things: identification of the renters, a lease term, a description of what you’re renting, rent, and damage deposits. Hidden risks lurk within a few of these items, which I’ll discuss in turn.

Identification of the renters: Two harsh realities that manifest when you leave the proverbial nest are the cost of living and a limited budget. An effective strategy to combat these realities is to reduce overhead. A mathematically sound way to do that is to get a roommate or five. Strength in numbers, right?

The roommates who sign the lease are typically jointly and severally liable for the rent and damage to the property. That means that if your roommate uses the walls of her room as a practice canvas for her modern graffiti class and then leaves mid-term to follow Phish on tour, the other renters and you will be on the hook for the repairs and the rent.

A residential lease will include or address at least five things: identification of the renters, a lease term, a description of what you’re renting, rent, and damage deposits. Hidden risks lurk within a few of these items.

Also, it’s not uncommon for students to attempt to reduce their share of the rent by cramming multiple renters into a house or apartment. This is fraught with risk, especially for those who sign the lease. First, housing or building codes may limit the number of residents of a house or apartment, especially if the residents are unrelated. If too many people live under one roof, some may be asked to leave by a municipal order. Second, if a roommate who is not on the lease trashes the place, those who sign the lease will be entirely on the hook. The lesson is simple, choose your roommates carefully, and don’t let anyone live in the apartment who isn’t on the lease.

Term: College students oftentimes will want a nine-month lease that begins in mid-August and ends in mid-May. Finding a summer renter in a college town can be difficult, so don’t be surprised if your landlord insists on a full-year lease.

If you’re going home for the summer, this typically leaves you one of two options— pay rent for a place you’re not living in or find a sublessor.

Subleasing has its own set of risks, mainly, that the primary lessor remains on the hook. If the sublessor fails to pay rent or trashes the place, the landlord will look to your damage deposit or you to be made whole. So try to get a nine month lease. If you can’t, try to get the landlord to terminate your lease and enter into a new lease with the summer renter, if you can find one. If the landlord is unwilling, pick your sublessors carefully.

Damage deposit: When you enter into a lease, be prepared to shell out a ton of cash. Typically a landlord requires first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit. If you’re a good tenant and you return the premises in good shape, you should be entitled to the return of your damage deposit.

To protect your deposit, be sure to thoroughly inspect the premises at the outset of the lease, document and get the landlord to acknowledge the pre-existing damage, if any, and document the condition the premises when you leave. Otherwise, the landlord could retain your deposit on the basis that you caused that pre-existing beer stain on the carpet, and it would be difficult for you to prove otherwise.

Beware that landlords catering to young people have been known to wrongfully retain damage deposits. A landlord who wrongfully retains a damage deposit is subject to so-called “treble damages,” which means that if they wrongfully withhold all or a portion of your damage deposit, they could be compelled to pay back triple the amount wrongfully withheld, plus your attorney’s fees. To retain a damage deposit, there must be damage above and beyond ordinary wear and tear, and the landlord must provide written notice describing the damage and notice of its intent to withhold the deposit within 60 days of the termination of the lease. If you sincerely believe a landlord wrongfully withheld a damage deposit and you have pretty good proof to that effect, or if the landlord fails to observe the required procedure for withholding the deposit, talk to your parents or talk to a lawyer, because you may have leverage under the law to get back that deposit, and then some.

Matthew Trinidad is a transaction attorney at Karp Neu Hanlon PC. He can be reached at or 970-456-3457.

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