Leasing an apartment: what you need to know

The sound of an obnoxious roommate or a loud neighbor can make any student want to move off campus. But while leaving GW housing may seem like a dream for some, students should take precise steps to ensure that the move does not turn into a nightmare.

From the outset, there are several factors students may want to consider when looking for an apartment – proximity to GW being a top priority. Those leaving Foggy Bottom should also be aware of issues such as crime, traffic, noise, and obviously rental prices in their new neighborhoods.

The character of an area impacts the costs associated with renting space there, and the amount of time a landlord has owned a building can also have an effect, said Tom Gretz, a managing partner at Gretz & Mannix real estate. In particular, the longer a landlord has remained, the cheaper the rent may be.

“The owner who owned for longer should be more flexible with the rent,” said Gretz, who added that this is because mortgage liability tends to decrease for the landlord over time.

Once students find an apartment, there are more considerations. Before signing a lease, students should inspect the apartment and ask if any necessary repairs will be made before moving in. Doing so can save students from future hassles and unnecessary expenditures to correct a problem that could have been resolved early on, according to GW’s Office of Off-Campus Student Affairs.

Another sticking point is getting to know the landlord to make sure he or she is legally allowed to rent space. To this end, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has launched the Collegiate Off-Campus Housing Initiative, designed to protect students from unlicensed landlords.

As part of its campaign, the department provides a registry of all licensed landlords in the District, accessible at thisshouldbeillegal.com. In addition, the Web site allows tenants to request a housing inspection and free smoke detectors through the District’s Smoke Alarm Utilization and Verification Program.

Having found a legitimate landlord and ensured there are no outstanding maintenance issues, the time has come for the prospective tenant to sign a lease. But students should never do this without first reading and actually understanding the contract.

A good lease should define the key obligations that students should be aware of when becoming tenants, according to the Office of Off-Campus Student Affairs. Typically, it will include the terms of the security deposit, rent payment expectations, whether utilities are included, and information on the duration of the contract and the penalties incurred for terminating it. It should also cover rules concerning maintenance and pets.

Oftentimes students enter into a lease with roommates to cut down on costs. This arrangement works, so long as each is there to pledge his or her share, but Gretz cautioned that if one roommate decides to leave, the liability for the rent payments may be passed on to everyone else.

“[Students] go in there and try to find housing with four to five bedrooms. A lot of owners put a clause in that if one out of five tenants vacates the lease… [the rest] are wholly and fully responsible for the entire rent,” he said.

It may also be advantageous to have a co-signer on the lease – for those under 21 this is often required. Having a parent or guardian as a co-signer ensures that costs will be covered if the student does not meet the requirements of the contract.

One final item is renter’s insurance. This can protect the tenant’s belongings in the event of a natural disaster or accident, such as a burst water main or a fire. Gretz recommends this in order to avoid any disappointment that may come with losing valued possessions.

“It’s very inexpensive and definitely beneficial for students to have,” Gretz said.

While renting an apartment is not one of the hardest things to do, students should investigate all of their options before committing to a single one. Once an apartment is found, clearly understanding one’s obligations as a tenant under contract can go a long way.

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