As students prepare to sign — or already have signed — leases for off-campus houses and apartments, The Lantern chatted with Paul Wilkins from Ohio State’s Student Legal Services about best practices for living off campus.
This Q-and-A should not substitute for legal advice. The following Q-and-A has been edited for length and clarity.
How long have you been working with SLS?
I’m the chief litigation attorney, and between here and the Student Housing Legal Clinic (the predecessor of SLS), I’ve been doing this since 2004.
What is a typical day like at SLS?
There’s not really a typical day, but, generally half my day is spent meeting with new clients. We set off — every attorney here sets off half their day for appointments, for people to come in who we’ve not met with before, new issues to talk (about). There will be about five of those for each of us every day.
And then, the other half of the day is spent working on our cases for people that we’re helping on an ongoing basis. There are exceptions to that. We could be in court, which could be all day or part of the day. We could be doing mediation, we do a lot of work with the university and programs at the university.
Why should students have SLS review and look over their lease before signing it?
You will learn what your rights and responsibilities are. And there’s also going to be a lot of unenforceable terms in that lease.
A tenant has certain requirements where they have to keep the apartment clean. They have to dispose of garbage in the manner it’s supposed to be disposed of. They have a duty to report problems that arise in the apartment in writing. They have to use the plumbing and appliances in the manner it’s meant to be used.
Some of the rights of the tenant are that they are entitled to a fit and habitable apartment. If the landlord fails to make repairs after you’ve requested them, (tenants) have the right to force the landlord to make those repairs, by either escrowing their rent or terminating their lease.
And what are some of the things you’ve seen in leases that are unenforceable?
So, a landlord might try to limit their liability. They’ll say that the tenant has to hold the landlord harmless — they’re not allowed to do that. That doesn’t mean the landlord is responsible for all bad things that happen, but to the extent that the law would hold them responsible for it, they can’t limit that liability.
So for instance, the landlord isn’t responsible if a crook steals all your stuff, in general. But if your front door doesn’t lock, and you reported it to the landlord that the door doesn’t lock, and then a crook walks in the front door and steals all your stuff, then the landlord would be responsible for that stuff.
What are the most common questions students come in with regarding their lease, or signing their lease?
A big concern for students is getting their security deposit back, and how to go about doing that. They are concerned about how they go about paying their rent.
One question that I can’t really answer is, they’ll ask me if they’ve got a good landlord or a bad landlord. Nobody comes and tells me what a great landlord they have. They only tell me when they have a problem. I don’t have a good way to judge it.
And what is a good way to best assure someone gets their security deposit back?
Step No. 1 is to make sure you have everything in writing. If something happens in the apartment give (the landlord) something in writing. If there is vandalism — that isn’t done by the tenant — they should file a police report.
(Tenants) need to document the condition of the property. Take lots of pictures before they move anything into the apartment and lots of pictures after they’ve moved everything out of the apartment.
After the lease is signed, what are some of the common issues that students come in with to ask you guys about?
A lot of times the apartment won’t be clean, or there will be lots of repairs that are necessary. As far as repairs go, you have to give written notice of the problem. The landlord has up to 30 days to make those repairs.
Lots of people have trouble with roommates. You know, you sign a lease, and you might be getting along with somebody, or you move in with a group of people and you don’t know everybody, and all the sudden you guys don’t get along. That’s a big problem that doesn’t have a good resolution.
Some people don’t realize that maybe their neighborhood isn’t as safe as they thought it was, or it’s a really loud part of the University District, and they’re not happy about that.
What’s one thing you think every student should know before moving into their first apartment?
They have the power to bargain with the landlord on the amount of rent. With the second-year (living) requirement to live in university housing, there are a lot of empty apartments and houses off campus right now. That means the landlords will be desperate to fill that housing.
If (students) are patient and willing to bargain, they can get that rent down quite a bit.
People don’t believe that they can do it, or they don’t have the experience in doing it, but I have talked to a lot of tenants who have been able to bargain the rent down a lot.
It’s been a lot different the last two years than the last 14 years I’ve been doing this.