Lease agreements lost in translation

By Lauren Leone

Elaine Conrad said miscommunication between the tenant and the resident is one of the main factors that lead to unreturned or delayed security deposits. Conrad, community programs coordinator, works specifically with international students who have difficulty getting their security deposits back. Conrad also helps students understand their rights and responsibilities before signing a lease. “Leases can be difficult to understand, even when English is someone’s first language,” she said. Conrad said leasing policies differ from one apartment complex to another. She said some complexes have security deposits, which are to be paid beforehand, and some deposits are attached to the monthly rent. Conrad said a verbal agreement is not enough. “You can avoid any misunderstanding in the lease by asking questions, and getting anything agreed upon that’s not in the original release, in writing,” she said. Richard Hall, a lecturer in the finance department, said security deposits are a hot issue in Carbondale, but there is an Illinois state law that can help residents in the event a tenant holds a security deposit for an extended period of time. The Security Deposit Return Act explains what a landlord has to do when returning a security deposit, he said. The law applies to tenants of residential real property containing five or more units. This would include the larger apartment complexes in Carbondale such as Home Rentals, Lewis Park, and Saluki Apartments, Hall said. The law states the lessor, or landlord, has 30 days from the date the resident vacates the premises to supply an itemized statement of all damages and the estimated cost for repair. “That is from the date the premises is vacated, not the date of the end of the lease,” Hall said. He said if the landlords do not supply a statement within 30 days, they are obligated by law to return the security deposit in its entirety within 45 days. The law states if management is aware of some damages but is unsure of the exact cost, they still have to tell the tenant how much it will cost after 30 days of sending the original statement out. This could lead to some tenants not seeing their deposits for nearly two months. Hall said if the time frame in the leases differs from state law, and the complex has five or more units, state law prevails. Conrad said she stresses for students, national or international, to read every point of the lease and to find out if the security deposit is refundable or not beforehand. She said there could also be a cleaning deposit as opposed to a security deposit. Students need to take photos or have written record of any damages in the living space, she said. “If you can get them to sign off on that, or be present while you are taking pictures, that’s the smartest thing to do,” she said. Richa Asarawala, a graduate student studying electrical and computer engineering from India, lives in Campus Habitat and hasn’t had any issues with her tenants. “Before signing a lease, they need to read the whole lease papers carefully,” she said. “Not each and every lease is the same.” Conrad said the Students’ Legal Assistance Office, located on the 3rd floor of the Student Center, has representatives available when students need advice concerning legal issues with understanding apartment leases. Asarawala said students should be cautious when searching for apartments and not to rush into anything. “Before you sign the lease, they are very good with you, but after you sign the lease, they sometimes don’t care for you at all,” she said. Q: How much security deposit can a landlord charge? A: All states allow landlords to collect a security deposit when the tenant moves in; the general purpose is to assure that the tenant pays rent when due and keeps the rental unit in good condition. Half the states limit the amount landlords can charge, usually not more than a month or two worth of rent — the exact amount depends on the state. Many states require landlords to put deposits in a separate account and some require landlords to pay tenants the interest on deposits. Q: What can a landlord deduct from a scurity deposit? A: Landlords may normally make certain deductions from a tenant’s security deposit, provided they do it correctly and for an allowable reason. Many states require landlords to provide a written itemized accounting of deductions for unpaid rent and for repairs for damages that go beyond normal wear and tear, together with payment for any deposit balance. Q: Is the landlord required to return the security deposit? A: A tenant may sue a landlord who fails to return his or her deposit when and how required, or who violates other provisions of security deposit laws such as interest requirements; often these lawsuits may be brought in small claims court. If the landlord has intentionally and flagrantly violated the law, in some states, a tenant may recover the entire deposit — sometimes even two or three times this amount–plus attorney fees and other damages.