Renting a home can be a relaxed and friendly process, or it can be a complete nightmare. Which you experience depends on the house, the landlord, and the lease. All too often, renting families with good intentions enter into a rental lease only to discover that it takes an extra thousand dollars in 'move-in' costs on top of what was expected. You may have been through an experience where you discovered that your security deposit was not meant to be returned, or that your landlord is somehow charging for use of the mailbox.
When landlords go bad, they can go very, very bad. Fortunately, you can avoid most surprise rental fee traps just by reading the lease ahead of time and watching out for a few keywords in the rental advertisements. Here's how to avoid rental fee pitfalls and hidden costs:
Read the Lease
The lease is a legally binding document. Once you sign it, you are obligated to follow any fee payment structure the document sets out. But the lease is the final word, not your landlord. Read the lease and take note of any section that says you might have to pay money, put down a deposit or "cover expenses". Run it by a lawyer if you're not sure exactly what the lease is saying.
Fees included in the lease, you will be held to. Fees that your landlord brings up later that aren't in the lease, you don't legally have to pay. Don't get caught by lease-defined fees or bullied into paying non-lease-defined fees.
"Non-Refundable" and "One-Time" Fees
Watch out for the terms "non-refundable" and "one-time". These are usually used by landlords that are trying to get more out of tenants than the usual first+last+deposit agreement. Non-refundable deposits are not actually deposits, they are additional payments for the privilege to use the house and you don't get them back. One-time fees are usually the landlord trying to offload something normal about tenant-turnover onto you, like carpet cleaning or repainting between tenants.
Non-Refundable Pet Deposits
The most common non-refundable deposit (an oxymoron like jumbo-shrimp) is the "Pet deposit". Some landlords really do return your pet deposit if the pet causes no damage. Some think of the pet deposit as something they can pocket even if your pet is perfectly behaved, leaving no smells or stains. If you have a pet, this trap was laid for you.
One-Time Cleaning Fees
One-time cleaning fees are popular among stingy landlords who are looking to charge tenants for 'normal wear and tear' on the home. Something they are not allowed to deduct from the security deposit for. The cleaning fee is usually used for things that most landlords do out of pocket as an accepted cost of investment homeownership. Sometimes, they don't clean at all and simply keep the money as an excuse to charge you extra for your time in the house.
You know a landlord is truly stingy when they charge you a 'carpet fee' or 'carpet cleaning fee.' This is rarer than the cleaning fee, but you see it from time to time as another non-refundable way to demand extra money from tenants. Most commonly found in apartments or condos that think of themselves as 'luxury' whether or not they are luxurious.
Fees to Use the Appliances
We have only seen this once or twice, but there are the occasional landlords who will charge their tenants a monthly fee for the privilege of using appliances already in the unit. Usually, the washer and dryer. Even in the midst of a housing crisis, never agree on paper or otherwise to pay a fee to use a washer and dryer in your own house.
"Responsible for Yard Care" Surprise Fee
A great many rental homes have a policy that tenants take care of the yard work. This usually is acceptable, and you probably have no problem with running a lawn mower and edger once a week. However, sometimes "responsible for yard care" actually means that the tenant will be charged an additional monthly fee for the landlord to hire whatever yard care service they want. So watch out for this potential trap. This is most common in HOA-located rental homes.
Finally, keep an eye out for leases that include a clause for penalty fees. Some landlords like to work in a fee structure so that tenants can be charged throughout their stay for little 'infractions' such as a shaggy lawn, occasional loud music, or failing to answer an email within two business days. These clauses really do happen and are more common in urban areas and apartment buildings. Read every lease carefully before you sign to make sure there are no 'endless fee' traps where a landlord can charge you penalty fees at-will for the duration of your lease.
There are thousands of awesome landlords out there who have reasonable boilerplate leases and will welcome you in good faith into their rental homes. But there are also a few penny-pinching scrooges who try to charge tenants for every little cost or inconvenience. To protect your family, your finances, and your future happiness; be sure to always read your lease before signing and avoid any "non-refundable deposits" that aren't worth the expense. For more practical financial tips relating to everyday life decisions, contact us today!