Last spring, my phone buzzed with a text I was dreading, yet expecting from my younger son. He and three friends were on their way to meet a landlord at a house they were interested in renting the next fall. Hearing from my son didn’t cause me anxiety—I welcome texts, calls, even smoke signals from either of my sons. Instead, it was the dreaded feeling of horrible-housing Deja vu.
The spring before his senior year, his brother signed a lease for a house across the street from campus. (After seeing the place in person, I’m using the term “house” loosely). I was proud of my eldest for handling the details of his new living arrangement on his own without help from his dad or me. He was familiar with the home—his friend had lived there all year. The place he described for his final year of college sounded ideal.
Yet, it wasn’t.
Within a few days of unpacking and settling into his first off-campus house, and long after signing a one-year lease, my older son’s dream home became a nightmare. It was obvious his friend (and the former tenant) didn’t care about a toilet that screamed when flushed, doorknobs that dangled from each door like oversized earrings and living in a home that resembled the “before” portion of any house-flipping show on HGTV.
After visiting his brother’s house and commenting it would be best fixed with a match, my younger son assured me he was prepared for his house hunt. With only a few days to avoid a potential disaster, I shared with my 20-year-old what I had learned from his brother’s first-time, off-campus rental experience. I wanted to ensure he wouldn’t be in the same position as his brother: counting the days like an inmate in prison, waiting to finish out his sentence lease.
During the search:
1. Take a close look at the home. I trusted my older son’s judgment—I still do—but I didn’t request or insist to see the home before he signed the lease. After moving in and creating a 20-item repair list, my son learned a tough life lesson: things aren’t always as they seem, especially a house that appeared to have been the ideal home when he attended parties, but in fact, had been neglected for years.
In contrast, my younger son toured his future home with his soon-to-be roommates, armed with a short list of items to investigate including the condition of the plumbing, how securely the hardware was attached, and whether the flooring resembled the aftermath of a stampede of cattle after a mudslide. While scrutinizing each room, he talked with the current tenants (also friends) about the condition of the house and posed a question: If they weren’t graduating, would they rent the same house again? They answered yes.
2. Use Google maps. While I’ve always welcomed any excuse to visit my sons, by the time my younger son (500 miles away) and his roommates pinpointed their potential home, there was no time to book a flight. (Also, I wasn’t invited.) Instead, he gave me the address and using Google maps I was able to see the corner house from all angles, while at the same time get a feel for the neighborhood.
3. Research crime statistics. I wasn’t worried about my 6-foot-2 son’s ability to take care of himself, yet I was concerned about him living in a high-crime area of town. After searching a few sites to learn more about his potential neighborhood: AreaVibes and CrimeReports to find out whether there was a pattern of theft or violent crimes (there wasn’t), I felt better. No one wants to discover from a police officer that an area is prone to break-ins, especially after a break-in.
Before signing the lease
4. Read the fine print. After he toured the house, my son forwarded a copy of the lease to his dad, his dad’s friend who reviews leases daily, and to me. None of us was surprised to learn the lease favored the landlord—most do—over the tenant. There were no glaring issues, but after I reviewed the five-page lease filled with lengthy legalese designed to further protect the landlord from being sued, I emphasized to my son a few key points:
5. Know who is responsible for what.
My son and his roommates are responsible for lawn care, utilities, trash removal, noise issues, pest control and any damage to the property caused by negligence, or what I refer to as “friends who visit and don’t care what happens to someone else’s property.” Also, they are not allowed to make repairs on their own without written authorization. As a landlord, I understand that last point from a liability issue (electrical problems are better handled by a licensed electrician) and a standards issue (watching a YouTube video on toilet repair does not make a tenant a licensed plumber).
6. Note when the lease ends.
All leases include a starting and ending date and an automatic renewal clause that requires 30, 60 or 90 days’ notice (in my son’s case, it’s 90 days) or the lease will continue month-to-month. I suggested my son set a reminder on his phone four months before the end of the lease to provide a cushion for written notice to his landlord (verbal notification doesn’t count).
7. Purchase renter’s insurance. Although his dad and I are comfortable with where my son is going to live, he purchased renter’s insurance for about $15 per month to cover theft and any damage that may be caused by fire, vandalism, or water that backs up through sewers or drains. It is not uncommon for drains in older homes to clog (roots and debris are the major culprits), or pipes to break due to age or a shift in the foundation.
8. Create a detailed list of all repairs along with the date, and include pictures. Within five days of moving in (as stated in his lease), I asked, actually strongly suggested, my younger son send a detailed list to his landlord of all repair requests, along with the date and pictures. While my older son’s property manager fixed only a few items on the list, addressing most of the repairs a month before he moved out, my son had proof of items that did not work or were damaged when he moved in. A little more than 30 days after he moved out, he received a check for the full deposit.
9. Realize landlords don’t always listen to or care about student requests. Landlords who have dealt with students for years don’t always take student requests seriously or have no problem brushing them off for non-student tenants. A month after my older son mentioned his requests were being ignored, the mother-cub in me wanted to march over to the property manager’s office, (actually, her home, to see if her doors actually latched and what sound her toilet made) and demand she take care of my son’s repairs. Instead, my son insisted on handling the situation on his own, which I respected. He increased the phone calls and texts until finally, a handyman showed up at his house to address the maintenance issues.
Renting a house during his senior year gave my eldest a taste of the real world: grocery shopping on a budget, paying rent and utilities on time, and patience. Not only has my younger son learned similar skills, he’s added another one: persistence. After seeing what his brother experienced with an unresponsive landlord, he’s not taking any chances.
Lisa Kanarek is a freelance writer, the author of five books about working from home, and writes the blog Forgot To Tell You. Her work has been featured on various sites including, Purple Clover, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Grown and Flown, Parent.co, Blunt mom, and Ten to Twenty Parenting. She is the mother of two sons and has lived in Texas half her life, but may be breaking state law by not owning a pair of cowboy boots.