Curbed University: We guarantee it to be the most non-boring expert advice you have ever gotten about buying, selling and renting a home in the Hub (not a guarantee). Additional questions welcomed through the ever-trusty tipline.
Alright, time to delve into the murky, maddening, ultimately (sometimes) rewarding world of renting apartments in the Hub. This is going to be basic, yet in-depth. Ready? Hold on.
What is a lease?
A lease is a contract between a landlord and tenant which contains the terms and conditions of rental. Still with us?
What are the terms of the lease?
They are what you and the landlord make it. Leases in Massachusetts have some pretty standard provisions (more on those later) and those do not allow for much flexibility. Basically, the lease you strike with your landlord will cover the time period you plan to rent an apartment and for how much; and it will detail the responsibilities of each side and the penalties, if there are any, for not meeting those responsibilities. A lease is a binding contract. Read it before you sign it. Ask questions. Write in and initial changes that are agreed to. Don't just sign on the dotted line, so to speak.
How do I get one of these leases?
Search, baby, search. The Hub has one of the lowest apartment vacancy rates in the United States and rightfully so. This area teems with students and young professionals (techies!), and for myriad reasons, including vociferous local opposition that always seems to pop up on cue, not much new construction (though that's changing). So, basically, you have a constant stream of newcomers searching for an apartment in a geographic area with limited supply. What to do?
Surf Craigslist. Talk to friends. Talk to friends of friends. Visit buildings and pick up marketing materials if they have them at a front desk. Search other sites like Zillow.com and Trulia.com. If you're a student, talk to the off-campus housing department your college surely has. The idea is not to be passive. Aggressive (in a nice way) will get you your apartment (or apartment share).
What about a broker?
Up to you. Rental brokers are a different animal than sales brokers. Sales brokers (see our Curbed University lesson on them here) have more demanding expertise when it comes to the local housing market and work with you a lot longer. It can be a much tougher job, in other words. Rental brokers do a volume business. They show lots of apartments to lots of prospects (remember: demand almost always exceeds supply here), and their expertise might come down to being able to unlock a door and name the rent while you gape at the slapdash paint job in the living room.
Note: some rental brokers do put their shoulders into their work, and really hustle to get their clients the best deal. Many, though, simply show an apartment to one prospective tenant after another until it rents, which usually comes in Minute 3.
So what's the harm in just trying a broker out?
If they get you an apartment, you owe them a commission. And the commission can run to 15 percent of a year's rent. That's potentially thousands of dollars. And rental brokers, as is their perfectly legitimate purview, can make things unpleasant for you if you don't pay the commission. You can lose the apartment and your security deposit (more on that later). Commissions should be negotiated before any relationship starts with a broker (and that relationship, by the way, will not last that long given the vacancy rate and the volume business—you'll know each other for a few weeks at the absolute most).
Note: Many Hub landlords pay the broker commissions rather than tenants. You should establish this in advance, too. Just ask. Your only expenses, then, up front are...
The first and last month's rent, and a security deposit. The first and last month's rent is exactly what it reads like: you pay both (by check or cash) to the landlord before moving in.
The security deposit usually equals one month's rent, and is cashed and then held in an account by a landlord to cover any damages you may cause. That's an important thing: on move-in day look around the apartment; note any damages that are already there that you had absolutely nothing to do with; let the landlord know in writing immediately. And here's another important thing: Under Massachusetts law, the landlord must pay interest annually on both the security deposit and last month's rent if you live in the apartment for at least a year. The law requires the landlord to hold the security deposit and last month's rent in a separate, interest-bearing account in a Massachusetts bank. Within 30 days of receiving your deposit and last month's rent, the landlord must give you a receipt identifying the bank's name and address, the account number and the amount of the deposit. Stay on top of this.
O.K. I've got the apartment. I want the apartment. Now what?
Reach out/show up with the necessary documents and checks. The key in the Hub is pouncing once you've found a place. Waiting a day—a couple of hours even!—can mean the difference between you getting it and the next guy getting it. So, you'll need:
· Checks for first and last month's rent and the security deposit.
· An ID like a driver's license or a passport.
· Some sort of letterhead letter showing gainful employment. Talk to your boss. If you're in school, your acceptance letter or some proof of enrollment should do.
· Three or four copies of recent pay stubs for good measure.
· A reference letter from your last landlord (they know how to do these) showing you'd be a dream tenant.
· You might even need other reference letters, depending how competitive the building is. Approach your boss, your best friend, you best friend's best friend, an old coach or professor, someone who can attest to your sobriety and responsibility.
· If you're self-employed, bring your most recent tax returns to show that you make/made money.
· Bank statements showing income and savings (noticing a trend here: you have to be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt your ability to pay the rent).
· Finally, be prepared for the landlord to run a credit check.
And if I don't have any of these documents? Or my credit's shot/nonexistent?
Congratulations, you're a college student! No, seriously, you may not have the proofs of income necessary and your credit may be undeveloped. In that case, you need a guarantor. A guarantor is someone (probably a parent or guardian) that will pay your rent if you mess up. A guarantor needs to have the steady income and the good credit, and it helps your case if he or she also lives in the area.
I've got the apartment! What else should I know?
Wonderful! Just be aware that under Massachusetts law the landlord has to give you at least 30 days notice for eviction if you've signed a lease for at least three months (it's much less warning if the lease is for under three months). Yes, you can be evicted, but only in extreme cases, like consistently damaging the apartment; disturbing the neighbors after you've been warned; or simply not paying the rent.
What should I do if I get an eviction notice?
Pay the back rent, if that's the cause. Otherwise, your recourse is the courts. Here's a link to the FAQ section of Massachusetts Housing Court. Keep in mind the legal fees, which will come on top of whatever you owe your landlord and will not necessarily guarantee you can keep your apartment anyway.
Can I sublet my apartment?
Ask the landlord. Better yet, establish whether you can or not before you sign the lease. It's legal to sublet in Massachusetts, but it's also alright for landlords to refuse. If you do it without being able to and without telling the landlord, and something happens to the place, you're likely going to be responsible for it even if you had a deal worked out with your sub-tenant ahead of time.
And if I'm the sub-leaser?
You can sublease in the Hub. The key thing is to get a proof of tenancy from the tenant—which means they've gone through all or most of the above. Otherwise, you may find yourself living in someone else's apartment, and when they find out they will not be too pleased.
So that's it?
Mostly. You've probably noticed that the two points are to get things in writing after negotiations and before you sign anything; and to have proof of income and/or employment/decent credit when you find an apartment you want so that you can act fast in securing it.
Beyond that, the Hub is a tumultuous, dog-eat-dog rental universe. You will likely encounter all sorts of odd situations, including condo owners renting their spaces and wanting you to meet their neighbors; landlords who insist on cash; roommates who hold the lease to an apartment and treat it like their own property; walk-in closets for rent as cozy bedrooms; and on. Be vigilant.
· Our complete Curbed University syllabus [Curbed Boston]
· Rookie Roosts Week 2012 [Curbed Boston]