Welcome back to Curbed University! We guarantee it to be the most non-boring expert advice you have ever gotten about buying and renting a home in the Hub (not a guarantee). Additional questions as well as topic suggestions welcomed through the ever-trusty tipline.
The Greater Boston rental market is one of the tightest and most expensive in the nation. How do you even begin to navigate the goddamn thing? Well, today we're going to go through six questions you might have about starting your search; tomorrow we'll cover eight more about what you might do after you find that perfect place.
What is a lease?
A lease is a contract between a landlord and a tenant which contains the terms and conditions of rental.
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.
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