For years, the typical case to land on the desk of University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Student Legal Services attorney Jeffrey White has been related to off-campus student housing. Where disputes over a $500 or $600 damage deposit were once commonplace, he’s now dealing with more and more cases where thousands of dollars are at risk in apartment leases.
“[Coming to an agreement on a lease] should be a really simple process,” White said. “It’s gotten way more complicated and confusing for some reason, and that’s led to a lot of issues where the student doesn’t believe that they’ve actually ever signed a lease.”
These cases come from students unknowingly signing multiple leases when they thought they were just browsing their options.
Much of this confusion stems from many housing companies’ application process, where a student agrees to the 25-page terms and conditions without reading what they are agreeing to first.
“They don’t realize that, after they’ve clicked 50 radio buttons, that one of them was basically putting their e-signature on a lease,” White said.
White said the best thing students can do is slow down. He said he thinks many students don’t realize how much housing is available in the Lincoln area, largely due to marketing.
“The old places didn’t go away,” White said. “There’s an impression being created that there’s a shortage of housing, and if you don’t sign a lease right now you’re going to be homeless when you get here in the fall, which is absolutely not true.”
Lincoln is a renter’s market, according to White, where renters have all the leverage if they have the right information. He’s worked with students who have found a new unit within an hour of moving out of somewhere.
White said many times people don’t ask enough questions or take advantage of the leverage they have as a renter. If there is something in a lease or unit a student is uncomfortable with, he advises them to ask the landlord to fix or change the issue.
“There’s nothing magic about typed leases,” White said. “You can write in something and have a note that says, ‘Landlord agrees to fix the cracked window in the living room within 10 days.’ That becomes part of the lease then if you do that.”
Despite the spike in severity of these cases, White said the damage deposit dispute catches almost everyone.
“Take pictures of the entire unit the day you move in,” White said. “Before you get your stuff in. Right when you walk in the door, take pictures. You have no idea how much time, energy and frustration this can save you.”
Many of these housing cases White handles boil down to the landlord using the tenant’s damage deposit to buy a new sofa to replace the old one or to clean the carpets, he said. White said the damage deposit legally can only be used for unpaid rent or damage to the unit that is beyond ordinary wear and tear.
“The tenant moves out, and they think they’ve left the room in a clean, good condition,” White said. “Then they get their bill a month later saying the landlord had to spend $450 on cleaning because the unit was a mess when they moved out. The tenant doesn’t have any pictures when they move out, but the landlord has this receipt from a cleaning company, who happens to be a subsidiary of theirs.”
White said time stamps on those photos will make the student’s case much easier to prove.
“When the landlord comes back and says, ‘You trashed my carpet,’ you can show the before and after and say, ‘This is in the same condition it was when I moved in, please don’t use my damage deposit to renovate your unit,’” White said. “Every now and then we get someone who’s done that, and it’s the easiest slam dunk case I can find.”
White encourages students to resist judging an apartment complex based on their website.
Many of the older companies are easily forgotten because of their lack of online presence, White said, and they simply have available listings shown on their websites. White said there are some companies, mainly newer ones, that have really flashy websites, but this isn’t necessarily indicative of their units.
“A lot of those companies are just older, and they haven’t put their priorities on their website,” White said. “They put their priorities in their units, and you’re living in the unit not the website. Try not to get swept up in the bells and whistles of the sales pitch.”