It was late on a Tuesday night last year when the bright light of my TV helped me open my eyes to a housing horror. A very loud knocking had awoken me, followed by the words, “Bro, there’s a fire, we have to go.”
For me, the fire itself wasn’t traumatic. Other people had lost numerous personal belongings but the flames had only engulfed the top floor, sparing my possessions down below. It was the events that followed, involving the validity of my lease and my tenant rights, which provoked a strong distrust of landlords and general anxiety regarding leasing that I still feel to this day.
What kicked me out of my apartment that night was an electrical fire — one caused by faulty wiring in a fan in one of the top floor bathrooms inside my building. No tenants were culpable for the damages because it was an issue created by those who built and owned the apartment. After discovering this, it was apparent to my roommates and I that we needed to abandon this lease; but how? None have us had ever dealt with the intricacies of tenant law, and the legal termination of a lease agreement seemed quite daunting. Although it may seem unnecessary and tedious, from this point forward, I saw the necessity in reviewing tenant law and reading my lease prior to renting a property. There is a vast importance to becoming an informed renter, and doing so may help you avoid a future calamity.
A substantial portion of the student body chooses to privately rent in Binghamton and the surrounding areas, with more than 58 percent of the undergraduates attending Binghamton University living off campus. With the majority of students choosing to live in privately owned housing, there stands a significant risk of landlord-tenant disputes happening to any number of BU students. Considering that, there are a few tenants of landlord-tenant law that I suggest you know if you intend on privately renting, all of which are included in a subset of most leases called the breach of lease agreement. This subcategory of your lease includes clauses such as a right to a habitable environment, the right to be provided utilities, the right to privacy and the protection against both racial and sexual discrimination. Reviewing the presence of these clauses in your lease is crucial to taking preventive action against a landlord that might use your contract against you.
Prior to signing your lease for the coming year, it is important to read it in its entirety, especially the breach of lease agreement section. That way, you can address any issues with your lease prior to its commencement. I suggest imagining scenarios with the clauses in your provided agreement and determining if you could use your contract to reap benefit or avoid exploitation. Essentially, be certain you’re not signing off on a contract designed to screw you, and make sure you can get out of being screwed. I understand that many undergraduates are involved in a third-party payment system, meaning your parents or guardians pay your rent, but your parents shouldn’t be the only ones reading your lease. It is also important to purchase renters insurance; generally, landlords are not responsible for items lost in any situation that afflicts your apartment. You can only regain the value of your possessions if you or your parents have purchased insurance.
Although landlords are businessmen, most of them aren’t actively trying to exploit students. It is important to create an open line of communication between yourself and your landlord; don’t ignore the issues that occur within your apartment or in your lease prior to signing. My current landlord is extremely attentive to my needs and aided me throughout the legal issues I faced after the fire that occurred in my last apartment, but I also don’t believe that my last landlord was attempting to screw my roommates and I. From a monetary standpoint, it was valid for him to demand we stay in our unit after the repairs were made. My roommates and I were only able to terminate our lease and regain our deposits through the saving grace of the breach agreement. Because of the circumstances surrounding the electrical fire, we were able to request the inspection of our building from the Broome County Fire Inspector, who ultimately determined that the building was not to code and therefore not habitable, ending our housing nightmare at last.
It is highly important to be an informed renter; understandably, most of you will continue to glance over your leases and boldly sign the last page without seeing the second. But above all else, heed my warning: It’s not always a good thing when the fire alarms don’t work. And again, most landlords can be trusted, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do what benefits them financially, especially if they can use a lease they wrote to do so.
Sam Pomichter is a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience.