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Check Those Lease Clauses Carefully Before Signing

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Congratulations. You’ve landed your dream apartment. Now you’re staring down the barrel of a ballpoint pen, poised to commit to a legal and binding relationship covering everything from your choice of decor to your behavior after hours.

Lease clauses range from the simple to the sophisticated, but all share one thing in common--a need to be read and understood completely. Not just mere words on paper, these clauses have teeth that can take a bite out of your security deposit, credit rating and even your ability to find another place.

Here are 10 of the most common items to home in on, or risk being left out in the cold:

* Named renter. You and who else? Be sure everyone who will live in your place is listed on the lease. Everyone named will be “joint and severally liable” for the lease, which means “all for one and one for all.” Choose responsible roommates because all roommates are responsible. Like a baseball team, even if someone strikes out, the remaining players still remain to fulfill everyone’s promise.

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* Rent per month. Sounds obvious, but make sure the agreed amount is filled in. Ditto for the actual day rent is due and the penalty for being late. Few notice the details and some pay dearly come rent day. Check-bouncing fees may also apply.

* Security deposit. Read this section carefully to understand how the funds may or may not be allocated. Some leases forbid the use of the security deposit for the last month’s rent--surprising renters who plan to apply it at the end.

* Parking and vehicle rules. Does your vehicle have a place to call home? Is it assigned specifically to an inside spot or street only? If the street has permit parking, you can get a permit from the city and enjoy adventure nightly. Note: Most leases do not allow vehicle repair or washing on the premises.

* Named renter/assignment/subletting. Think your honey can move in later and you’ll live happily ever after? You may be evicted if they’re not named on the lease. Leases have become very strict regarding occupancy on every level, requiring written notice regarding any changes. Unauthorized subletting is forbidden in most leases.

* Maintenance and alterations. Unless you have written permission, leave the place as you found it. Tenant decorating has become the rage, with rooms turning bold new colors and fixtures removed. Problem? Owners have the right to charge you to restore the place to “the condition as when first rented” (including original white color) for any unauthorized alterations. Before you pick up a paintbrush, get the owner’s written permission--or you may find you’ve painted yourself into a corner and out of your security deposit.

* Pets. Bringing in unauthorized pets can really cause the fur to fly between you and management, possibly triggering eviction. Be sure allowed pets are written in by name to avoid misunderstandings.

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* Insurance. Your personal belongings are not covered, even if natural disaster or fire strike. Insuring your worldly possessions is your responsibility.

* Compliance with laws. Sounds obvious, but take note. Laws cover everything from zoning to creating a nuisance or using drugs. Even in the privacy of your own home, lawbreaking violates most leases, and criminal lease violations warrant criminal evictions, which don’t look attractive on your credit report.

* House rules. Often a separate list detailing rules, which are usually incorporated as part of the lease. Everything from the kitchen sink (care and feeding of your garbage disposal) to balcony decor (no laundry, please) may be outlined. Ask questions if definitions are unclear.

Don’t sign on the dotted line unless you’ve reviewed every word. Question politely. Arguing later that you “didn’t notice the clause” won’t help you--unless a clause runs against actual law you’ll be treading on shaky legal ground.

Leases are a fact of apartment life, but knowing the facts is your job.

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H. May Spitz is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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