Sept. 1, the biggest moving day in Boston, is never without its trials. Twelve-foot-high moving trucks meet their match on Storrow Drive’s 10-foot-high overpasses. Discarded furniture litters sidewalks. Someone inevitably lifts with their back and not their legs.
This year, the stress is greater. The brutal mix of high demand and low supply has stoked bidding wars for rentals. Newly listed apartments disappear overnight.
It can be a torturous process. To ease the burden, the Globe combed through state laws and renters’ resources to compile a list of tips that can save you money before, during, and after your lease.
Here’s what you need to know:
Watch for scams.
In this highly competitive market, you may feel forced to act quickly and sign onto an apartment without much due diligence. Don’t do that. Rental scams are on the rise, as a July 12 alert from the FBI Boston Division makes clear.
To avoid getting swindled, always search for the property’s address on Google Maps to ensure that it is an actual address, says Joanna Allison, executive director of the Boston-based Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Arrange to see the apartment in person before sending any money. Do not view the apartment alone. Research the broker or agent before heading to the property.
There are a few ways to check if the person you are communicating with is affiliated with the property up for rent. If the person is a real estate agent or broker, then they should have a Massachusetts real estate license. Visit the state’s online directory and type the person’s name into the search engine to see if they’re formally registered. If the person purports to own the property, visit your city’s property database (see here for Cambridge, here for Somerville, here for Brookline, and here for Boston) and type in the person’s name to see if they are listed among the current owners.
Beware the ‘discount clause.’
How did you get so lucky? The landlord is willing to give you a discount on rent when you pay on time. The only catch? There’s an added fee when the rent comes in late. Well, as it turns out, such an arrangement is illegal in Massachusetts. A discount clause is a late payment penalty clause in disguise. A landlord cannot charge interest on late rent until 30 days after the due date.
If your lease has a discount clause, you do not have to pay the extra amount if your rent payment is late. Pay only the rent you agreed to pay. If your landlord demands extra money based on a discount clause, tell your landlord, in writing, that the discount clause is illegal.
A statement of condition is your friend.
So you’ve found an apartment, and it’s move-in day. But before you start unpacking your things, walk around the apartment. Write down a list of existing damage in an e-mail draft or phone note. Add even small defects, like tiny holes in the walls or windows that do not work well. Take photos or video, as you would with a new rental car.
Within 10 days of the beginning of the lease or upon receipt of the security deposit (whichever is later), ask the landlord to supply a “statement of condition” describing the state of the apartment and any damage that exists at that time. Then, within 15 days, add to or amend that document with the defects you found during your walkthrough. Send it back to the landlord for review. The final version should be signed by both parties. Store a copy and take a photo.
Receipts, receipts, receipts.
Ask for a written receipt when you pay your security deposit and last month’s rent. Only pay your landlord in cash if he or she can immediately supply a receipt. The landlord then has 30 days to put your security deposit in a bank and give you a second receipt that documents the name and address of the bank holding the deposits, as well as the account number. If they don’t volunteer this information, ask for it in writing.
During the lease
The landlord cannot raise the rent in the middle of the lease.
In most situations, the landlord cannot just raise the rent during an ongoing lease. So if you rent a $3,000/month property from Sept. 1, 2022, to Aug. 31, 2023, the rent should remain at $3,000/month for those 12 months. The one exception is if your lease has a “tax escalator clause,” which ties the rent to the property tax. Take a close look at your lease before signing to see if this clause is in there.
Check those meters.
If your lease states that you must pay for electricity in your unit, be sure that you are only paying the utility costs for your unit and your unit alone. All common areas — think stairwells, laundry rooms, shared storage, or outdoor space — should be on a separate meter, rather than tacked onto that of the closest unit. One imprecise way to check this is to track down the meters in your building.
Allison recommends counting the number of meters and comparing it with the number of units and shared spaces. Say your building has six units and only six meters. One unit is paying for those lights in the stairwell that stay on 24/7.
“If the meter for your unit is spinning much faster than everyone else’s, then something’s up,” Allison said.
If you suspect something might be wrong, have the electrical company come out and assess the meters free of charge. Most residents in Greater Boston are served by Eversource.
‘You are entitled to a safe and habitable living environment throughout your entire tenancy.’
Massachusetts state law mandates most of the tenant rights for the Boston area, including the “right to habitability.” The State Sanitary Code protects the health, safety, and well-being of tenants and the general public.
Under the code, tenants are entitled to things such as a home with working heat and water systems. Every room has to reach at least 68 degrees from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. from Sept. 16 to June 14 and at least 64 degrees all other hours. Homes should be free of rodents and cockroaches if there are two or more apartments in a building. Landlords are responsible for snow removal at multifamily units.
Contact the landlord if any of these problems arise. Do it in writing. Follow up if necessary. If the landlord ignores these written appeals, contact your city’s Inspectional Services Department (see here for Boston, here for Cambridge, and here for Somerville). You can also withhold the rent until the proper fixes are made. It will have to be paid following repairs, however.
Time to collect interest.
At the end of a year-long lease, you are entitled to any interest earned on the accounts holding your security deposit and last month’s rent. If the landlord did not put the deposit in a bank account, then they must pay 5 percent interest on the deposit. The interest on the security deposit can only be earned after one year of tenancy. But the interest on the last month’s rent must be paid out regardless of the length of the lease.
That 5 percent may seem measly, but it can add up.
Say you sign onto a yearlong lease for a $3,900/month apartment and pay first and last month’s rent, as well as a security deposit, which is equal to a month’s rent. The landlord must deposit the last month’s rent check ($3,900) and the security deposit ($3,900) in interest-earning accounts. At the end of the first year, you should receive $390 (5 percent on $7,800) in credit from the interest earned on both accounts.
Often, landlords don’t volunteer this interest, even if they should. So if you’ve been living at the same apartment for five years and have never received interest on these accounts, the landlord must backpay you. In this hypothetical $3,900/month apartment, that would result in a $1,950 credit (5 percent on $7,800 five times over).
How to get your security deposit back.
A security deposit protects the landlord against losses if the tenant fails to pay rent or damages the premises. Allison says that except in case of extreme or obvious damage, the deposit should be returned.
“It’s a bit like pornography. You know it when you see it,” said Allison of billable damage. “Say you punch holes in the wall or drive a lawn mower through the living room or drop something in the bathtub and crack the tub. That’s not really normal wear. But if there’s a trail of footprints and dirt on the carpet coming in the front door or scratches on the walls or grease in the oven, that’s typical life.”
If your landlord withholds the deposit either in full or partially, they must document the damage and provide an invoice for the cost of repair within 30 days after you move out. The landlord cannot use the deposit for painting, minor repairs, or cleaning. Reference “the statement of condition” to refute damage that existed before your lease started.
Say 30 days have passed since you left the apartment, and your landlord still hasn’t returned your deposit or provided documentation of damages. Draft a demand letter (here’s a template) and send it to your landlord. Keep a copy.
Still no response? Time to consider taking your landlord to small claims court (visit here to get started). The landlord must award three times your security deposit (plus interest and all legal fees) if the court finds that the landlord did not place the deposit in a separate account, did not transfer the deposit to a new owner, or did not return the deposit or provide a list of damages within 30 days of your last day at the apartment.
“This is where all that documentation comes in handy,” Allison said.
Boston Tenant Coalition is an advocacy group for tenants in the city. It is composed of grassroots tenant neighborhood groups, community development corporations, and homeless and advocacy organizations. They have guides in a variety of languages.
MassLegalHelp is a rudimentary but exhaustive site teeming with advice on tenants looking for legal advice on housing. If you have a question, they have likely already answered it in their housing section.
Massachusetts is not exactly known for its renter-friendly legislation, but it does provide a solid online depot of tenant rights, including links to relevant statutes so you can reference them in correspondence and court.
RAFT is a state program — Residential Assistance for Families in Transition — for providing short-term financial assistance to low-income families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. RAFT provides qualifying households with up to $7,000 per year to preserve current housing or move to new housing. RAFT can cover utilities, moving costs, overdue rent, and forward rent in limited situations.
The state attorney general’s office offers an easily readable 18-page guide on tenant rights.
The State Sanitary Code is the exhaustive code that defines and explains the guidelines of habitability in Massachusetts. It is the definitive tool in determining if a tenant has the right to withhold rent.
Volunteer Lawyers Project is an organization that can provide pro bono legal assistance to low-income individuals in the greater Boston area. Apply online here or call the hotline at 617-603-1700.