Whether you are an experienced renter or looking for your very first apartment, never ever sign a lease contract without reading and fully understanding what it says. While the vast majority of leases out there are 'boilerplate' defining your lease duration, monthly rent, and a few basic rules, many landlords write custom leases and expect tenants to obey.
Most of the time, custom leases are a good thing. They may include useful extra information about how to request repairs or get your security deposit back. But sometimes, a custom lease can reveal the sick mind of a crazy landlord who will be difficult to live with or even exploitative within the terms of the lease.
For savvy renters who don't want to be caught in the crazy landlord trap of denied deposits and extra fees, keep an eye out for these four warning-sign lease clauses (and others that resemble these problems) that could indicate a legally dangerous rental situation and unstable management.
1) Non-Refundable Deposits
By definition, a deposit is something you get back if nothing goes wrong. A pet deposit, for example, is paid to repair any damages caused by your pet. And you get it back if your pet was well-behaved (or you repaired any damage yourself before moving out).
Anything listed on a legal document (ie: rental lease) that claims to be a non-refundable deposit is a contradiction in terms. What the landlord really means is a "fee" which is a one-time payment that is not expected to be returned. If a non-refundable deposit is expected, this means two dangerous things.
First, your landlord doesn't understand how contract terms work, which means they don't understand the binding contract they're asking you to sign. Second, it means they did not consult a lawyer after customizing their lease, putting both of you in a very risky legal position.
2) Weirdly Specific Pet Addendum
It's well known around the world that landlords can be very touchy about pets, and for good reason. Badly trained or mistreated tenant pets can do a lot of property damage. Most landlords deal with this situation by generally outlining the size and variety of pets they allow and some insist (reasonably) on meeting a pet before approving their residence.
However, some landlords take caution too far. An unusually specific pet addendum can indicate that a particular landlord thinks way more about their tenants lives and pets than is healthy. If they, for instance, define that only specific dogs can stay in their homes, or an unusually specific weight range for pets, or disallow terrarium pets like hamsters, this is a major red flag.
A landlord's two concerns for pets should be smell and damage. Although, some insurance policies require landlords to ban 'dangerous breeds' like rottweiler.' However, if they try to tell you that they only allow Poodles, or pets between 4lbs and 15lbs, or only pets with names that start with "S", find another rental opportunity in a hurry.
3) Incredibly Strict Guest Clause
Guest clauses are another place to find red flags for legally unstable landlords before you sign the lease. Most landlords feel the same way about guests that they do about pets: As long as they're well-behaved and the rent is paid, they don't care. Reasonably cautious landlords would prefer that long-term guests either join your lease or sign a temporary guest lease so that everyone is clear on legal obligations of residence.
However, a weirdly strict guest clause can indicate a landlord with control and boundary problems. More to the point, they might be inclined to invade your privacy just to prove you are obeying their guest rules.
A landlord who doesn't want a guest to stay longer than three days (or whatever the defined duration) will definitely have a problem with you allowing friends or relatives to stay with you, summer visitors, new significant others, and other aspects of your life that are none of their business.
4) A Long List of Potential Fees
Finally, watch out for any landlord that wants to levy fees like an HOA or an uptight hotel. Rental agreements should be friendly, with a good-faith understanding that expenses will be handled appropriately between both parties.
It is reasonable to define that you will pay for minor repairs while they will pay for major problems and regular maintenance. It is not reasonable to charge a fee every time your toilet clogs, dishwasher breaks, or you forget to mow the lawn for a week. In fact, charging tenants fees for everyday occurrences borders on illegal and can indicate that your landlord is not shy about violating tenant rights.
Never agree to a lease that includes fees that might stack up against you at the discretion of an unstable landlord. This can be used to wreck your carefully balanced finances at any time.
Before you sign a rental agreement, always read the lease carefully. Watch out for these warning signs of an unstable landlord who might invade your privacy, deny you basic tenant rights, or try to exploit you. These are often signs of landlords who will make a home rental not worth it, or try to offload as much of the upkeep cost onto you instead of splitting it fairly. To protect your rights to privacy, security deposit returns, and well-spent rent, watch out for these signs and be sure to rent with landlords who are down-to-earth by-the-book kind of people.