Where do you obtain your leases and other legal documents? Many landlords and property managers download them from the Internet, which is fine—but it’s always best to have a lawyer who is versed in landlord-tenant law look it over before you sign on the dotted line.
If you don’t have a lease prepared or approved by a legal professional, you could be setting yourself up for trouble without even realizing it. How? By either not understanding the terms of your lease, or by using one that is not applicable in your state.
We learned recently of a new landlord whose lease terminology bit her in the foot. While she thought that she made it clear that pet deposits were non-refundable, she actually states in the lease that the entire amount she was charging ($500) was completely refundable! Here is the language she used:
“Tenant shall pay to Landlord a pet deposit of five hundred dollars, zero dollars of which shall be non-refundable.”
If zero dollars are non-refundable, then the rest must be refundable, right? In addition, the lease stated that the pet deposit would be used for the purpose of cleaning the carpet. A tenant could argue that if the carpets did not need cleaning upon the termination of the lease, the landlord was not entitled to the funds. There were no other possible uses stated, so the landlord could not use the deposit to repair carpet or flooring, replace moldings, or fix any other items a dog or cat might have damaged.
Unfortunately, the landlord did not realize her mistakes until a tenant with a dog moved out and demanded the entire pet deposit returned. The tenant understood that the entire deposit was, indeed, refundable according to the lease they both signed.
The lesson here is to not only understand the terms of your own lease, but to write the lease in plain English. If you want to charge a non-refundable pet deposit, then say so. Don’t add in conditions or uses for the deposit, such as cleaning carpets.
And finally, seek expert advice on lease questions and other legal matters. It’s worth it in the long run!