3 Mistakes to Avoid as a First-Time Renter

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Post from MilitaryByOwner

Renting an apartment or house is a typical rite of passage for military members since PCS and deployment schedules are unpredictable and short term. However, just because renting is common doesn’t mean the reality of moving into your first rental home won’t be filled with a mixture of emotions, including excitement and nervousness.

Although you’re likely fixed on all of the freedom your rental home stands to offer, there’s a good bit of preparation to consider while home shopping and before signing the lease. Location, budget, pets, and the exact language describing your military clause are just a small sample of the complicated situations you’ll need to understand clearly.

As you’re home searching, keep this guidance in mind to avoid costly mistakes.

1) Don’t Overestimate Your Budget or Under Estimate Your Costs

It’s a common mistake to simply take the monthly rental fee, subtract it from your monthly income, and call this amount your housing cost. Your rent per month is just one portion of the housing budget. Additional fees vary wildly from location to location, which makes calculating the entire housing budget extremely important to determine if the costs are affordable.

Take a look at some of the fees associated with renting:

  • Credit and/or background checks
  • Monthly utility bills (may be included with rent)
  • Security deposit and first and last month’s rent
  • Pet fees
  • Rental Insurance
  • Parking
  • Common amenity fees (clubhouse, gym, laundry, social areas)
  • Yard maintenance
  • New furniture and decorating

Not all of these fees will be conditions of your rental, but apartments and rental homes do have different expenses associated with the property. You’ll avoid some, but you can bet there are costs beyond the monthly rate which need to be clearly stated and described in your lease agreement.

2) Don’t Ignore the Fine Print

A rental agreement is often one of the first real estate transactions servicemembers encounter, which means there is plenty to learn before signing a contractual agreement. Familiarization with the terms of the agreement only benefits your chosen living situation and keeps your lifestyle comfortable. But, if ignored or misinterpreted, negative lease terms could invoke a nightmare legal battle that will drain your energy, time, and money.

Standard rental agreements favor the same language, but laws do vary from state to state. Don’t forget that the homeowner or property management team has the option to add in or change terms and clauses. Before signing a rental agreement, it's never a bad idea to utilize legal assistance at your nearest military installation to have the lease reviewed and your questions answered.

These are some of the major topics that should be addressed in the lease:

  • Occupancy: dates, who can live there, sublet options
  • Rent: amount, what it covers, and if it changes during the lease
  • Access: how often, and who has access to the property, i.e. owner/property manager
  • Deposits: where and how the money is saved during the course of the lease, who receives the interest accrued, when and how money is returned
  • Pets: domestic vs. exotic, quantity, breed restriction, and payment for damage
  • Decorating and updates: allowable changes, such as paint, who pays for improvements, and the expected condition of the home at departure
  • Parking: when parking is a significant factor, situations such as who pays, and who applies for the permit
  • Reverse military clause: timeline and notification to tenant

The Importance of the SCRA and the Military Clause

There tends to be confusion about the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and a military clause when associated with a rental agreement. Both aim to protect servicemembers during unexpected changes of duty stations, but they go about it in different ways.

Everything Renters and Landlords Should Know About the SCRA and the Military Clause clears up what you need to know, but a simple understanding says:

The SCRA is a federal law that allows early lease termination if:

  1. The member entered into military service during the lease.
  2. The member started a lease during military service and receives orders to deploy for at least 90 days.
  3. The member received Permanent Change of Station orders.

The tenant must comply with:

  1. A written notice of intention to move.
  2. A copy of official military orders is given to the landlord.
  3. The tenant makes rent payments for both the month notice is given and for the following month.

And last, a military clause itself does not replace the SCRA; it enhances the language and is customized by the renter and property owner. For example, a military clause may be created to allow tenants to terminate the lease early if they are offered on base military housing.

3) Don’t Disregard Local Crime Statistics

A fancy new apartment is hard to forget. Modern finishes, fun amenities, and that new home smell are hard to ignore; but if your car gets broken into repeatedly, those niceties will quickly fade. As you narrow your choice of locations, start to plug into the local community. You’ll want to start following the local police stations, neighborhood networks, and the nearby schools, even if you don’t have children. These are important inside views of the health of the community near your rental home.

There is no substitute for driving around your potential new neighborhood at various times of the day, but these online resources help to paint a picture of where you are about to move in.

  • CrimeReports
  • AreaVibes
  • CrimeMapping
  • Online local newspapers and neighborhood communities like Nextdoor and Patch

There are certainly benefits to renting a home, but renters must be informed and deliberate in their search. A hands-off approach almost certainly leads to overpaying or signing into a lease with less than favorable terms. Educate yourself early to avoid ruinous mistakes.

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