By Savannah McCoy

Renting an apartment or house is a milestone in a young adult’s life. It’s typically one of the first steps toward independence. No longer dependent on parents and paying for your own housing is a critical step toward adulthood. Before signing that first lease, however, renters understand their rights and responsibilities. Those obligations go beyond the obvious “you pay me, I’ll provide you housing” relationship between renter and landlord.

Some renter responsibilities, such as paying for utilities, become evident immediately. Others, such as what happens with your security deposit, don’t become an issue until you’re prepared to move out.

For those about to enter the world of renting, here are four things you should know before signing a lease.

  1. Renter’s legal protections vary from state to state

As a renter, the laws of the state of Georgia will not give you the same rights as the laws in the state of New York. There also may be differences between cities.

Matt Goren, a professor in the University of Georgia’s financial planning, housing and consumer economics department, has experienced the difference in both his work and his personal life.

“If someone doesn’t repair your dishwasher in California… you can say ‘I’m not going to pay rent anymore until you fix it’ and that’s totally fine. In the state of Georgia…can you stop paying rent? No. Not legally in the state of Georgia. Can you get it repaired and deduct the cost of your rent next month? No. The only thing you can do in the state of Georgia is repair it on your own, and then you eat the cost.” Goren said he experienced this situation when moving from Oakland to Athens.

Understanding local renting laws is especially important for someone who has rented in one state before and will be renting in another state in the future. Laws regulating the percentage of a rent increase may also differ from place to place; some places will limit those raises, others have no protection for the consumer. Knowing how the law does and does not protect you as a renter will prepare renters for how to address problems when issues with appliances that the landlord is not required to repair, or what protections they may have when the landlord attempts to increase their rent exponentially.

  1. Responsibility is shared when multiple people live under one lease

When living with multiple people, whether you have signed an individual lease for an apartment complex or you have signed a lease for a house as a group, those signed to the lease share responsibility for the rent and the cost to repair any damages caused by the tenant.

Renters should live with people they trust, that doesn’t always work out. Sarah Duvall, a fourth-year management information systems major at the University of Georgia, lost a security deposit because of an unreliable roommate. “One of the roommates hadn’t moved her stuff out, but we had all signed separately. So even though we all paid different bits and we all signed one-person leases, we, as a house, couldn’t get our security deposit back. And they actually charged us more because she hadn’t paid her rent.”

In some cases, it may not be possible to choose a roommate. Some students elect to have their roommates chosen at random or use an apartment complex’s “matchmaking” system, where they fill out a survey and are placed in a room with people whose lifestyles and choices most resemble their own. Communicating can help roommates avoid failed responsibilities in these cases. Outline individual responsibilities and let your roommates know if you need financial help so they are not caught off guard if you cannot uphold your financial responsibilities of the lease.

Duvall said that earlier in the semester, she and her other roommates had to sit their problematic roommate down and go over their expectations and responsibilities. After that talk, Duvall said there were fewer issues of rent and utilities being paid. Communication from the start can help avoid problems later.

  1. Don’t Forget the Utilities

In most rental situations, the cost of rent is not the total cost of living. While some apartment complexes include some or all of the cost of utilities in the rent, most require tenants to pay for at least some of these items. Electricity, gas, air conditioning, water bills, cable, internet, cleaning services and lawn care could all be an extra cost for a renter. Some housing complexes may include utilities in the rent until a certain amount of electricity, water, or other amenity is used, as is the case at Abbey West in Athens, Georgia.

Utilities may only be a fraction of your total cost of housing. While living at The Standard, also in Athens, Georgia, Duvall paid about $30 for utilities. Living in an older, larger house has doubled her cost.

Goren, who also hosts a finance radio show called “Nothing Funny About Money” has seen utilities take up even more of a housing budget. “There’s all these different costs that might get tagged on. And utilities actually end up being more expensive here in Athens than they are in some other places where we think of rent being more expensive…. Some of these costs can really balloon up, so I would be prepared for that.”

  1. Fight for Your Security Deposit

Before you move into your apartment, landlords typically require a security deposit. It may represent the last month’s rent or the first and last month’s rent. If any damage occurs within the apartment during your occupancy, the complex has the right to keep the deposit, or at least a portion large enough cover reasonable repair.

As part of the Aspire Clinic at the University of Georgia, which provides free financial and legal counselling in financial matters for students, Goren noticed that several apartment companies in Athens keep the deposit regardless of the condition the apartment was left in.

Once more, communication can lead to a rapid resolution of these issues. “It might sound obvious when you say it. When I’ve talked to very many people who say ‘They say they’re going to keep the $500. They’re going to keep my whole security deposit’. Did you talk to them about it? So, there you go. Probably about a solid half of all security deposit disputes can be solved by just communicating,” said Goren. The cost of a deposit is usually not worth the cost of a day in court to larger land lording companies.