This weekend marks a popular time to begin new leases for many tenants and landlords in the Chicagoland area. But many leases are simply boiler-plate documents picked up at office supply stores, and they generally are extremely favorable to landlords. To help even the playing field, here are some of the most important things to look for in a lease, from a tenant's perspective.
1. Security Deposit. The security deposit portion winds up being one of the most litigated sections of any lease in Chicago. Many dwelling units in Chicago are bound by the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance. There are some exceptions to this ordinance (owner-occupied buildings with six units or less, for example). But if your lease is bound by this statute, the landlord is required to perform several acts related to your security deposit, including keeping the money in a separate, interest-bearing account, providing you with a receipt and giving you an annual interest statement, among other duties.
If you find that one of these tasks was missed, take note. In some case, the penalty for failing to perform one of these duties is twice the security deposit, plus attorney's fees. Therefore, this section (5-12-080) of the statute has become a weapon for tenants. It is so rare that a landlord will perfect all requirements of this section of the statute that many attorneys are simply advising landlords to avoid taking a security deposit.
2. Late Fees. Take a close look at what the landlord plans on charging for late fees. If the lease again falls within the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance, there is a set formula for calculating the late fees. This section of the statute (5-12-140) states that the maximum late fee allowed by law is 10% of the first $500 in monthly rent, plus 5% of any remaining amount over $500. Thus, the maximum late fee for a tenant paying $600 per month is $55 ($50 for the first $500 + $5 for the remaining $100). The penalty for attempting to collect a late fee that is excessive pursuant to the statute is double the security deposit, plus attorney's fees.
3. Number of Occupants. Often times, residential leases will attempt to limit the number of occupants. However, from a tenant's perspective, things change. A tenant may get married, or have a boyfriend/girlfriend move in. Or maybe the tenant rented a large apartment, and would like to have a roommate, if necessary. As a tenant, you want this section to be flexible. The time to negotiate this is at the time of lease signing. Add one more occupant, and let the landlord know that things may change down the road and you don't want to get hit with a huge rent increase or, worse, a breach of lease action for violating this term.
4. Condition of the Premises. Make sure to read this section of the lease carefully, and make sure the condition of the property is accurately described in the lease. If you have any oral agreements, put them in the lease and sign it when it's final. I advise my clients to take photographs of the apartment. You can even do this in the presence of the landlord, so he or she knows that you have record of the condition of the unit. Too many things can go wrong during the course of your tenancy, and you may wind up with a landlord claiming that you caused significant damage to the unit. You can rebut this effort by showing the court the exact, visual condition that the apartment was in the day you moved in. And if you let the landlord know that you are doing this, he or she will be hesitant to take a portion of your security deposit.
All in all, the landlord-tenant relationship should not be adversarial. All landlords want the same thing: a quiet tenant who pays on time and does not damage the property. By showing the landlord that you are interested in meeting this goal, whether it's by shoveling a walkway in the winter or even watering common-area plants, you'll find that you won't have many issues during your stay.