Nashville’s hot housing market can make renters hasty to put down a deposit and sign their lease before the unit they want gets taken off the market. But that can lead to legal trouble down the line.
WPLN sat down with Legal Aid Society’s housing attorneys to talk about what you need to know before you sign your lease — and how to keep yourself out of court once you do.
1. Read your lease
It sounds simple, but not reading all of your lease can cause big problems. When Attorney Karin Morris reviews her client’s leases, she sometimes finds odd clauses.
“Hey, I may be responsible for the HOA fee if I have a violation,” Morris says as one example, “or I have a trash charge that may change quarterly. Those are things that people don’t think about.”
If you’re not comfortable with something in your lease, you can always negotiate. That can be daunting if you’re going through a DocuSign lease, where the process is all digital. Signing your name in triplicate is as easy as a few keystrokes and a couple of clicks. But having a dialogue might be a little harder, which brings us to our next tip:
2. If you negotiate, get it all in writing
Attorney Katie Ovalle says you can print your lease, make the changes you want to make and bring it to the property manager.
“Because the lease is a contract, right? So, we can do the back-and-forth,” Ovalle says. “But I think it’s usually best when it is … a physical copy of something that the tenants can see — that the leasing agent can agree to — before that lease is finalized.”
And when you’re done negotiating or reviewing your lease, save it.
“A lot of people skip that step,” Morris says. “And so now they don’t have a copy of their lease, and they miss very pertinent information.”
Pertinent information like if you miss a rent payment, your landlord can move to evict you without warning.
“A lot of people don’t know that. They think, ‘Oh, well, they should have told me or I should have gotten a notice.’ No. If you waive that right, then you’re waiving notice,” Morris says.
After you’ve signed your lease, and you’ve moved in:
3. Pay your rent, even if your landlord isn’t responding to maintenance requests.
Ovalle says a lot of her clients make that mistake.
“I think something that people (who) are moving here from other states, potentially more progressive states when it comes to renters’ rights, don’t understand (is) that in Tennessee, you cannot withhold rent and put it in escrow if you have issues with maintenance.”
If you live in Davidson County, you’re in luck. Sort of. Under the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act, counties with more than 75,000 people have greater protections than more rural counties.
In less populated parts of the state, landlords don’t have to provide heat. Nashville landlords do — but air conditioning is not included in URLTA.
“We’re in the middle of a heat wave,” Ovalle says. “But technically under Tennessee law … the landlord does not have to provide air conditioning to a tenant.”
That’s why Ovalle says it’s important to:
4. Document everything.
“If this is over email, great. If this is over text message, great. If these are verbal conversations, they need to be followed up with some sort of written communication,” Ovalle says.
Having a paper trail is a strong defense in eviction court, which will come in handy for our fifth and final tip. Because if all else fails:
5. Show up to court
“You can’t fight for yourself if you’re not there,” Morris says. “And you’re going to get a default judgment against you. … Showing up is half the battle.”
If you can’t make it to the court date they give you, don’t worry. You can reschedule by calling the clerk’s office.
But both in court and out of court, Tennessee law doesn’t give renters much power. So, if you’re looking for a new place, be sure to read the fine print, communicate everything in writing, and know your rights.