On the House: When renting a home, read the lease and think like a homeowner

Apartment tenants in the burbs usually face more rules than those who rent houses.
Apartment tenants in the burbs usually face more rules than those who rent houses. (BEN MARGOT /AP)
Posted: March 16, 2014

A Chicago reader, interested in search engines for rentals around that city, recently inquired: "What questions should one ask when renting a family home, compared with renting an apartment?"

Much of what I write for this section also appears in newspapers across the country, but I know little about the Chicago market. I did rent a house in the Philadelphia area, albeit almost 13 years ago now.

It was a pretty complicated affair because the landlord was meticulous and demanded, for example, that we have area rugs covering 80 percent of the hardwood-floor area, and that our furniture's feet have sliders on them.

Mayfair Realtor Christopher J. Artur tells me that the 80 percent rule has long been common in rental leases. My landlord's reason, I gathered, was that the floors were replaced after they were damaged by a professional hockey player who practiced skating on them.

We take that type of precaution in our own houses, so it wasn't asking too much of us. There was nothing in the all-inclusive lease about shoveling snow or mowing the lawn, but I did it regularly, just as I did in first-floor apartments I had rented in the past.

I posed the Chicago reader's question about differences between apartment and home rentals to some real estate agents here who either own rental properties or whose brokerages have property-management arms.

Artur emphasized that someone who rents a house has "to behave like a homeowner."

"You are in possession of everything," he said, "paying the utilities, shoveling the snow, and cutting the grass." But if "the snow isn't shoveled and someone falls and is injured because of it, the landlord, not the tenant, will be sued in . . . Philadelphia - even if the renter's responsibility to do so is specified in the lease."

Some longtime whole-house tenants take their responsibilities seriously and would much rather rent than own, Artur said.

"I've rented to people for 20 to 25 years who put in new kitchens - not $500 home-center specials, but custom ones," he said, even though he is under no obligation to pay for things he didn't ask for.

These longtime tenants and landlords follow protocols that no longer stand up in court, even if stated in the lease, he said. "In the old days, if the property was a duplex, the first-floor tenant would typically shovel the snow, and the second-floor renter would cut the grass."

They'd also split utility costs, including water, since, in Philadelphia, there is only one meter for each property, he said.

The city, however, says it is the property owner's obligation to pay the water bill, Artur said. "Tenants often fight over the breakdown, especially if one family has five members and the other one or two."

In the suburbs, where there are more single-family homes, someone who rents a house is under fewer restrictions than an apartment or condo renter, said Noelle Barbone, manager of Weichert Realtors' Media office:

"In an apartment or condo, the tenant will have to adhere to more rules and regulations of the apartment complex or condo association. For example, if you are a plumber and your mode of transportation is a truck, some complexes may not allow you to park a commercial vehicle in their community."

The same goes for a camper or a boat.

"The good thing is there are options out there," Barbone said, "so do your homework, read your lease, interview the landlord or management company. Be sure you can live with the terms of the lease before you sign it."


215-854-2472 @alheavens

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