October 1, 2004
Are you renting to a lawyer? No? Then it is possible that your new tenant may not understand the rental agreement. In fact, he or she might completely misinterpret what it says. And the language in some rental agreements isn’t that clear–for anybody.
Then if you consider the reading skills of people today, there are many who would not be able to read the rental agreement at all. According to the Census Bureau, 52 percent of renters have a high school education or less, as compared to 48 percent of the total population.
Even some people who should be able to understand the terms of a lease or rental agreement might find the language subject to interpretation. I got a call from a nationally recognized marketing consultant a year or so ago. Here is someone whose job it is to read and interpret information. His wife was getting a new job over 100 miles away and they were moving out of the apartment they were renting. He had read the rules for the return of their security deposit and did not fully understand them. He had had friends read it, and they came up with diametrically opposed interpretations. So he called me.
After he faxed the page to me, I could understand the confusion. There were two paragraphs delineating what would happen if different things occurred when they moved, and a third paragraph which summed it up. It was poorly written, but I was able to glean the gist of the instructions, and the marketing consultant had misinterpreted it.
What’s my point here? If you want to avoid issues later on with tenants, begin the tenancy by making sure they completely understand the rental agreement.
Take a look at the agreement you use now. Don’t read it, just hold it up too far away to make out the words. What does it look like? Could be it’s a black page of copy. The type size may be six point, smaller than the type in a newspaper. To people who have trouble reading, it looks insurmountable. They won’t even try to read it, but will just sign the thing and then complain when you follow the terms of the agreement. They never understood to begin with.
How do we go about taking the confusion out of the agreements?
One way, take the agreement or lease you use now and read it with them, line by line, explaining as you go.
Another way, mark the important places with a highlighter, such as when the rent is due, when it’s late, the requirements for terminating a tenancy, how notices are served, etc. Of course, that might mean the entire agreement is highlighted.
A third way is to have the agreement drawn up in plain English, in easy-to-understand words and sentences. I pulled out a sample rental agreement and took this sentence as an example: “In the event of default in payment of any installment of rent or at the expiration of said term of this agreement, Tenant will quit and surrender the said premises to Landlord.”
Huh? Would you say that is “plain English”? How about this instead: “If you don’t pay the rent when it is due, or on ___(date)____ when this lease expires, you will move out and give the keys and possession of the property back to the landlord.” It says exactly the same thing, except my translation is relatively plain English.
You don’t have a real agreement unless both parties understand it fully. All of us will have fewer problems with management if our tenants know exactly what it is they are agreeing to when they move in.