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What international students must know before signing their off-campus leases

The process of signing a Lease on an apartment is complex - and making mistakes in this process can cost you a lot of time, money and aggravation.
Here are the things you must know before signing your new lease.

This is Urban Dictionary’s definition for finals week:

A state of HELL in which the whole school is either cramming or having a panic attack. The worst week of a college or university student’s life. Finals week involves pulling an all-nighter to reverse the months of slacking that have killed their grades. Finals week involves a lot of stress and very little sleep, the college or university student will be on edge the entire time, thus it is not a good time to screw with them by playing practical jokes or something you might find funny.”

Sounds bad, right?

As an international student in a foreign country, the last thing you need during this “state of hell” time, is to deal with your off-campus landlord because there is a misunderstanding over your lease’s termination clause. But if you sign a contract without understanding it first, that’s exactly where you're headed.

In order to help you avoid this, Legally gathered some of the important clauses you’ll need to look out for when signing onto your dream school’s off-campus lease:

1. Termination/break clause
A break clause is a term in a lease which enables either the landlord or the tenant, or both, to end the lease early. For various reasons, this clause is activated frequently, so you should make sure you’re protected.
The way you are expected to serve the notice of termination is important. Sometimes it is expected that you’ll serve it through multiple methods, so make sure you check the names and addresses of the individuals you should serve the notice to. Also, make sure that you know the required notice period and that it allows you enough time to respond if you’re on the receiving end. Additionally, make sure that the clause guarantees you a refund for the rent that you paid for the period after the termination date.

2. Term of tenancy
In your home country they may be the same, but in the US there is usually a difference between a rental agreement and a fixed-term lease. You need to ensure that you sign the type that best suits you. Leases typically last a year and provide you with security while rental agreements usually run from month to month and self-renew unless terminated by the landlord or the tenant, which allows you more flexibility.

3. Repairs and maintenance
Your contract should clearly state who is responsible for repairs and maintenance in your apartment. There may be a division of the responsibility for different types of maintenance, for example, that you, the tenant, are responsible for electrical devices and damage that you may cause. Nonetheless, it should be very clear that any damage which is caused by reasonable use is fixed by the landlord. Make sure you know how you're expected to alert about defects and repair requests, and what the landlord's timeframe for compliance is.

4. Deposits and fees
This part of the contract is often a serious bone of contention between landlords and tenants and causes frequent friction over the use and return of security deposits. In order to avoid unnecessary hassle and confusion, your agreement should be clear on:
  • The amount of the security deposit and that it’s in compliance with the relevant state laws; some states legislated a maximum amount of deposit which could be collected by the landlord. In Massachusetts for example, A landlord may request a security deposit of no more than one month’s rent.
  • How long after you move out of the apartment will your deposit be returned to you, how it will be returned, and what are the terms in which deductions will be made from the deposit before it will be returned to you. It can be really difficult to deal with getting your deposit back after you return to your home town.
  • What the circumstances are which will allow the landlord to use the deposit and whether it will be possible for you to use it as last month’s rent in the case that the landlord has no claims towards you.
  • If there are any legal, non-returnable fees, such as cleaning or pets?
  • Where the security deposit will be held by the landlord, and more importantly: whether an interest on the security deposit will be paid to you as a tenant.         
5. Subleasing
Summer vacation is just around the corner and you’re not going to be in the apartment for few weeks because you’re returning home for a visit. You might wonder: why not feed my student loan with a some sublet income? But alas, right after you return from your time off, you receive a phone call from your landlord saying that in the lease you signed it is specified that any income from subleasing should be shared with him.
If you think that you’ll likely sublease the apartment, try to make this clause work in your favor.

6. Use of premises  
This clause restricts the number of people living in the apartment at any given time based on the initial group of tenants. Meaning that if you were three roommates when you entered the apartment, the lease is restricted to only you three.
Why should this bother you? Let’s say that your brother comes to town for two weeks and you would like him to stay with you, or you just met someone awesome and you want him or her to move in with you for a while before you move out to get your own place – when this clause is in effect, you can’t.  
7. Surrender of premises
Let us take you back to your finals week, you are stuck in the library trying to make up for the ridiculous amount of slacking you've done over the course of the semester, when you receive an email from your landlord with the subject: “Move out cleaning instructions,” which specifies that you are responsible for hiring, coordinating, and paying for a professional cleaning of all the carpets prior to the lease’s end. Sucks, right? To avoid this, read this clause carefully.

These are only a few of the clauses you should look out for when signing a new lease. Unfortunately, we can’t go over every potential problematic clause, but remember that the lease should protect the basic rights you have:
  • The right to have a safe and habitable space
  • The right to privacy and reasonable notice of entry
  • The right not to be discriminated against
  • The right not to be charged for unreasonable rent prices, security deposits, or fees
  • It’s illegal to add a clause that negates a state or federal law.

Legally is a platform which allows individuals to upload their lease (or any other legal document), and receive a contract review, done by real lawyers, in under 48 hours. Visit Legally’s website on Contact Legally by email ( or Facebook (


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