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  • Erin Lokhandwala

5 Tips for Physicians Before Signing a Lease in Baltimore Area

You’ve found your ideal Baltimore area rental home and are ready to sign the lease. Before jumping in, consider these key points – especially if you are a first-time renter:

Tip #1: Scout the Neighborhood & Do Your Homework

Signing a lease often means a one-year commitment, if not longer. Before saying “yes” to a rental property, try to visit the place at different times of day, or at least speak with the neighbors. This will give you a sense of the community, traffic, and other key factors about the home or the surrounding area. If you are unable to spend the time checking out properties, ask residents and other trainees where they live. Contact your program coordinator to connect.

Our physician friend in Pennsylvania agreed to a one-year lease without visiting the property or performing much due diligence remotely. After moving in, he quickly received a wake-up call. A railroad ran nearby his apartment, and every night at 2 a.m., a freight train passed through, blaring its whistle. Our friend was attracted by apartment’s comparatively low rental price and convenience to the hospital; however, he will now tell you that if a deal is too good to be true, it probably is! Do your homework, and don’t sacrifice your well-being (or precious hours of post-call sleep!) to save a few dollars.

As you’re researching, don’t compare rental rates between neighborhoods. Rental price can vary significantly depending on the location, and even block to block. Plus, you get what you pay for – the old saying is true! Generally, I’d recommend sticking with Baltimore area rentals with rates above $1,050 for a one-bedroom, $1,300 for a two-bedroom, $1,650 for a three-bedroom, and $1,900 for a four-bedroom. Otherwise, you’re sacrificing quality and convenience for a relatively negligible price discount. A real estate agent can help determine whether the rental price is commensurate for the neighborhood of your choice – and negotiate the price for you.

Tip #2: Negotiate Lease Terms & Plan Your Exit Strategy

Many lease items are negotiable, so don’t be afraid to ask. Individual landlords will likely be more receptive to special lease terms, compared to large property management firms and condo/apartment complexes, most of which adopt a “take it or leave it” approach. Either way, emphasize that you will be a responsible tenant with a guaranteed income, and request some inducement, such as a reduced security deposit, before signing.

For physicians planning to remain in Baltimore longer than one year, you are in a great position! Landlords also might offer a multi-year rent discount for the longer commitment. When we moved to our first rental home, we negotiated a $100 rent reduction for signing a two-year lease.

If you are reluctant to commit to a multi-year lease, request a rent lock or a pre-defined rent increase (e.g. 3 percent or matching the current inflation rate) up front to save money if you decide to extend the lease. Imagine having one year of training left and your landlord deciding to raise the rent by 25 percent. With rent lock, you won’t have to choose between moving for a final year or absorbing an unreasonable price hike. Warning – typically large condo complexes offer a first-year discount to get you in the door and raise the rent significantly in the second year. If you are unable to negotiate a rent lock or set increase, factor a rent hike in your budget after year one.

Additionally, my family began our lease in mid-June, before the academic year started on July 1. Although an earlier transition might not be possible for all training schedules, we found the extra time beneficial for coordinating our move and settling in before the busy season of training began. Ask your landlord to prorate the June rent if you still wish to end the lease on June 30 of the following year.

Finally, protect your time and streamline your bills by asking your landlord to continue scheduling and paying for all routine maintenance fees (e.g. lawn care, snow removal) and utilities and adding the charges to your monthly rent. If possible, arrange to autopay your rent payment and other expenses. That way, you won’t have to spend your precious off-work hours doing chores at the leased property.

Tip #3: Read the Lease Carefully

Read through the entire lease and ask questions if you are unsure about a particular term. Most importantly, consult the “termination-hold over” provision and ensure that it gives you sufficient protection if you must end the lease early due to unexpected life changes.

For instance, some physicians-in-training find a job after completing their residency and no longer wish to pursue a fellowship, or they find a perfect home to buy. Under Maryland Law, tenants who choose to end a lease before it expires are responsible for paying rent until the lease term ends. However, landlords must make a reasonable effort to re-rent the premises and limit their losses. If landlords re-rent the premises, tenants will only be responsible for the rent until the date that the new tenant moves in – plus the reasonable costs of re-renting. To protect yourself further, ask the landlord to add a provision that allows you to cancel the lease after giving a certain amount of notice (typically two months) and perhaps paying an additional fee (typically one month’s rent).

Consult the lease for special rules as to parking, visitors, pets, and common areas. If the rental unit is part of a homeowners’ association, the lease paperwork should also include a copy of these rules, which are binding on tenants as well as landlords. Some associations regulate nearly every part of a property’s exterior, such as decorations, storage of children’s outside toys, paint colors, and other improvements. Before making any major – or even minor – changes to the property, check the rules and ask the landlord’s permission.

Also check the security deposit provision and know your rights and obligations as to this charge. Under Maryland Law, a security deposit charge cannot be greater than two months’ rent. Landlords must place the security deposit in an interest-bearing escrow account and return it to the tenants at the end of the lease. Tenants may not use the security deposit as rent or apply the security deposit as the last month’s rent. Landlords can, however, use the security deposit to defray the cost of move-out repairs caused by more than ordinary wear and tear, as well as for damages caused by tenants’ breach of the lease.

Tip #4: Communicate with Your Landlord

Most leases require tenants to promptly notify landlords of major maintenance issues, such as leaks, appliance malfunctions, and significant property damage. If the lease does not specify, be proactive and determine whom to contact for maintenance problems and general questions about the home (i.e. landlord or property manager). Clarify which problems might require a late-night call versus those that can wait for a next-day e-mail. This conversation will save valuable time and promote goodwill when a problem arises during your lease.

If you’re concerned about a specific issue in the rental home (e.g. peeling paint, a leaky faucet), ask before signing and perhaps the landlord will address it. You and the landlord will also complete a property damage checklist shortly after moving in - and again before moving out. Having proper documentation will help minimize disputes about the condition of the property and the landlord’s possible use of the security deposit for certain repairs.

Tip #5: Be Vigilant About Safety Compliance

Ask whether the property is current on all rental safety regulations. For example, Baltimore County Law requires rental homes to be equipped with a hardwired and interconnected smoke/carbon monoxide detector with a battery backup on every level and in every hallway next to a sleeping area. Request a copy of the property’s Rental License Safety Inspection paperwork if you are unsure about compliance. Also, remember that landlords are responsible for installing the detectors, but tenants are typically responsible for checking them annually, keeping them operational, and notifying the landlord of any defects.

For rental homes built before 1978, Maryland and Federal law requires landlords to provide two pamphlets: “Lead Poisoning Prevention Program: Notice of Tenant’s Rights” and “Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home.” Landlords also must perform Modified Lead Risk Reduction Measures within 30 days of receiving notice that the property has chipping or peeling paint or that a child living on the property reported elevated blood lead levels. Make sure that your landlord provides these pamphlets, and promptly notify the landlord of any lead paint issues in the home.

Finally, responsible landlords will hold an insurance policy that protects the rental property against damage from fire, hail, rain wind, theft, and other covered losses. However, the landlord policy will not cover the loss of a tenant’s possessions. For a minimal fee (typically a few dollars each month), you can purchase a renters’ insurance policy that will protect your valuables, provide for your lodging in the event of a disaster, and limit your liability if a guest is injured on the rental premises. The minimal cost is worth your peace of mind.

Follow these tips, and you can confidently sign the lease to your Baltimore area rental home!

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