Q&A with Attorney J. Tristan Routh, Carolina Student Legal Services, Inc.
This is general information for use by students. It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney/client relationship. This information is in no way intended to take the place of a consultation with an attorney, as every situation is different and may have different possible outcomes. If you have any questions regarding a landlord/tenant situation, the best course of action is to call Student Legal Services and make an appointment with one of our attorneys. There is no cost for scheduling an appointment if you are a full-time UNC student.
J. Tristan Routh
Carolina Student Legal Services, Inc.
Suite 3512, Carolina Union
Q: What is Carolina Student Legal Services, Inc. (SLS)?
A: SLS is a non-profit law firm on campus for currently enrolled, full-time UNC students. SLS is staffed by three attorneys who provide legal advice or assistance in a wide range of legal matters including landlord/tenant, expunging criminal records, consumer related matters, and many other areas. The attorneys offer advice only for traffic and criminal matters. All visits to the office are strictly confidential. Legal advice is provided to eligible students at no extra cost. We cannot advise or represent one student versus another, nor may we advise or represent a student against the University or another state agency.
Q: Can SLS go to court for me in Landlord/Tenant matters?
A: Yes, SLS is available to provide court representation to eligible students as long as no conflict exists and the amount in controversy does not exceed $25,000. There is no additional cost for our representation in such a case, although students will be responsible for payment of any/all court costs (court costs are generally less than $200 for most cases).
Q: Why should a lawyer review my lease?
A: A lease is a binding contract, and once you sign the document, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get out of it. Every lease will have some basic concepts in common, but there is no standard lease in use with landlords in North Carolina. Most leases take advantage of gray areas of the law in favor of the landlord and at the expense of the tenant, so it is important to be aware of any pitfalls in the document. While some landlords use leases promulgated by landlord and realtor associations, some landlords will write their own leases without the aid or advice of an attorney. This makes it even more likely that there could be illegal or unenforceable provisions contained in the document. One of our attorneys will be happy to review your lease and sit down with you to ensure that you have all of the information you need. Knowing the content of your lease, as well as your and the landlord’s rights and obligations, can be extremely helpful in asserting your rights as a tenant and avoiding personal liability while renting a property.
Q: What is a guarantor, and who may serve in that role?
A: A guarantor is a back-up person or entity that is legally “on the hook” for the rent if you fail to pay. Landlords typically require such a person to also sign the lease if your monthly income falls below a certain level (ex. if your monthly income is less than three times the rent amount). There is no statutory requirement that a landlord have a guarantor sign the lease, so this practice varies widely between landlords. Generally, a guarantor is a parent/guardian, although it could theoretically be anybody that meets the landlord’s requirements.
Q: What should I do if my landlord is not repairing things at my house or is not repairing them in a timely manner?
A: In North Carolina, a tenant is generally required to have given their landlord written notice of a repair issue before the landlord is required to repair the issue. This does not apply if it is an emergency situation (ex. fire, flood, broken heat in the winter time, no electricity, etc.). It is always best to err on the side of caution and give the landlord written notice unless it is unsafe or impractical to do so at the time. What constitutes a “written notice” may be defined by the terms of your lease, which makes it more important to review it before signing. If the lease does not specify otherwise, a mailed letter, email, or text message may be considered written notice, although mailed or emailed notice is generally preferable to a text message. If the landlord does not repair the issue within a reasonable time after the repair, you may have a claim for a rent refund, or what is also known as rent abatement. What qualifies as a reasonable time depends greatly on the facts of the specific situation. If you have any questions or concerns over your landlord’s response to maintenance requests, please contact our office to speak with one of our attorneys. Our office resolves hundreds of these cases a year and recovers thousands of dollars in rent abatement, most often without the need to resort to court action.
Q: Can I quit paying rent if my landlord is not doing what they are legal required to do?
A: No, in North Carolina, you cannot “self-help” by withholding rent without a prior court order to do so. It is far better to maintain “clean hands” in a situation where you feel the landlord has breached their duties in case you need to take court action. If you feel your landlord has breached their responsibilities under the law, please schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys as soon as possible. Most landlord/tenant matters can be resolved through simple negotiations, but our office is available to go to court on your behalf if that is not the case.
Q: I do not like where I am living, can I break my lease?
A: Generally speaking, North Carolina law does not allow a person to automatically terminate their lease except in very specific circumstances (i.e. if you are in military service and get deployed or if you are the victim of domestic violence or a crime and have a no-contact order from a court in place). Some leases contain buy-out clauses that allow you to pay a large amount of money in exchange for terminating the lease, although most leases do not contain such provisions. Depending on the circumstances of your case, you may have room to negotiate a way out of the lease. Do not stop paying rent and move out! It is also generally a good idea not sign another lease until you have been officially released from your current one. Otherwise, you could be obligated to two separate rent payments. If you want to break your lease, please contact our office to discuss your options for doing so with one of our attorneys.
Q: What is renter’s insurance, and should I purchase it?
A: Renter’s insurance is a policy available through most insurance companies that provides liability coverage should you cause damage to the rental premises. Such policies also provide coverage for your own personal property should it be damaged or destroyed while renting. It is a very good idea to purchase renter’s insurance. Some leases even require that you carry a renter’s insurance policy while residing at the premises. Your parents’ homeowner’s insurance will generally not cover damages you cause while renting a property, so a separate renter’s policy may be needed. Even if your lease does not require this, having a policy could save you lots of money if there is an accident or disaster. Rates for renter’s insurance policies are usually very affordable, and you may be able to get a discount by bundling this policy with you or your parents’ other insurance policies (i.e. home or auto insurance).
Q: My landlord has not given back my security deposit, what should I do?
A: North Carolina has specific laws that govern how a landlord must handle a security deposit and in what circumstances they may withhold the deposit for damages. Generally, a landlord is required to provide a tenant with a written, itemized accounting of any damages they are claiming and return the balance of the deposit within 30 days of when the lease ended. If a landlord fails to abide by certain aspects of the security deposit laws, they may have voided their right to retain ANY portion of the deposit. Do not cash partial security deposit refund checks! Doing so may act as a legal accord and satisfaction that could bar your claim should you need to pursue the matter in court. If you feel your landlord impermissibly withheld all or a portion of your deposit, please call our office and schedule an appointment.
Q: I am moving into a new apartment, is there anything I should before moving in?
A: Besides having an attorney review your lease before signing, you should also make sure that you have researched the neighborhood for crime rate, etc. and that you have examined the property, in person if possible, before even signing the lease. You should also make sure that you complete a move-in inspection of the rental unit immediately before you move in your belongings. Some landlords require you to complete such an inspection on a form provided by them within a certain number of days of moving in. This will usually be specified in your lease. Even if the landlord does not require this, you should do your own move-in inspection and create a form noting any defects at the premises. Take lots of pictures and/or videos of the conditions of the unit, as well. Give the landlord a copy of the move-in inspection when it is completed and keep a copy for yourself. Also complete a move-out inspection form and document the conditions of the premises when you move out with pictures and/or videos. It might also be helpful to have a witness present for both inspections. This evidence will be helpful if a landlord later tries to withhold damages from your security deposit. A landlord may not legally withhold damages that were existent at the time you moved in and which you did not exacerbate. Again, if you have any issues or questions about your security deposit, do not hesitate to contact our office.
Q: Does your office also represent students who are landlords?
A: If you are an eligible UNC student and you own a rental property in North Carolina, our office is available to advise you if there is not a conflict of interest, especially with another UNC student. If the rental property is located in Orange County, a contiguous county, or Wake County, we are also able to represent you in court if that becomes necessary.
Q: I do not want to take legal action, but I have some questions about my landlord/tenant situation. Can I still use your office?
A: If you have any questions at all regarding landlord/tenant law or your rights and obligations as a tenant, do not hesitate to contact us for help. While our office can litigate such cases on your behalf, we are also happy to simply answer questions and provide guidance. If you wish to handle the matter on your own without the direct involvement of an attorney, we are also happy to help coach and direct you from the background.