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updated: 3/4/2012 6:28 AM

Rental forum: The pitfalls of renting an apartment based on Internet photos

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Q. I recently moved into an apartment complex and signed a lease for 12 months. Unfortunately, I found out very quickly that neither the terms of the lease nor the community rules and regulations were enforced.

My particular concern is the lack of cleanliness of garbage areas, as well as the ongoing failure of the on-site manager and maintenance person to keep the common areas clean and attractive. Also, there are several tenants who seem to feel it is appropriate to use the common areas as extra storage for personal items.

If I decide to stay, what are my options to try to encourage management to keep the property clean and neat and enforce the terms of the leases with my fellow tenants? If I decide to leave, will the manager's lack of ability or effort to have other tenants comply with lease rules be sufficient cause to get me out of the lease?

A. My first concern is how you have gotten yourself into this situation. The property's curb appeal would be clearly noticeable prior to signing the lease if you had done any sort of reasonable due diligence or inspection of the property. Unless you rented the property without visiting it prior to signing your lease, it would be rather unusual for you to not realize the significant and readily apparent problems in the common areas with the storage of personal items and the lack of cleanliness.

I could see how you might not have checked out the trash disposal areas in detail, but the dirty common areas and the cluttered individual unit porches or balconies would be difficult to miss. As is so true with most customer service businesses that rely on aesthetics, the first impression will tell you a lot.

But, let's assume you did sign the lease without seeing the property, as that is happening more often these days with the Internet being so prevalent. Of course, many rental properties look great online because the pictures are carefully selected (and maybe even cropped) to show only the best views or highlights of the property.

I have heard some tenants even accuse the landlords or their property managers of "touching up" or enhancing the photos; if the grass looks too good it might be because it is artificial turf or the photo is digitally manipulated to the point that the grass is too green to be real!

Remember that a lease is a binding legal contract and there are only a few specific reasons that allow the lease to be broken. Examples would include the landlord's failure to provide the leased premises in a habitable state or a landlord who fails to allow you as the tenant the right to quiet enjoyment or use of the rented premises.

However, a word of caution is in order here. It is my experience that the inability or lack of effort by the on-site manager to enforce the rules about storing personal property in common areas would most likely be a long shot to use as a basis for breaking the lease. Unless the items create a serious health and safety hazard, it is likely the court will find that it is just poor housekeeping by the property manager.

The court will most likely agree with you that it is aesthetically unappealing but not sufficient in most cases to be grounds for breaking a lease. However, I would suggest that you contact your local code enforcement department and file a complaint and have them inspect the property and cite the owner if there are any unsanitary conditions involving the property, especially the trash collection area. This may be what it takes for the on-site manager to get the message.

But even before you contact your local municipality to complain about your on-site manager, you should contact the property management company and the actual owner of the property. They may not be aware of the conditions if the property has severely declined in the past month or so. You can casually ask some of your fellow tenants if these unsightly conditions are something new or the way the property has always been maintained.

Another thought is to contact other like-minded tenants who are also frustrated with the deplorable conditions. The manager might not be worried if you try to break your lease, but if there are five to 10 additional tenants who all express the same concerns then you will definitely get the attention of your on-site manager.

Even a manager who is "leisure-oriented" and does just the bare minimum will soon realize that a slew of vacant units will create a lot more work than just cleaning up the property and enforcing the rules. Higher-than-normal turnover of tenants or above-average vacancy would also be a catalyst for the property owner to visit the property and make changes, up to and including, a new manager.

I think your best strategy is to make your concerns known and see what positive changes can be made over the next several months. If there are insufficient improvements, then you should give notice and not renew your lease. Chalk this up to a lesson learned, as you will be certain to carefully scrutinize all aspects of your next place of residence before signing a long-term lease!

• Property manager Robert Griswold is author of "Property Management for Dummies." Email rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com.

2011, Inman News Features

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