Students are only halfway through this academic year, but they are already scrambling to figure out next year’s living arrangements—that is, until they run into one foreign word: lease.

For young adults who have never taken this step into the world of housing agreements, specifically first year students who are enjoying the comfort of residence hall life, signing a lease can be intimidating. Carrie Showalter, managing attorney for students, and the rest of West Virginia University’s Student Legal Services are here to help.

“Sometimes people are so anxious to get a lease signed that they don’t think it through,” Showalter said. “Students sign a lease and they aren’t aware.”

A lease is a legally binding contract between the landlord and the tenant that keeps both parties accountable for their obligations for the entire term of the lease.

This kind of agreement can go smoothly or not.

“We see students who aren’t aware that they can’t have a pet and they don’t realize it’s a no pet lease and there are some hefty penalties with that. Or they sign a lease and don’t realize there’s no lease. They don’t ask questions,” Showalter said.

Some apartments, usually owned by the University, rent by the bedroom, in which case each individual in the apartment is responsible for his or her own rent. In comparison, a joint lease means that all tenants are responsible for the whole rent. If one person does not pay his or her share of the rent, the landlord can collect that money from another tenant in the lease.

“Get a copy of their lease. We do free lease reviews through our office,” Showalter said. “Some are one page long and some are upwards of 30 pages. We can explain some of the language because it’s dense. We can break it down for them.”

Student Legal Services also takes care of issues with security deposits, such as when landlords do not pay their tenants back their security deposits on time.

“We track down a lot of security deposits, documentation and hold landlords responsible. A lot of times, students don’t know how long it takes or what the requirements are,” Showalter said.

As for breaking or changing a lease, students won’t have much luck unless they have an extreme situation, according to Showalter, especially because at off-campus places, status as a student means nothing.

“Landlord/tenant laws in our state are not very tenant favorable. If your lease starts in May and ends in May, it’s a full year lease. It’s not easy getting out,” she said.

In addition to reading the lease in its entirety, students must ask questions and seriously consider what they want in their lease before signing. Does this lease allow pets? What kinds of utilities will be provided? Do you need your parents to read the lease before signing?

“There’s no rush. There’s everything from brand new townhouses and high-rise apartments to the old houses in South Park,” Showalter said. “Once they have an idea of what their budget is and where they want to be, they should come in and get educated.”

Showalter recommends freshmen take their time before going into a lease and to make the most of the University’s available resources.

“Wait till after first semester so they make sure they get their grades, that they know they’re going to be back, they know their roommate is returning as well,” she said. “First year students need to be aware of what it is they’re doing.”

The office for Student Legal Services is located in room G5 of E. Moore Hall, and students should go online to www.studentlife.wvu.edu/offcampushousing for more information.