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PHOTOS AND CONDITION REPORTS
Before you move any furniture and personal belongings into your new home, take pictures of everything, especially any damaged areas. You want to be able to prove to a judge that the damages your landlord billed you for already existed when you moved in. If your landlord has you fill out a move-in condition report, note every problem and keep a copy for yourself. If the landlord doesn't give you a move-in condition report, make one yourself and send him a copy.
After you move out, take pictures again so you can prove that you left the premises in good shape. Also, if the landlord didn't give you a move-in condition report when you moved in, take the copy you made of the one you did at move-in and complete a move-out portion. Then send a copy of to the landlord.
If you are living with roommates (whether you have a joint lease, or an individual lease), consider signing a roommate agreement. The SLS attorney can help with that by providing you with a sample roommate agreement that can be tailored to your individual needs and circumstances.
CHECK FOR COMPLAINTS
Don't be shy about asking current residents of the property what they think of the property and their landlord.
CONSIDER RENTER'S INSURANCE
Many landlords require their tenants to have renter's insurance while some just recommend it. Students are sometimes covered under their parent's homeowner's insurance and don't need a separate renter's policy. Consider speaking with several insurance companies about Renter's insurance to find out what it covers, what options they have, and how much it will costs you. Regardless of whether your landlord requires it, it is a good idea to have it anyway. You can also get liability coverage that will cover your landlord's property and the property of other tenants in case you damage their property through your negligence. If you or your roommates are accident prone, you should get liability coverage; otherwise, you might end up paying for an entire apartment building and its contents if it all burned up in a fire that you accidentally caused.
GET IT IN WRITING
Don't rely on oral promises. If it's not in the lease, you probably won't be able to enforce it. If you and the landlord agree to something that's not in the lease, handwrite it in; then you and the landlord should initial and date the change.
Unless the lease says otherwise, it's perfectly acceptable to make maintenance (and other) requests by phone or email. However, if you don't get the response you're looking for, put the request in writing. Send a letter by certified mail (or get a certificate of mailing) or hand deliver the letter and request a receipt when you deliver it.
At the very least pay by a means that will provide proof of payment. Be careful when paying by personal check. While you will have proof of payment once it is cashed, you won't have proof that it was delivered on time. If you are having problems with your landlord, hand deliver your check and ask for a receipt.
GET A COPY OF THE LEASE FOR REVIEW
Don't sign a lease without spending the time to really look it over. If a landlord is unwilling to let you take a copy of the lease home to review, you probably should look at other properties to rent. Remember, you can always make an appointment with the SLS attorney to have your leased reviewed before you sign it.
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VIRGINIA COURTS INFORMATION AND FORMS
The official website for the Virginia Judicial System provides useful information about the court system, official court forms in PDF format and instructions, information system about civil and criminal cases, and more.
THE CODE OF VIRGINIA
The Virginia General Assembly provides a copy of the Virginia Code online . The Code is organized into "Titles" that cover broad subject areas such as Title 18.2 ("Crimes") and Title 46.2 ("Motor Vehicles"). Each title is subdivided into Chapters, Articles, and Sections. Laws that are codified often become chapters. For example, the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (VRLTA) has been codified as Chapter 13.2 of Title 55. The site also provides access to the status and text of proposed and enacted bills.
The website provides a search engine for searching the text of the Virginia Code; however, you need to be careful in how you use the results. The engine will provide you specific code sections that contain your search terms, but the results won't reveal whether those sections actually apply to your specific situation or not. For example, if you searched for "security deposit", one of the hits would be code Section 55-248.15:1 which, in part, generally requires landlords to return security deposits within 45 days. What is not revealed is that Section 55-248.15:1 is part of the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act and that Section 55-248.5, which is also part of the act, exempts many rental situations from the requirements of the VRLTA. So if the house you were renting is exempt from the VRLTA, the 45-day rule in section 55-248.15:1 probably doesn't apply to your situation.
While reading the Virginia Code can be useful and informative, you should always consult an attorney if you have an actual legal issue (in other words don't try to self-diagnose by using Google instead of going to your health care provider).
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What will happen if I get pulled over for DUI?
Typically, a police officer will pull you over for suspicion of DUI if he sees you weaving, driving erratically, or violating any traffic law. If, after speaking to you, the officer suspects that you are intoxicated, you will be asked if you've been drinking. You are not required to answer this question. The officer will usually then ask you to get out of the car and perform several field sobriety tests (e.g. count backwards, touch your nose, walk the line, etc.). You may refuse to perform the field sobriety tests, but the officer can testify about your refusal at trial. Depending upon your performance on these tests, the officer may then ask you to take a preliminary breath test. You can refuse to take this test and your refusal cannot be admitted as evidence against you at trial. On the other hand, you are entitled to take this test and see the results, if the equipment is available. Even if you do take the test, the results cannot be used as evidence against you.
But if I refuse to take the test, won't my license be automatically suspended?
Your license won't be suspended for refusing to take the preliminary breath test; however, Virginia has an implied consent law regarding post-arrest tests. By driving on a public road or any area open to the public, you are consenting to having samples of your blood or breath (or both) taken if you have been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. For the results of these test to be valid, specific procedures must be followed.
If you refuse to submit to a blood or breath test, the officer will read a statement to you concerning your rights and the consequences of refusing to take the test. Your license will be suspended immediately for 7 days. If a judge decides that your refusal was unreasonable, your license will be suspended for one year. In addition, you can still be found guilty of the DUI charge.
Can I be convicted of DUI if I don't take a blood or breath test?
Yes. You can be convicted of DUI simply on the testimony of a witness (such as a police officer) stating that you were visibly intoxicated while you were operating a motor vehicle. It is enough that the intoxication has affected your manner, disposition, speech, muscular movement, general appearance, or behavior. Common indicators include glassy and bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, loss of balance, stumbling, and staggering.
What if I take the test but my Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) is less than 0.08?
You can be convicted of DUI even if your BAC is less than 0.08 if you exhibit signs of intoxication as noted above. There is a rebuttable presumption that you're not intoxicated if your BAC is 0.05 or less. If it's between 0.05 and 0.08, there is no presumption either way.
What if my BAC is over 0.08 but I don't show any signs of intoxication?
You can be still be convicted of DUI simply because you were operating a motor vehicle while your BAC was 0.08 or higher. This is true even though you show no signs of intoxication. This is known as a "per se" DUI.
Can I be convicted of DUI even if I haven't left the parking lot?
What if I didn't drive the car, but just cranked it up so I could turn on the air conditioning?
The vehicle does not have to be moving in any way for a DUI conviction; it is sufficient for a police officer to show that you were "operating" the vehicle.
What is the punishment for a first-offense DUI conviction?
First-offense DUI is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, a $2500 fine, and a one-year suspension of your driver's license. The minimum punishment for a simple, first-offense DUI is a $250 fine and a one-year license suspension plus enrollment in an Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP) unless the court decides ASAP is inappropriate. A restricted driver's license may be issued for good cause shown, in the discretion of the court.
If the suspect's BAC is at least 0.15 but not over 0.20, there is a mandatory 5-day jail sentence. If the BAC is over 0.20, there is a mandatory 10-day sentence. If the suspect was transporting a person 17 years of age or younger, there is an additional mandatory 5-day sentence and an additional mandatory fine of $500 to $1000. These mandatory jail sentences and fines can't be suspended by the judge.
What is VASAP?
VASAP is the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program. It is a program designed to make participants aware of the dangers of alcohol abuse. It lasts for 10 to 12 weeks with sessions being held one night each week. Classes are available in Christiansburg and in other locations throughout Virginia. The cost of the Program is $250-$350.
What is a Restricted Driver's License?
A Restricted Driver's License allows the holder to drive only to certain places such as work, school, and VASAP classes. To get a restricted license, the defendant must submit an application to the court. If you are granted a restricted license, make sure that any additional conditions imposed by the court or the DMV (such as payment of a reinstatement fee) are taken care of; otherwise, the DMV might suspend your restricted license.
Besides the legal penalties, what other consequences will a DUI conviction have?
First, a DUI conviction will affect your auto insurance situation. If you are on your parents' insurance policy, they will probably have to remove you from the policy in order to keep it from being cancelled. If you have your own insurance, you can expect to be placed on a high risk policy and see your rates increase 250%. Second, a DUI conviction will be on your record permanently and might require explanation to prospective employers, graduate programs, or professional organizations.
What will happen if I am convicted of a second DUI offense?
It depends on how long it has been since the previous conviction. Consult an attorney.
What if my driver's license comes from another state?
Virginia can suspend or revoke you privilege to drive in Virginia and there will later be a fee to again be allowed to drive. Almost all states have reciprocity on DUI's so you will suffer the penalties both of the Virginia court and the automatic administrative penalties of your home state.
What should I do if I've been charged with DUI?
If you're a VT student, make an appointment to see the SLS Attorney.
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JOINT AND SEVERAL LIABILITY
The phrase "Joint & Several Liability" is almost certain to appear in your lease. For example: "All lessees are jointly and severally liable for all obligations under this lease." This means that each tenant is responsible for the full amount of rent and any other financial obligations listed in the lease, and that if one of the tenants defaults in some way, the landlord can sue all of the tenants on the lease, not just the defaulting tenant.
Most leases provide that the landlord can recover his reasonable attorney fees if he successfully sues you for breach of the lease. Some judges consider one-third to be a reasonable attorney fee. Since leases are written by landlords, they usually don't contain provisions allowing the tenant to recover attorney fees. Thus, if you sue the landlord, the lease usually won't allow you to add attorney fees to the amount you win. On the other hand, if your rental situation is covered by the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act and you are suing your landlord it may be possible in certain situations to recover reasonable attorney fees.
Most college students usually don't have a sufficient income to cover their rent payments. If the landlord is forced to sue a college student for unpaid rent or damages, the student usually won't have wages to garnish or assets to seize. This makes getting paid rather difficult for the landlord. For this reason, most landlords renting to students will require that in addition to the student signing the lease, someone, designated as a "guarantor", also signs it. Most commonly the guarantors are the student's parents. The landlord will usually accept as a guarantor someone who is gainfully employed and have a somewhat good credit history.
When a guarantor signs a guaranty, he guarantees that the principal's obligations to the creditor will be fulfilled. In a rental situation, the principal is the tenant and the creditor is the landlord. The guarantor essentially promises that all monies owed by the tenant to the landlord will be paid.
SUBLEASES, ASSIGNMENTS, NOVATIONS, RE-RENTALS, AND ROOMMATE CHANGES
When you lease an apartment or house from the owner, you obtain a property interest in that apartment or house. You don't get all of the property rights of the owner, only some of them. For example, you can't sell or mortgage the property, but you can live there and prevent others from living there (assuming you have no co-tenants and aren't on an "individual lease").
Unless your lease prevents you from doing so, you can sublease or assign your interest in the premises to someone else. If you transfer your interests for only part of your remaining term, it is called a sublease. If you transfer your interests for all of the remaining term of your lease, it is called an assignment. Just like a lease, both types of transfer should be done in writing. If you sublease your interest to a sublessee (or sub-tenant), you become a (sub)landlord to the sublessee and legally stand between the sublessee and your landlord. If, instead, you assign your interest (to an assignee), you create a direct relationship between your assignee and landlord. The assignee pays rent directly to the landlord and the two may sue each other if either one breaches the lease. However, this doesn't let the original tenant completely off the hook. A landlord may still sue the original tenant (the assignor) for rent if the assignee fails to pay.
If a tenant who has assigned his interest wishes to avoid his liability for rent not paid by the assignee, he must get a release from the landlord. If he does this at the same time as he makes the assignment, the entire process is known as a novation. This is usually what a re-rental is; however, the term "re-rental" is not a legal term, it's just a term of convenience, and anyone involved in a re-rental should be sure that it really is a novation before agreeing to it. The phrase "roommate change" is another non-legal term that might be used to denote a novation. Again, make sure that's what it really is before agreeing to it. Even with assignments and subleases, don't rely on the title of the piece of paper you're signing. It's the actual terms of the agreement that decide what you're doing, not the name that the parties choose to call it.
Landlords sometimes offer what they call an "Individual Lease" to tenants. For example, the landlord of a four-bedroom apartment might sign separate individual leases with each of four tenants, giving each tenant the exclusive right to use one bedroom and a joint right with the other tenants to use the common areas of the apartment. Generally, each lease will make that lease's tenant jointly and severally liable for damages to only the common areas of the apartment. The tenant would be individually liable for her own rent and damages to her own bedroom, but wouldn't be liable for the rent of the other tenants or any damages they do to their bedrooms. This significantly lowers each tenant's potential liability for breaches by the other tenants; however,each tenant will usually pay more in rent than she would pay in a normal rental situation.
One drawback to individual leases (unless the lease contains a clause to the contrary) is that tenants don't have any control over who their roommates are. If you and three friends sign individual leases for a four-bedroom apartment and one of your friends decides not to return to school in the Fall, the landlord might find a substitute tenant to take your friend's place or your friend might sublease to someone else. You would have no control over who moves in or even what gender that person is (unless your lease says otherwise). If your potential landlord tells you not to worry, that he'd never put someone of the other gender in your apartment, make sure it says so in the lease.
Another problem to look out for is a landlord who doesn't know how to write an individual lease. Be sure that the leases of the other tenants explicitly state that they are individual leases and that they are for only one bedroom and joint use of the common areas in the unit. Make sure that your lease limits your liability to only your share of the rent and damages to your bedroom and the common areas. Some inexperienced landlords have use generic leases as individual leases without tailoring them to the situation. This results in landlords renting the entire apartment (as a whole) to each tenant and holding each tenant jointly and severally liable for the other tenants' rents and damages. Read everything carefully, and if you are not sure what it means, schedule an appointment with the SLS attorney before you sign it!
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BEFORE YOU SIGN THE LEASE
First, tour the property you will be signing a lease for, if this is an option (pictures and reality can sometimes be different). Second, ask for a sample lease to review before you sign the lease. Third, if you have the option of reviewing the lease with a lawyer, such as the SLS attorney, do that. Fourth, be sure to actually read and understand everything in the lease; do not sign if you have not read, do not understand, or you are not comfortable with something in the lease. Fifth, be sure 100% that this is what you want to do, because once you sign the lease, there is no going back; you are obligated to perform during the term of the lease (that is to pay rent). Sixth, ask for copies of anything that you signed (such as lease, addendums to the lease, policy handbooks, etc.), and ask for receipts for any payments you are making. To familiarize yourself with some terminology you will encounter in leases, you can review our primer on leasing terminology. You can also avoid some potential problems by reviewing our leasing tips.
The majority of the properties in the Blacksburg area are multi-bedroom units, which means that there is a strong likelihood that you will be living with roommates. If that's the case, not only try and pick your roommates, if this is an option, but also consider signing a written roommate agreement with all of your roommates. A roommate agreement is a legally binding contract between you and your roommates. The lease usually only defines the relationship between a landlord and the tenant (or tenants), but does not define the relationship between the tenants themselves. This is where the roommate agreement comes in place. The roommate agreement can specify how the rent will be split between the roommates; how the utilities will be split; what happens if a roommate inflicts damages to the property; and other rights and obligations of each roommate. Having all of this in writing not only can make each roommate understand what his/her rights and obligations are, but can also make it much easier to prove in court, in the event someone defaults and there is a lawsuit. The SLS attorney can provide sample roommate agreements to students upon request.
SUBLEASING & ASSIGNING
Often times students are not able to complete the full term of the lease, because of early graduation, a semester abroad, and so on. In those situations students can either assign their lease to someone else, or sublease their bedroom to someone else. Before a student can do either of those however, the student needs to make sure that the lease allows him/her either both options or one of the options. In addition, leases will usually require that the student obtains a written permission by the landlord in advance. However, whether you are subleasing (or assigning) to someone, you need to understand that the original lease between you and the landlord remains in effect, and that if the new person to whom you are subleasing (assigning the lease) defaults in his/her obligations, the landlord still has the right to go after you. Thus, pick your sublessees (or assignees) wisely! Also, the lease may specify that in addition to the written permission from the landlord to sublease/assign, there may be a sublease/assignment fee that the student may have to pay, and the landlord will require that certain permission sublease/assignment forms are signed by the student, the remaining roommates, and the new person (sublessee/assignee). In addition to those, the student should also consider signing a sublease agreement with the sublessee/assignee. The SLS attorney can provide sample subleases to students upon request.
VIRGINIA LAWS APPLICABLE TO RENTAL SITUATIONS
The Virginia General Assembly provides a copy of the Virginia Code online . The Code is organized into "Titles" that cover broad subject areas. Each title is subdivided into Chapters, Articles, and Sections. All rental properties in Virginia are covered by the Virginia Code default Landlord and Tenant provisions, found in Title 55, Chapter 13 of the Virginia Code. In addition to that, some rental properties may also be covered by the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (VRLTA), found in Title 55, Chapter 13.2 of the Virginia Code, which provides a more comprehensive description of rights and obligations of residential landlords and tenants. In some cases, your lease will actually state that it is covered by the VRLTA, and in some situations it will be silent. To determine which laws apply to your lease, it is best to schedule an appointment with the SLS attorney and bring your lease with you.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU'VE FOLLOWED THE TIPS AND STILL HAVE AN ISSUE WITH YOUR LEASE/ROOMMATE/S/LANDLORD?
If you're a VT student, make an appointment to see the SLS Attorney.
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DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this website may not be current or valid. You must not rely on the information contained here without first speaking to a licensed attorney. Always speak to a licensed attorney regarding any legal issue you may have.