June 1 was the last day of the 12-month lease on my first-ever apartment. For some, this may be a bittersweet or nonconsequential moment, but for me, it marked the end of a long, arduous journey.
When I signed its lease, I accepted that the periwinkle-colored cottage was far from campus, that it was small and that the carpet had some stains. But the lovely three-bedroom place was hiding a multitude of unknown problems.
A few weeks after moving in, my roommates and I began noticing itchy, red bites on our feet and ankles. Using Google, we concluded that the apartment had fleas. So we called our landlord, and he promised to resolve the problem as soon as possible. A few days later, the fleas were gone. Then he turned up unannounced at our front door, bearing an aloe plant for our bites. “OK,” I thought, “We’ll take the aloe plant, and he’ll leave.” He did not. Instead, our 84-year-old landlord went into our kitchen and spent the next 15 minutes demonstrating how to extract aloe from the plant with a knife. This was the first of many unannounced visits.
A month later, one of my roommates discovered mold in her closet. I may have been naive, but we all recognized the potential health hazard and immediately called our landlord, but he responded uncooperatively and confusingly. He vacillated between flatly denying the existence of the mold to insisting that it was our fault, all while refusing to remove it. Soon he was entering our apartment without permission to “investigate” the mold problem and yell at us.
Additionally, a family of raccoons permanently settled on our roof and fought loudly in the middle of the night. The heater broke, and we spent the month of November freezing under layers of blankets and sweatshirts. A skunk sprayed underneath the unit, and the stench permeated every article of clothing and piece of furniture, as well as the carpets and everything metal — I spent at least $40 on laundry and smelled like a skunk for two weeks.
During winter break, my roommates and I returned to our respective hometowns, but the problems with our landlord continued. In early January, he left a voicemail complaining that someone was living in the apartment without his permission, in violation of our lease, and that he intended to evict us for this. Because neither my roommates nor I were aware of anyone living in our place, we involved the Berkeley police, who reported that there was no evidence that anyone was living in the apartment.
I returned to Berkeley expecting more problems with the apartment and the landlord. But in early February, he suffered a sudden heart attack and died. Our lease fell under the responsibility of his son, who evicted the raccoon family, and the spring semester passed without the problems that had plagued the fall.
Despite the stress and discomfort, this experience was invaluable. I will carry the lessons of this housing fiasco to every new apartment I look at and every new lease I sign.
First, don’t be overly trusting. I’m sure there are lots of lovely landlords in this area who will be completely honest about their property — mine was not. Read every word on your lease before you sign, because you never know what might be hiding in the fine print that you will be accountable for later. And make sure everything is in writing to protect yourself and your interests.
Talk to the neighbors. This turned out to be a problem of poor timing for us, because we met our neighbors only after we had signed the lease. A little tipsy and very honest, our neighbor kindly informed us (just a few hours too late) that our new landlord was absolutely the worst. It would have been nice to know that beforehand.
Pay attention to the signs. Our cottage was undeniably cute and had new windows, but it also had mismatched paint and a foundation of cinderblocks. If we had seen those features as warning signs, we might have avoided a lot of the problems that we encountered.
Educate yourself. It’s understandable: We’re students, and we’re desperate. There isn’t enough housing for us, so we’re more likely to take what we can get. Berkeley landlords know that, too, and some of them may be willing to take advantage of our desperation. But tenants do have rights. Find out the rent ceiling for a prospective unit so you don’t overpay, and remember that your landlord is obligated to provide a habitable living space.
Know what you can live with and what you can’t. I learned that I could tolerate a raccoon infestation and a weekend without hot water (even though it wasn’t fun). As someone born and raised in Southern California, however, I could not survive November in the Bay Area with a broken heater.
I also hope to never again have to deal with a skunk-plosion.