When you first move in, your landlord may only charge you:
- a security deposit,
- 1st month's rent,
- last month's rent, and
- the cost of a new lock and key.2
A security deposit or a last month’s rent cannot be more than the amount of your 1st month’s rent.
If the 1st month’s rent is $1,000, a landlord can charge:
$1,000 security deposit
$1,000 1st month’s rent
$1,000 last month’s rent
+ $........ the cost of a lock and key
= Total a landlord can charge
1. Security Deposit
A security deposit and last month's rent are not the same.
A security deposit is money you pay a landlord to protect her in case you damage the apartment. But a security deposit is your money. If you do not damage the property, you should get your deposit back when you leave.
Your landlord must keep your security deposit in a bank account in Massachusetts. The account must be separate from the account she keeps her own money in. And every year she must pay you the interest it earns.
2. Last Month's Rent
Last month's rent protects your landlord in advance if you leave and do not pay rent the last month you are there.
Your landlord does not have to keep your last month's rent money in a separate bank account. But she does have to pay you interest on it every year.
If you pay last month's rent in advance, do not expect to get this money back when you move out. It will pay for your last month.
If you do not pay last month’s rent in advance, you must pay for your last month of rent even if a landlord holds a security deposit.
It is against the law for a landlord to charge tenants any other “moving in” fees, like:
- application or holding deposits,
- amenity or community fees,
- up-front pet fees,
- cleaning fees, or
- credit checks or application fees.3
It is also illegal for a landlord to charge you a finder’s fee. A rental agent can charge a finder's fee only if she is a licensed real estate broker. But if a real estate broker – not the landlord – helps you find your rental unit, that person may charge you a “finder's or broker’s fee.” The broker must provide a written notice to prospective tenants with information about the fee and whether or not it is paid if a tenancy is not created.4 To find out if a rental agent is a licensed real estate broker, check their license online.
If a landlord tries to charge you an illegal fee:
- You can refuse to pay it.
- You do not have to rent from that landlord. Find a landlord who follows the law.
- If you do rent from that landlord, get a written, itemized receipt for everything you pay. Make sure the receipt, includes the extra fees and what they are for. After you move in, subtract the amount you paid in illegal fees from your rent. Write the landlord a letter that says you have subtracted the illegal fees from the rent. Include the itemized receipt.
A landlord that charges a fee or security deposit to some groups of people and does not charge the same fee or deposit to others may be breaking the discrimination laws. It is illegal for a landlord to discriminate against groups the law protects, including: single parents, people of color, people on welfare, people with small children, people with disabilities, and people with Section 8 or other rental assistance. If the landlord tries to discriminate against you, see Chapter 7: Discrimination.
5. Illegal Lease Clauses
Your landlord cannot take away your rights under the security deposit law by using a written lease that conflicts with the law. “Your landlord can keep your security deposit if you rent the apartment for less than 6 months,” is an example of an illegal clause. Your landlord cannot do this.
If your landlord has you sign a lease with a clause that conflicts with the security deposit law, you have the right to get your security deposit back as soon you ask for it. See Getting Back Your Security Deposit.5
6. Increases in Deposits
If your rent increases after you move in, your landlord may not increase your security deposit. Your security deposit is limited to the amount of your very first month's rent.6
But if the rent goes up and you agree to pay the higher rent, your landlord can ask you to pay more for the last month’s rent. So, your last month’s rent equals the new higher rent.
3 . Under G.L. c. 186, §15B(1)(b), the law is clear that a landlord can charge only first month's rent, last month's rent, a security deposit, and the cost of a new lock. A landlord cannot try to escape the requirements of the security deposit law by taking what is really a security deposit and calling it a “cleaning fee” or something else. Perry v. Equity Residential Management, LLC, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, Civil Action No. 12-10779-RWZ (August 26, 2014) (G.L. 186, §15B(1)(b) does not authorize landlords to charge prospective tenants an application fee, amenity fee, a community fee or an upfront pet fee). Where the landlord seems to be adding a charge that bears no relation to any real work or cost, consult the Consumer Protection Act,Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A, §§2 and 9, and its regulations, 940 C.M.R. §3.17.
5 . G.L. c. 186, §15B(6)(c), (8). If a landlord has a tenant sign a lease that violates the security deposit law but doesn't try to enforce the illegal terms, she may still be in violation of the Consumer Protection Act even though the landlord is not subject to penalties under the security deposit law, 940 C.M.R. §3.17(3)(a)(1) and (4)(k).
6 . According to G.L. c. 186 §15B(1)(b): "At or prior to the commencement of any tenancy, no lessor may require a tenant or prospective tenant to pay any amount in excess of the following: (i) rent for the first full month of occupancy; and (ii) rent for the last full month of occupancy calculated at the same rate as the first month; and, (iii) a security deposit equal to the first month's rent (emphasis added). . . . Also, see G.L. c. 186, §15B(1)(d), which states: "No lessor or successor in interest shall at any time subsequent to the commencement of a tenancy demand rent in advance in excess of the current month's rent or a security deposit in excess of the amount allowed by this section. . . ." (Emphasis added.) Thus, the security deposit can never exceed the first month's rent.