Reading the Fine Print

I’ve put my home-hunting efforts on temporary hold. I’m not happy about it, but I learned a hard lesson in the power of the “fine print” on contracts. If you’ve been put into a position to help write a contract, I would strongly recommend you include the implications of the clauses as much as feasible. It’s better for you and your reader/contractee.

Mind you, it is entirely probable that I had this “fine print” explained to me at some point when I first signed my apartment lease…most likely the last time I signed my lease in person, on paper. What I missed or forgot was the penalty I would incur if I moved out of my apartment early. There were two options: a straightforward payment of one month’s rent or the requirement to pay rent on the apartment as long as it remained vacant. The way the clause put it was:

In the event this Choice 2 is elected, you may owe future rents as they become due under the lease.

Don’t kid yourself, apartment renter: that’s not may owe; you will owe that rent. And so now I’m faced with gambling as to whether the apartment complex will fill my apartment as soon as I move out or every month from moving out until the lease expires in November. Do I want to pay a mortgage and rent simultaneously? More to the point, can I afford that? The answer to both questions is no.

I can imagine my mindset when I checked the second box. I figured that a) I would choose to move out at the end of my lease or b) assumed that the economy would remain strong enough that the apartment would get occupied quickly. Well, here I am: wrong on both counts.

I should stress that neither issue is the apartment complex’s fault. And now that I think about it, the notice above was in a regular font, not in smaller, “fine” print. However, as a customer now on the receiving end of this clause, there are two things I’d quibble with: replace “may” with “will” on the likelihood of owing rent and put the penalty in bold and italic so there is no mistaking what you’re liable when you check the box. In this case, the entire clause is in bold, which muddles the message. If everything is in bold, everything is important and if everything is important, nothing stands out. I suppose the lawyer(s) writing up this clause felt the entire thing was important. However, as a lay reader, the most important information to me would be the amount of the penalty.

Anyhow, this is yet another reminder that legal writing is another form of technical writing, and has its own logic to it…it’s worth paying close attention before you sign on the bottom line.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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