They're putting apartment leases in p-l-a-i-n language

Tenants in Boston used to be instructed not to ''suffer any strip or waste'' in the maintenance of their apartments. But now they are often instructed instead not to ''paint, decorate, make holes in, or attach things to any of the floors, walls, ceilings, doors or equipment . . . .''

If the latter seems more straightforward, it is. It's all part of an effort in Boston as well as other areas to make leases simple and clear to the layman. The idea is not only to benefit the tenant by spelling out his rights and restrictions in plain English, but also to clarify the obligations of the landlord.

The root of the change lies in the often complicated wording of legal documents. In attempts to improve the situation, there have been moves in several states in recent years to require or at least recommend that language used in consumer contracts be in English comprehensible to the layman, even if certain legal terms remain in the document.

Connecticut passed a plain-language law three years ago. New York has a similar law. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has come out with a very simple lease that is required for all subsidized housing. And in Massachusetts, while there is no such requirement yet, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which provides a standard lease form to many landlords, has recently developed a simplified version.

One question is whether legal documents should be geared to the lawyer or judge, who handles court issues, or to the layperson, who is trying to understand the basics of a contract. The word nuisance, for example, according to Phil Lapatin, legal counsel to the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, ''can incorporate 300 years of law.''

Lapatin stresses also that despite its simple text, the lease remains a formal legal document which is different only in that it gives a commonly understood explanation of responsibilities with a minimum of legal terms.

The Boston form, for this reason, gives explicit examples as to what a tenant can and cannot do. It expands the section entitled ''Consideration for others,'' for example, to include concise warnings against loud parties or playing a TV, radio, or record player too loudly. The old version has an 85-word sentence stating that the lessee and his friends shall not ''make or suffer any unlawful, noisy, or otherwise offensive use of the leased premises . . . .''

In Connecticut, where most leases are drawn up by individual firms, there are two ways to comply with the simple-language law. Tim Calnen, director of government affairs for the Connecticut Association of Realtors, says that one is to follow strict guidelines which limit the number of words in a sentence, the number of characters in a text line, and even govern the amount of margin space on the pages.

The other is more subjective, requiring a ''good-faith effort'' to comply with the law.

In general, simplified leases are well received by those who use them. Some, however, have their complaints about them.

''We have all felt it's as if it's geared to a third-grader,'' says Faye Becherer, who runs CBM Investment Properties Inc., in Groton, Conn. ''If they came in they could read it and it would make sense to them. But others become bored with it.''

She concedes that overall, the law is probably an improvement and does aids landlords by guaranteeing that tenants will understand the terms to which they are agreeing.

A New York City lawyer points out that every trade has its language, and that a certain vocabulary can provide proper meaning and clarity of intent. He suggests that a better provision would be to require clearer writing, not a changing of terminology.

In Chicago, although there is no requirement for a plain-language lease, the Chicago Real Estate Board came out in 1974 with a simple lease that avoids specific legal terms whenever possible. Ted Amdur, chairman of Property Management Council in Chicago, feels that it has been very successful. He points out, though, that the precision of legal language is necessary in certain instances, especially to avoid any ambiguity.

''You can only simplify to a certain point,'' he says. ''A legal document can't be completely understandable to everyone. But at least the lease is as fair as we can make it.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.