The term "common area" is frequently used in lease agreements. And, though many of us haven't actually had the term properly defined for us, its definition is seemingly self-explanatory and we caught on to what it meant.
However, there are times that you'll run into a bit of a gray zone when it comes to common areas. Every rental and apartment has different common areas and different rules to follow, so it's tough to decide what one is and how to appropriately use it.
Common areas are parts of a rental property open to all tenants that live there, not just one specific resident. They're usually defined in the lease agreement, so you know which are open for anyone's use and which ones are for private use.
The common areas of each property are different — just because it was common at one apartment complex doesn't mean the same is true in a different complex. The owner, property management or landlord retains control over where the common areas are and how they're used.
Since each apartment setup is different, there are differences in their common areas and common use policies. You want to refer to your rental agreement or ask your landlord or property management to get clarity on which spaces you and others can use freely.
Since everyone needs to enter and exit their apartment, entrances and exits are common areas. Your building may have multiple entrances and there may even be limited access to floors only for the residents that live on it.
Although an entrance is a common area, if each floor has controlled access, it's really only a common area for the people living on that floor, usually for safety reasons. So, take note of the people that live in your complex and floor so you can report any suspicious activity.
Everyone needs a way to get around the apartment building, so hallways are an obvious example of common areas. Just like shopping malls that have pathways so that people can walk between stores, apartments have hallways to get between apartments. Some hallways may have controlled access for only the residents living in that hall, in which case, it's a common area for those tenants.
Obviously, all residents need a safe way to get out of the building if there's an emergency like a fire. Fire escapes are always marked, and each floor should have a map that specifies the quickest route out of the establishment. Your apartment's management should show you the nearest emergency exit to your apartment upon your moving in, but if they didn't, you should take a look around and confirm with management that you know where your nearest fire escape is.
Stairs and elevators are for reaching the upper levels of an apartment building, so it's necessary that these are for everyone.
In some complexes, there are stairwells and elevators that aren't for tenant use but specifically for maintenance uses. These maintenance-specific stairs and elevator entrances are clearly marked as such so you will know to avoid them.
If your apartment complex has some sort of lobby, this is usually considered a common area. Residents may hang out in their free time, wait for a ride to pick them up or meet up with multiple visitors in the lobby of an apartment complex. There are also elevator lobbies where people will wait for a lift to their floor.
A popular amenity is a rooftop or a large balcony where occupants can spend their time when the weather is nice. In some cases, these terraces are for limited private use, but generally, they're open for anyone to access.
Bathrooms are possible common areas, depending on the apartment setup and arrangement.
There are apartments that don't have a typical layout with bathrooms in every apartment. Some may have private rooms, but shared bathrooms for everyone on the floor (like many college dorms). In this case, the bathrooms are a common area.
You also may live in an apartment with roommates, who all share a bathroom. This is another case in which the bathroom is a common area.
Like bathrooms, kitchens are possible common areas for similar reasons. If an establishment has no kitchen in each apartment unit and there's a larger shared kitchen, then it's a common area. If you have roommates in your apartment unit and you all use the same kitchen, this is also considered a common area.
Some apartments come with their own storage unit. These storage spaces are typically designated for individual apartment units and aren't shared by multiple apartments. However, if there are multiple roommates living in the same apartment unit, then these do, in some sense, turn into storage spaces for those living in each unit.
If your apartment community has a pool, it's a common area, too. Any tenant can use the pool. And, if management allows, they can rent it out to tenants for personal use, such as a party. These rental periods aren't the norm and there should still be plenty of time where the pool is open for regular tenant use.
There are some spots that require additional payment from tenants to use it. This payment is optional and only those tenants that want access to an exclusive use common area will need to pay. So, if it's not something you care to utilize, then you can save yourself a few bucks.
Exclusive use of these places only becomes exclusive if your apartment's overall management structure decides. There are some areas, like the lobby, that are open to everyone at all times. Whereas something like the pool may require you to have a key to enter and you must pay an extra fee each month to get a key from management.
Maintenance can vary by living arrangement and apartment complex. If it's a common area for an entire apartment establishment, such as a lobby, the maintenance responsibility belongs to management.
Maintenance for common areas of commercial property includes more than cleaning — it also entails making repairs and ensuring it's pest-free. Typically, an apartment owner hires services to maintain common areas. This includes cleaning crews, repair workers, pest control services and may even get the help of community service personnel.
If it's a common area of an individual unit shared by roommates, then cleaning is the responsibility of the roommates living in the apartment. Roommates may decide to take turns cleaning it up or they may consistently do it together.
The bottom line is if an area is "common," then all tenants can use it. After using it, you should clean up any garbage or personal items, tidy up after each use and not dominate them too often and for too long. Residents can't take over these spots or divide them up for the purely personal use of a single tenant. So, it's important that all tenants are respectful of each other and the property. Use them during reasonable hours, be kind to those that are using the spaces at the same time and don't leave a mess!