When the nice lady across the desk from you at the apartment complex hands you all those papers to sign, it’s easy to just sign them and get on with moving into your new apartment. It’s also not very smart. Many folks, especially young, first-time renters, don’t understand the fact that a lease is a contract. Upon signing a rental lease agreement, you are legally bound by its terms and conditions.
Leases come in two basic forms: oral or written. Although oral agreements are legal in many states, for maximum protection you should insist on a written lease agreement, according to the experts at New Mexico Legal Aid.
Rental Lease Agreement Basics
All lease agreements should contain the following:
- Name and signature of both the landlord and the tenant
- The amount of the rent and when and where to make payment
- The address of the rental property
- The starting and ending dates if the lease is a fixed-term lease
- The landlord’s mailing address
- A statement of all fees collected at the time the tenancy begins
- The name of the person responsible for paying the utilities
- Repair procedures and responsibilities
- Eviction procedures
These items are the bare bones of the standard lease agreement. Let’s take a closer look at some of these.
Simply stated, the occupancy clause of the lease agreement outlines who will be responsible for paying the rent every month. If more than one tenant signs the lease, you may see the words “joint and several liability.” This term means that all persons that sign the lease are responsible individually for the terms of the entire lease. In other words, if one of the parties can’t pay his or her share of the rent, the other is obligated to do so.
Length of the Lease
This is also known as the lease’s term, or tenancy. There are two broad types of tenancy:
- Month-to-Month: A term that is also known as a “periodic tenancy.” Under this type of rental lease agreement, the tenant is guaranteed possession of the dwelling for one week or one month at a time. At the end of each period either the tenant or the landlord may terminate the agreement, following any other rules set forth in the agreement. Typically, a 30-day notice is required of either party. So, if your landlord decides to raise the rent, he must notify you 30 days in advance of when the new rent amount is due. By the same token, should you decide to move out, you must give the landlord a 30-day notice of your intent to do so. Your state’s statutes govern specific termination procedures.
- Fixed-Period: The lease runs for six months, a year or some other period of time. This type of lease guarantees the tenant the use of the dwelling for the stated period of time, without any changes in rent or other lease terms during that period.
The fee that causes the most contention at the end of a lease’s term is the security deposit. Although the money remains the tenant’s property, according to the experts at Michigan State University, the landlord is entitled to hold and keep all or part of it in the event the tenant owes rent or fails to return the property in the condition required by the lease agreement.
Landlord-tenant statutes on the treatment of the security deposit vary by state but most require that, should the landlord keep all or a portion of a tenant’s security deposit, he or she must prove that the tenant owed unpaid rent or caused damage to the property beyond what is known as “reasonable wear and tear.”
It is very important that you understand your state’s statutes regarding security deposits. If you contest the landlord’s claims, the statutes clearly outline the procedures required. Time is typically of the essence; so don’t wait too long to file a complaint.
Other fees commonly found in lease agreements that may or may not be refundable include:
- Pet deposits
- Last month’s rent
- Cleaning fees
- Fees for running a credit and criminal background check
- Deposits for mailbox, pool, laundry room keys
The lease should clearly outline who bears responsibility for any repairs required during the tenancy. This includes landscape upkeep and trash removal if you are renting a house. The typical lease outlines various rights and obligations according to the type of repair required.
If something needs repair as a result of an accident or your negligence, you will typically need to pay for the repair. Read your lease carefully because even if the responsibility to repair is yours, there may be a clause that requires landlord notification. It’s always a good idea to notify the landlord of any needed repairs, in writing. This way you have a record for future reference.
Material repairs, on the other hand, are usually the landlord’s responsibility. These types of repairs include:
- Plumbing problems that aren’t the result of tenant damage
- Leaking roof
- Heating or air-conditioning system malfunctions
- Anything that affects the tenant’s health and safety and the habitability of the property
The beginning of a rental lease can be likened to a honeymoon. The landlord is pleased to have secured a tenant and the tenant is happy to have a place to live. Over time, as rent is late or repair requests go unmet, the landlord/tenant relationship may break down. For this reason, know your state’s statutes, especially those that outline your rights as a tenant.