The landlord-tenant relationship is a legal relationship created with a lease agreement. This written agreement outlines each party's responsibilities and obligations during the rental period. For example, the tenant pays rent to the landlord on a specific timetable, such as a month-to-month tenancy. The tenant pays a month's rent each month in exchange for the right to use and enjoy the rental property.
The written agreement is a legal document and should identify the following:
- Contact information for landlord and tenant
- Length of time of the rental period
- The amount of rent and amount of the security deposit
- Where the tenant should send the rent payment
- When is rent due, including any grace periods
- Late fees, if any
- What happens in the event of non-payment of rent
This article defines common words and phrases in residential leases or rental agreements. While this list is not a substitute for legal advice, it can help you better understand your lease.
Residential Lease Terminology
Abandonment: When a tenant gives up their right to reside in a rental property without notice to the landlord.
Common Area: An area shared by more than one person on a rental property. Examples include hallways, green spaces, and lobbies.
Constructive Eviction: If a landlord's actions interfere with a tenant's possession of the rental property and the property is unfit for reasonable occupation, the tenant can break the lease. An example of constructive eviction would be changing the locks without notice or giving the tenant the new key, or leaving the property in an uninhabitable state such as no heat or water. In most states, the tenant must give the landlord reasonable time to fix the problem before the tenant moves.
Eviction: A legal process through which a landlord may remove a tenant from rental property, with good cause, following several procedural requirements. If the landlord uses an attorney, the court may order the tenant to pay the landlord's attorney fees. You may also hear the term dispossessory, which is removing/evicting someone from a home.
Fair Housing: Federal laws, state laws, and local laws that prohibit discrimination in housing. For example, a landlord cannot discriminate against prospective tenants because of their race, gender, disability, national origin, or marital status.
Fixture: In the residential rental, a fixture is personal property owned by the tenant but made a permanent part of the rental property, so removal is impractical. For example, a tenant's custom double-paned windows are fixtures.
Foreclosure: If the landlord/owner defaults on their mortgage, they must give up their property. Tenants can stay in that property until the end of their lease. The only exception is if the new owner wants to live in the house. In that scenario, the new owner must give the tenants advance notice as determined by state or local law.
Landlord: An owner of real property who, through a lease or rental agreement, agrees to rent all or a portion of the property to another person (a "tenant") for their exclusive use — usually for a fixed period and in exchange for an agreed-upon amount of money.
"Normal Wear and Tear": Any changes to the property that occur over time. For example, faded spots on a carpet over two years are normal wear and tear. Cutting holes in the rug is not normal wear and tear.
Notice of Termination: A landlord must give a notice of termination if they are not renewing the lease.
Pet Policy: A pet policy outlines if the property allows pets, the number of pets allowed, and allowable breeds.
Property: The subject of the rental agreement. The agreement should include a complete description of the leased property. This includes the street address, city, state, and zip code.
Quiet Enjoyment: A tenant's implied right to enjoy and use rental property free from obstruction or intrusion.
Renewal: When the tenant chooses to continue their lease or rental agreement. Most landlords give their tenants a reasonable amount of time before their lease expires to renew.
Rent: A specified amount of money paid in exchange for the right to exclusive enjoyment of residential property. Payments are usually periodic (i.e., monthly). A residential lease or rental agreement should state the amount of rent and payment details.
Rent control: Rent control laws limit the rent a landlord can charge. These laws also allow annual rent increases. Be sure to check your state's laws on rent control, as not all states have them.
Right of entry: A landlord's limited right to enter leased premises. Landlords can exercise this right in emergencies, to make repairs, or to show the unit to a prospective tenant. Unless it is an emergency, the landlord must give proper notice to the tenant. A one-day notice covers many scenarios.
Security deposit: A refundable sum a new tenant pays to the landlord at or before the move-in date. The security deposit is usually held in an escrow account, and this sum guarantees the tenant's performance of lease obligations, including payment of rent. Many states limit the amount of money a landlord may demand for a tenant's security deposit.
Self-Help: Measures a landlord might take to evict a tenant. Examples of self-help include changing the locks or turning off a utility. Self-help is usually illegal under state law.
Sublease: In a sublease, the renter rents the property to a third party for a period of time. Tenants should read their lease carefully, as many landlords do not allow subleasing. Tenants are responsible for unpaid rent if the sublessee does not pay.
Subletting or assignment: When tenants can't fulfill the lease term, they can allow someone to take over the lease. They can create a sublease or assign their right to a different person. A subletting clause identifies the conditions under which the tenant can sublet. Some sublessees must complete a rental application before they can move in.
Tenant: A person with the right to use and occupy rental property owned by another person, usually through a lease or rental agreement.
Tenant improvements: Indicates whether the tenant has the right to make improvements to the property and the extent to which the landlord will allow such modifications.
Termination date of lease: Specifies the lease's ending date.
Term of the lease: Identifies in months or years the duration of the lease or tenancy. For example, in a month-to-month lease, the duration of the tenancy is one month.
Use of premises: Specifies any restrictions on the tenant's use of the premises during the term of the tenancy.
Warranty of habitability: A residential landlord's obligation to provide their tenant with a rental unit that is reasonably fit for human occupation, including primary living conditions and the performance of timely repairs.
Written notice: Before the tenancy term expires, the tenant must give the landlord advanced written notice according to the time stated in the lease if they are moving out.
Landlords and tenants should seek legal advice from an experienced local real estate attorney before signing a lease agreement. An experienced real estate attorney can help navigate all aspects of landlord-tenant law.
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