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Signing a Lease or Rental Agreement FAQs

Elegant brownstones and townhouses in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn, New York City

Signing a lease agreement is often the final step in renting an apartment or home. Leases and rental agreements are binding contracts that outline the responsibilities and duties of the landlord and the tenant. If you have any important questions about the agreement, you should get answers before you sign and move in.

This Findlaw article explores answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ) about rent increases, late fees, rental terms, and security deposits. You should consult with a local real estate attorney for specific answers to specific lease agreement questions.

What Is the Difference Between a Lease Agreement and a Rental Agreement?

Many landlords and property managers use lease agreements for periodic tenancies of one year or more. Rental agreements often cover shorter periods, like three to six months. Month-to-month leases are one example of a rental agreement because the term of the lease is less than one year.

What Is a Month-To-Month Rental Agreement?

Each month, the tenancy automatically renews for a new term unless the landlord or the renter ends the tenancy by giving a 30-day written notice.

Why Should You Read a Lease Agreement Carefully?

Lease agreements are legally binding, so you should understand what you are signing. You want to avoid agreeing to a condition or responsibility unquestioningly. You don't want to waive any rights (like the return of your security deposit or right to a habitable home) unknowingly. Carefully reading the lease allows you to ask for clarity and to avoid future conflicts. Don't feel daunted by the length of the lease; take your time and read the lease agreement.

What Should I Do Before Signing a Lease Agreement?

Before signing a lease agreement, read the entire lease and ask questions about anything you need help understanding. Here are a list of things you should look out for in a lease or rental agreement:

  • Rent: Ask when the rent is due, how you should pay rent, and if the landlord charges a late fee for late rent payments or offers a grace period. In most cases, rent is due on the first of the month, but your lease should have specific instructions on when and how to pay rent.
  • Renters Insurance: Some landlords or property management companies make tenants show proof of renters insurance before they can move into the rental property.
  • Pet policy: If you have a pet or want to get one, check the lease agreement for a pet policy. Many properties have restrictions on breeds or other rules for pets, including a pet deposit. You do not want to violate the agreement and face possible eviction.
  • Sublease: Can you sublet the rental unit, if needed? Check the lease for a provision on leasing. If there isn't a provision for subletting a rental unit, ask your landlord or property manager. Some rental properties don't allow sublets; others charge a sublet fee. You do not want to risk eviction by violating a legally binding lease agreement.
  • Occupancy: Ask about occupancy limits. Some rental properties limit the number of people living in a rental unit simultaneously. For example, a rental property may only allow two people to live in a studio apartment simultaneously. If you want to add a roommate, check your apartment lease first.
  • Maintenance requests: Landlords should handle significant maintenance issues, like plumbing and pest control. Tenants often address minor maintenance issues, such as replacing light bulbs.
  • Lease renewal: The lease should specify when and how your management company handles renewals. Some landlords ask for two months' notice if you don't want to renew the lease agreement. Lease renewal provisions help you and your landlord plan for the future.

What Is Rent Control?

Some cities, such as New York City, have rent control ordinances. In New York City, rent control ordinances limit the rent a landlord may charge for a rental unit. This helps protect tenants from paying exorbitant rent increases and from eviction. Tenants can file a complaint with the New York Department of Homes and Community Renewal if their landlord violates the ordinance.

How Do I Know if My Home Is Rent Controlled?

Rent control laws usually apply to specific properties, usually older residential properties built before a particular time. For example, New York City rent control laws apply to properties built after 1947 and before 1971. Check with your local department of housing to determine if your home is or should be rent-controlled.

How Much Can a Landlord Charge for a Security Deposit?

Almost every state has specific security deposit laws. These laws cover everything from the amount a landlord can charge to the deductions they can make for the security deposit. Many states limit the amount landlords can collect for a deposit. Landlords typically charge at least one month's rent before the tenant moves into the rental unit. Many of these laws also require the landlord to place the security deposit into an interest-bearing account during your tenancy. Your landlord should include the interest with your security deposit after you move out.

What Terms in a Lease or Rental Agreement Should a Tenant Be Aware Of?

The following issues are warning signs that your tenant rights could be in jeopardy:

  • Terms that favor the landlord and not the renter (terms should be fair for both people)
  • Illegal terms
  • Blank spaces on a lease or rental agreement

What Terms Unfairly Favor a Landlord?

A renter should be cautious when signing a lease or rental agreement that contains terms that unfairly favor the landlord. These can be harmful to the renter over time, such as:

  • Automatic rent increases based on the landlord's "increased operating costs"
  • Shared utility meters
  • An agreement to obey "future rules" implemented by the landlord

What Are Some Examples of Illegal Lease Terms?

Some provisions violate the law. In many states, the inclusion of the following terms will result in the invalidation of the lease or rental agreement:

  • "Hold harmless" clauses — This means a renter gives up their right to sue the landlord
  • A provision that waives the tenant's right to a refund of a security deposit
  • A waiver of the landlord's duty to keep the premises habitable
  • A requirement that permits the landlord unrestricted entry (beyond what the law allows)

What Happens If I Do Not Pay My Rent?

Your landlord or lease agreement may have penalties for nonpayment of rent, with the next steps already in place. You will likely receive a "pay rent or quit" notice or an immediate eviction notice. With a landlord's consent, you may have a few days or a week to vacate. If you do not leave when asked, they may sue you in an eviction lawsuit.

Get Legal Help

Lease agreements are often long and full of complex legal terms. A qualified real estate attorney can review the lease agreement or go to the lease signing with you. Speak to an experienced local real estate attorney today.

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