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Tenant Lease Agreement FAQ

Client signing a real estate leasing contract in Landlord's office

Having a lease or rental agreement is standard procedure for rental properties. Lease agreements are legally binding on both the landlord and the tenant, so both parties should carefully scrutinize the agreement before signing.

This FindLaw article answers a few frequently asked questions about tenant rental and lease agreements.

What are the different types of lease agreements?

The terms "lease agreement" and "rental agreement" are often used interchangeably. However, there are differences between the two types of binding contracts.

Rental Agreements

Generally, a rental agreement is a written agreement for a short-term rental. Most rental agreements are for month-to-month rentals. The landlord can change the rental terms and rent amount after giving the tenant proper notice. For month-to-month leases, landlords must provide at least one month's notice.

Lease Agreements

A lease agreement is a written contract for a fixed term, meaning for a year or more. A tenant generally has greater protections under a fixed-term lease, as the landlord cannot change the terms of the lease until it expires. After the lease term expires, the landlord and tenant may create a new lease or go into a month-to-month rental agreement. They may also decline to renew the lease at the end of the fixed term.

Sublease Agreements

If the landlord allows subleasing, the tenant may use a sublease agreement with their subtenant. The sublease agreement is a type of rental agreement tailored to the situation, with the primary tenant still bearing responsibility for the subtenant's actions.

Commercial Lease vs. Residential Lease

Differences also exist between a commercial lease agreement, which covers commercial property, and a residential lease agreement, which covers residential property.

Do I need a written lease agreement?

In most states, a rental agreement does not need to be in writing. Oral lease agreements are generally valid for rental periods of a year or less. However, even if the state does recognize an oral rental agreement, a written agreement helps avoid problems and should be the preferred method. The landlord and tenant may have differing views on their understanding of the agreement. One advantage of a written lease agreement is that it serves as the final authority on disagreements.

What terms should the lease agreement include?

Many landlords start with a standard lease agreement or use a lease agreement template. Standard lease terms for a residential lease agreement should include the fundamental rights and obligations of both the tenant and the landlord. Standard terms for a tenant lease agreement should include:

  • Contact information for all parties to the lease, including property management, if any
  • Description of the property, including the address of the rental unit and apartment number
  • Term of the rental (fixed-term or month-to-month), including move-in and end dates
  • Rent amount and rent payment details, including rent due date and grace period, if any
  • Late rent policy
  • Occupancy limits
  • Amount of security deposit
  • Pet policy
  • Subletting policy
  • An addendum including required disclosures, such as lead-based paint disclosures

Landlords, property owners, and property managers should consult an attorney before finalizing a lease or rental contract. Doing so will help them avoid unintentional housing discrimination or abridging their prospective tenant's rights.

Are there any terms to avoid in residential leases?

Residential lease agreements cannot include terms violating state or federal laws. This includes housing discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act. Depending on the state, rental property agreements and leases may not contain provisions that include:

  • Exclusion of tenants based on a protected characteristic
  • Prohibition of children (unless the property is a senior housing facility)
  • Waiver of legal remedies
  • Waiver of the right to get a refund of the security deposit
  • Waiver of the duty for the landlord to keep the premises habitable
  • Waiver of the duty for the landlord to mitigate damages

Are there limits on security deposits?

Some states limit how much a landlord may require for a security deposit. In many locations, the landlord cannot ask for more than one to two times the rent for the security deposit. For example, if the state limits the security deposit to two months' rent, an apartment leased at $1,000 cannot have a security deposit of more than $2,000.

Many states also require the landlord to keep the security deposit in a separate, interest-bearing account and pay the tenant the interest accrued through the end of the lease.

Can the landlord keep the security deposit?

A security deposit is generally limited to payment for property damage, repairs beyond normal wear and tear, and possibly unpaid rent. Landlords must account for any deductions from the security deposit, often through an itemized statement.

The landlord must return the security deposit (minus valid deductions) within their state's security deposit timelines. Many states require the landlord to return the deposit within 30 days after termination of the lease.

When can a landlord evict a tenant?

Landlords and property managers should not evict a tenant without a legal reason for the eviction. Eviction for cause includes:

  • Nonpayment of rent
  • Lease agreement violations, such as an illegal sublet
  • Tenant engagement in illegal activities on the rental property

The landlord must follow state law throughout the eviction process and give the tenant notice and an opportunity to cure any issues. If the renter does not fix the issues, the landlord can go to court for relief.

A landlord can terminate the lease without cause at the end of a fixed-term tenancy. For example, under a one-year lease agreement, a landlord can give advance notice to terminate the tenancy at the end of the lease.

Get Legal Help

Lease and rental agreements are legally binding on all parties, and it is essential to understand what you are signing. A qualified, experienced landlord-tenant attorney can help you. Seek an expert in landlord-tenant law who can offer sound legal advice.

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