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Tenant Lease Agreement FAQs

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

Find answers for these common questions about tenant rental and lease agreements in this FindLaw article:

Does the Rental Agreement Need to Be in Writing?

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. In most states, if no term is stated in the lease agreement or oral agreement, it is assumed that the tenancy is month-to-month.

However, even if the state does recognize an oral rental agreement, the lack of a clear written agreement can cause problems. The landlord and tenant may disagree on what they understood to be the rental terms. Getting a lease agreement in writing, signed by both parties, is a safer option for everyone involved.

What Terms Should the Lease Agreement Include?

At a minimum, a lease agreement should include the basic rights and obligations of both the tenant and the landlord. Common terms for a tenant lease agreement should include:

  • Names of the parties involved (landlord and tenant)
  • 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 move out dates
  • Amount of rent and payment terms
  • Who is responsible for utility bills
  • Amount of the security deposit
  • Whether the tenant can have pets
  • Any "house rules," including rights and responsibilities in common spaces and quiet hours
  • Parking space information
  • Rules for overnight guests
  • Limitations on assignment of the lease (subletting)
  • Number of people who can live in the rental unit
  • Under what conditions the landlord may enter the unit
  • How disputes will be handled

Standard rental and lease agreement forms may be available online or through office supply stores. You can find a lease agreement to fit your needs in FindLaw's form store.

What Cannot Be Included in a Residential Rental Agreement?

In general, rental agreements cannot include terms that violate state or federal laws. Depending on the state, rental property agreements and leases may not contain provisions that include:

  • Exclusion of tenants based on race, color, national origin, or sex
  • 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

If a lease contains prohibited clauses, some states will consider the entire lease agreement to be invalid. In other states, the illegal clauses will be invalid but the remainder of the lease agreement will still be enforceable.

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

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

In general, a rental agreement is a written contract for a short-term tenancy. Most rental agreements are for month-to-month rentals but can be for other periods. The landlord can change the rental terms and rent amount after providing the tenant with proper notice.

A lease agreement is a written contract for a fixed-term, usually six months or a year or more. A tenant generally has greater protections under a fixed-term lease, where the landlord is limited from changing the terms until the lease expires. After the term of a lease expires, the landlord and tenant may create a new lease or go into a month-to-month rental agreement. Either party may decline to renew the lease at the end of the fixed term of the tenancy.

How Much Can a Landlord Charge for the Security Deposit?

Some states limit how much a landlord may require for a security deposit. In many states, the tenant may not be required to pay more than one to two times the rent for the security deposit. For example, if the state limits the security deposit to 2 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 account. Some states also require the landlord to put the money into an interest-bearing account or pay the tenant interest generated by the security deposit.

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 for unpaid rent. Landlords may also be limited to not take any deductions until after the tenant has moved out.

Some landlords wrongly attempt to keep some or all of the security deposit. For example, if a landlord kept the deposit to replace the 10-year-old carpet that only saw normal wear and tear, the tenant may have a legal claim against the landlord to return the deposit.

The landlord must also return the security deposit (minus valid deductions), within a certain amount of time. Many states require the landlord to return the deposit within 30 days after termination of the lease.

When Can the Landlord Raise the Rent in a Rent-Controlled Apartment?

Rent control limits the amount a landlord can charge for rent, when a landlord can increase the rent, and under what conditions. Rent increases are usually allowed:

  • Annually, based on a set percentage
  • When needed for maintenance expenses or increased property taxes
  • When a tenant vacates the property

As of 2020, only five states and the District of Columbia have rent control: California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon. In these areas, some 182 municipalities have rent control. Oregon's rent control measure applies statewide. Eight states allow rent control but have no communities that use it.

When Can the Landlord Evict a Tenant?

In general, a landlord may not evict a tenant unless there is a legal reason for the eviction. A landlord can evict a tenant for cause or after the term of the rental agreement has expired. Termination for cause includes:

  • Failure to pay rent
  • The tenant violates the rental agreement
  • The tenant engages in criminal activity

Even with the failure to pay rent or violation of the lease, the landlord may be required to give the tenant notice, with time to pay rent or cure the lease violation.

A landlord can terminate the lease without cause at the end of a fixed-term tenancy. For example, under a 1-year lease agreement, a landlord can give notice to terminate the tenancy at the end of one year.

In communities with a rent control ordinance, there may be limits on when a landlord can evict a tenant from a rent-controlled property.

Find a Local Attorney for Help with a Lease Agreement

Renting property without a clear contract can cause problems later on. If you are having trouble with a lease agreement or have concerns about renting a property, contact an experienced landlord-tenant lawyer for help.

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