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What Tenants Should Know About Lease and Rental Agreements

Your lease or rental agreement is a legally binding contract between you and your landlord. It's the cornerstone of your relationship with your landlord. Before renting a house or apartment, you should read your agreement thoroughly. Ask questions about anything you don't understand.

This FindLaw article explores some concepts about lease and rental agreements.

Understanding Leases and Rental Agreements

Before looking for a new house or apartment, you should understand leases and rental agreements. These two terms are not synonymous. Lease agreements typically cover a fixed term for one or two years. Rental agreements usually cover shorter-term periods, like a month-to-month lease.

The terms of the agreement should help you understand your rights and responsibilities as a tenant and the landlord's rights and responsibilities. For example, as a tenant, you must pay rent on time. Your landlord must ensure that your rental unit meets the local standards for the warranty of habitability.

Your lease or rental agreement is a legally binding contract, so you should understand your agreement before you sign.

Types of Leases

The type of lease you sign depends on how you intend to use the rental property.

If you plan to live in the rental property, you will likely sign a residential lease or rental agreement. If you plan to rent a commercial property, you will likely sign a commercial lease agreement. This article focuses on residential lease agreements. Please check out this FindLaw article for more information on commercial lease agreements.

Reviewing Lease or Rental Agreement Terms

It's essential to understand the different terms of the leases that your landlord or property management company may use in a residential lease. These terms include, but aren't limited to, the following:

  • Names and contact information of the landlord and all tenants
  • Security deposit amount
  • Duration of tenancy
  • Amount of rent
  • Due date for monthly rent payments
  • Instructions on how to pay rent
  • Late fees for late rent
  • Pet policy
  • Occupancy terms (how many people can live in the rental property)
  • Sublet instructions
  • End date of agreement
  • Disclosures for mold or lead-based paint
  • Conduct that may trigger an eviction

Be sure to read the lease carefully in case additional restrictions apply. For example, some landlords won't allow smoking in the unit or may have restrictions on noise levels.

Review the Agreement for Red Flags

Review your rental application and proposed lease for any red flags. For example, federal and most state laws prohibit housing discrimination and ban discrimination in renting, selling, or financing real estate. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on one of the following protected characteristics:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender identity or sexual orientation
  • National origin
  • Familial status
  • Physical or mental disabilities
  • Age

Security Deposit

Pay close attention to any information regarding your security deposit. Many state laws regulate how much a landlord can ask for a security deposit. State laws also determine the time frame within which your landlord must return your security deposit. Security deposits give landlords financial assurance against any damage to the rental unit. Before you move out, check your rental lease agreement for instructions. Typically, tenants give their landlords or property managers a 30- or 60-day notice of their intent to vacate the rental unit.

Before you leave, you should arrange a move-out inspection to ensure there is no damage. Many renters include this request in their written notice. If you can't arrange such a meeting, take pictures or a video of the rental unit after you've cleaned it. Landlords can only deduct for actual damage, not normal wear and tear. Normal wear and tear include faded marks on a carpet or broken blinds.

Changing the Lease

At some point, while renting, you may need to change the lease terms. For example, if one of your roommates moves out, you may need to replace them on the lease. Or you may need to sublease your rental unit. The best way to go is to ask your landlord to make these changes. Many landlords will allow you to make these changes for a fee.

If you want to change one or more lease terms significantly, make the request in writing. That way, your landlord can consider the request without the pressure of an immediate response. A written request will also help clarify what you want to change about the lease.

If the landlord or property manager agrees to the request, work with them to create a new lease with the relevant provisions changed.

Breaking the Lease

Breaking a lease is more than a massive inconvenience for the landlord and tenant. It is a breach of contract, which means you're likely responsible for paying rent for the rest of the lease. But any party to a contract has a duty to mitigate. This means the landlord must find a new tenant as soon as possible. Renters typically are not responsible for rent after a new tenant moves in.

If you need to break your lease, tell your landlord as soon as possible. This allows them to find a new tenant and may mitigate your damages.

Please note that it's unlikely your landlord can change the lease without your consent. It's a breach of contract if they do.

See FindLaw's sections on lease agreements and tenant rights for more information.

Get Legal Help

Landlord-tenant law is a niche area of real estate law. An experienced landlord-tenant attorney can review your lease or rental agreement and give you sound legal advice. Speak to a qualified landlord-tenant attorney today.

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