Once you sign a lease or rental agreement, it’s a legal contract between you and your landlord. Every understanding in it is binding for the life of the agreement: one month for month-to-month rental agreements and the term of the lease for leases.
So how can you or your landlord makes changes in the lease or rental agreement? The rules are different for leases and rental agreements. And if the proposed change is something you both agree to, there are yet different rules, as we’ll explain below.
If you rent month to month, chances are you’ll see at least one change during your time at this address: a rent hike. Your landlord may also decide on other changes, such as the amount of the security deposit or whether to allow pets. You, too, may be able to negotiate your way toward more favorable terms—like the parking spot you’ve wanted for months. How you or your landlord may accomplish these changes depends on whether you both agree to the change. Here’s how it works.
Since your rental agreement is a binding contract for its one-month life, neither you nor the landlord may unilaterally decide that there will be immediate changes, such as a rent hike or the removal of a guaranteed parking spot. If the landlord wants to impose these new understandings and you object, he’ll have to follow the notice rules, as explained below. And if you feel that you cannot continue living there unless the landlord makes changes in your favor, you too will need to follow the notice rules that will allow you to leave if the landlord won’t play ball.
However, there is nothing to stop you and the landlord from agreeing at any time to any changes the two of you both wish. To make immediate changes in a rental agreement, simply write the changes into the original document and make sure both of you sign and date the change. Or if the rental agreement is saved in electronic format, the landlord can simply enter the changes into the electronic document and print out a new agreement, ready for signatures.
Landlords and tenants sometimes agree on rental agreement changes, but it’s more common for landlords to announce unwelcome news such as rent increases, a decrease in services, or a variation on a common area rule. Your landlord doesn’t need your consent when he announces a change in your rental agreement—but he doesn’t get to impose it immediately, either. All that’s required is that he give you the legal notice period: 30 days in most states.
Assuming you stay, you don’t have to redo the entire rental agreement. The landlord can cross out the old language, write in the new, and initial and date the changes (he’ll probably ask you to initial it, too). Or, he may add an addendum page. If the change is significant and the landlord has the agreement on a computer, he may choose to print out a new agreement, incorporating the change.
What can you do if you don’t like the landlord’s proposed change? If you can’t talk him out of it, you can walk. Remember, though, you’ll still need to give legal notice to end your tenancy, which is usually the same length of time as the notice period to change its terms (30 days, typically). If you give notice of your intention to leave on the same day you get notice about the landlord’s change, you’ll be legally free to leave before the change takes effect. However, if you wait a period of time before giving notice, the changes will take effect before your obligations as a tenant end.
Tenants, too, can propose changes in a rental agreement, such as asking for permission to bring in an additional roommate. If the landlord agrees, great—it's as if the landlord proposed the change (as discussed above). In most situations, however, tenants have very little bargaining power if the landlord balks. Your best ally when pressing for better terms is your track record as a stable, good tenant. If the landlord is smart, he’ll take steps to retain you as a tenant by keeping you happy. If you don’t prevail and it’s an all-important issue, your only alternative is to give your own termination notice, as explained below.
One of the advantages of having a lease is knowing that its terms are set until it runs out. But there are ways to modify leases, as explained below.
The two of you are free to change the terms of your lease at any time if you both want to. Follow the instructions for making changes in rental agreements, above.
Knowing that leases can’t be changed except by mutual consent makes some landlords nervous. Predictably, they want to be able to raise the rent midlease, or they anticipate that they may want to make other changes (such as decreasing services) that they aren’t intent on imposing at the start of the tenancy.
Landlords give themselves some flexibility by writing the change into the lease itself. You can think of it as a kind of option—to the landlord’s benefit! For example, you may see a clause that specifies that the landlord “reserves the right to increase the rent by $50 at the end of six months.” As long as the proposed change is certain as to time and amount (or other specific factors), you’ll be bound by it if the landlord decides to impose it.
Watch out, however, for open-ended change rights, such as a clause giving the landlord the right to “raise the rent at any time.” A court would probably not enforce a lease clause that is so vague. If you encounter a landlord who presents you with such a slippery clause, think carefully about doing business with him.
Also, watch out for lease clauses that give landlords the right to make insubstantial changes during your lease. Some states, as well, have statutes giving landlords the right to make small changes midlease. Naturally, there is often great debate over the meaning of an “insignificant” change. There will be little argument about truly minor changes (keeping the pool open an hour less on weekdays, for example) or obviously major ones (an increase in rent), but the situations that fall into the middle will invariably cause trouble. As a rule of thumb, if an issue is important enough to be included in a written lease in the first place (such as the provision of a parking spot), it’s hard to imagine how it could also be classed as “insubstantial.”
Just as the landlord can’t tinker with the lease terms while the lease is still in effect, neither can you. The landlord is entitled to hold you to your bargain, just as you can with respect to him. This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t try some creative negotiating. To convince your landlord to change the terms of a rental agreement or a lease midterm, show him that the change is one or more of the following: