Your lease or rental agreement may be as short as one page or longer than ten. It may be typed or handwritten, easy to understand, or full of legalese. Most landlords use preprinted forms they buy in stationery stores, order from a landlords' association, oe find in a software program. Nolo publishes several useful resources, including downloadable residential leases.
Most leases and rental agreements contain “the usual suspects” of rental provisions or clauses. You'll often see them as numbered paragraphs. Unfortunately, the provisions are often dressed up in fancy legal language or buried in gargantuan sentences. Following is a list of the most common terms you'll find in a lease. Other articles on the Nolo site go into details on state rules relevant to lease terms on security deposit, rent, notice of entry, and other issues.
- Names and addresses of landlord and tenants. The tenant may be referred to as the “lessee” and the landlord as the “lessor.” They may also be called the “parties” to the agreement, and these are the people who will sign the lease or rental agreement (along with a cosigner, if any). If a property manager or company is authorized to receive notices and legal papers on the landlord's behalf, you should also see that name and address.
- Rental property address and details. The property address is often called “the premises.” Your lease or rental agreement may also include details on any furnishings, parking space, storage areas, or other extras that come with the rental property.
- Term of the tenancy. The term is the length of the rental. The document should include the beginning date and whether it's a month-to-month tenancy or a lease. If it's a lease, the ending date should also be specified. Leases often have a term of one year. The term of the tenancy is usually the primary difference beween a lease and a rental agreement, and the choice is typically the landlord's.
- Rent. Leases and rental agreements usually specify the amount of rent due each month, when and where it's due, acceptable forms of payment, and late fees. Except in areas of rent control, there's no limit on how much rent a landlord can charge. The more popular the area, the more you can expect to pay. However, it's not legal for a landlord to quote a higher rent based on a tenant's race, sex or other group characteristic.
- Deposits and fees. Expect to see details on the dollar amount of a security deposit, cleaning deposit, or last month's rent.
- Utilities. The landlord should state who pays for what utilities. Normally, landlords pay for garbage and sometimes for water, if there is a yard. Tenants usually pay for other services, such as Internet, gas, and electricity.
- Condition of the rental unit. Most leases and rental agreements include a clause in which the tenant agrees that the premises are in habitable (livable) condition and promises to alert the landlord to any defective or dangerous condition.
- Tenant's repair and maintenance responsibilities. A carefully written lease or rental agreement will include a statement that makes the tenant responsible for keeping the rental premises clean and in good condition and obligates you to reimburse the landlord for the cost of repairing damage caused by your abuse or neglect. Some agreements go further and spell out specific tenant responsibilities, such as fixing clogged drains or broken windows. Many leases and rental agreements also tell tenants what they can't do in the way of repairs—such as painting walls or adding built-in bookshelves without the landlord's permission.
- When and how landlords may enter the rental unit. Many state access laws specify when landlords may legally enter rented premises—for example, to deal with an emergency or make repairs—and the amount of notice required. Some landlords include this information in the lease or rental agreement. Others are ignorant of these laws and write entry provisions that are illegal.
- Extended absences. Some leases and rental agreements require a tenant to notify the landlord in advance if you will be away from the premises for a certain number of consecutive days (often seven or more). Such clauses may give the landlord the right to enter the rental unit during your absence to maintain the property as necessary and to inspect for damage and needed repairs. You'll most often see this type of clause if you live in a cold-weather place where, in case of extremely cold temperatures, landlords want to drain the pipes to guard against breakage.
- Limits on tenant behavior. Most form leases and rental agreements contain a clause forbidding tenants from using the premises or adjacent areas, such as the sidewalk in front of the building, in such a way as to violate any law or ordinance, including laws prohibiting the use, possession, or sale of illegal drugs. These clauses also prohibit tenants from intentionally damaging the property or creating a nuisance by annoying or disturbing other tenants or nearby residents—for example, by continuously making loud noise. Leases and rental agreements may prohibit smoking, in individual units as well as in common areas.
- Restrictions on number of occupants. Most landlords will set a limit to the number of people who can live in each rental unit. Landlords are not free to set unreasonably low figures (for example, two people for a two-bedroom flat) in order to maintain a “quiet atmosphere” or to reduce wear and tear. Federal law requires landlords to allow two persons per bedroom unless the landlord can point to legitimate business reasons that justify a lower number (this is difficult to do).
- Restrictions on use of the property. Landlords may throw in all kinds of language limiting tenant use of the rental property and who may stay there. These may be minor (for example, no waterbeds, plants on wood floors, or bikes in the hallway) or quite annoying. These may be in a separate set of rules and regulations or individual clauses. Basically, landlords can set any kind of restriction they want—as long as it's not discriminatory or retaliatory or otherwise violates your state law.
- No pets. Landlords have the right to prohibit all pets, or to restrict the types allowed—for example, forbidding dogs or cats, but allowing birds. However, landlords may not prohibit “service” or “comfort” animals used by physically or mentally disabled people, as provided by the fair housing laws. Many landlords spell out pet rules—for example, that the tenants will keep the yard free of all animal waste or that dogs will always be on leash.
- No home businesses. Landlords may prohibit tenants from running a business from your home, by including a clause specifying that the premises are “for residential purposes only.” The concern here is generally about increased traffic and liability exposure if one of your customers or business associates is hurt on the premises. Obviously, working at home on your computer is not likely to bother your landlord, and may not even be noticed.
If you want to run a day care operation in your rented home, your landlord may not be able to flatly prohibit it. Laws in some states, including California and New York, are designed to encourage family-run day care. Landlords in these states may limit the number of children, however, and any business you run must comply with state fire and health regulations regarding minimum size of the facility and fire exits.
- No assignments or sublets without landlord permission. Most careful landlords will not let tenants turn their rental over to another tenant (called “assignment”), let someone live there for a limited time while you're away (called a “sublet”), or let you rent an extra bedroom to another occupant, with you as the “landlord” (also called a sublet), without their written consent.
Lease clauses often specifically prohibit tenants from renting rooms on Airbnb or similar short-term rental services.
- Limits on guest stays. It's common for landlords to limit overnight guests, such as allowing a guest for no more than ten days in any six-month period, with written approval required for longer stays. Landlords do this to keep long-term guests from gaining the status of full-fledged tenants who have not been screened or approved and who have not signed the lease or rental agreement.
- Attorney fees and court costs in a lawsuit. Many leases and rental agreements specify who will pay the costs of a lawsuit if you go to court over the meaning or implementation of a part of your rental agreement or lease—for example, a dispute about rent or security deposits. These clauses do not apply to legal disputes that arise independently of the lease or rental agreement—for example, lawsuits over alleged discrimination. A common and evenhanded attorney fees clause will explicitly require the losing side in a landlord-tenant dispute concerning the lease or rental agreement—whether it's the landlord or the tenant—to pay attorney fees and court costs (filing fees, service of process charges, deposition costs, and so on) of the winning party. Watch out for clauses that make only the losing tenant pay for the owner's lawyer's fees. In several states, these unfair arrangements will be interpreted to run both ways, even though the landlord didn't intend it that way (in other words, if you win, the landlord has to pay your costs).
- Grounds for termination of tenancy. You'll often see a general clause stating that any violation of the lease or rental agreement by you, or by your guests, is grounds for terminating the tenancy according to the procedures established by state or local laws. Rules for terminating a tenancy differ depending on whether or not you sign a lease or rental agreement, and vary by state (and, in some cases, by city, if the property is under some form of rent control).
If you don't understand a clause or term included in your lease or rental agreement, or question whether something is an illegal lease term (such as one that negates your rights to habitable housing or to notice of landlord's access to the rental), get more information on state landlord-tenant laws
before you sign. Contact a local tenants' rights group (you'll find these and other resources on the HUD website
) if you have questions about a particular clause or legal right. Your state consumer protection agency
may also have useful information.
And keep in mind that, in some cases, you may be able to negotiate different lease terms (such as getting the landlord to rewrite a "no pets" clause to allow you to keep a cat or allowing more roommates in a rental); you'll have better luck negotiating lease terms in less competitive rental markets.
Whatever you negotiate with your landlord--whether it's to edit, add, or delete a clause or rental term -- make sure your lease or rental agreement reflects these changes before you sign it. If not, prepare and send your landlord what's called a "letter of understanding." This spells out what you and the landlord have mutually agreed to (or the landlord has promised), such as that the landlord will reimburse you for the cost of painting the bathroom, to repair the oven before you move in, or to allow you to have an extra parking space. Ask the landlord to respond in writing to your letter of understanding (by a specified deadline), agreeing with the letter or correcting any errors or misunderstandings. This type of letter will be very helpful should you end up in court over a dispute regarding an issue regarding your tenancy.