Understanding a Rental Lease Agreement

You love it. You want it. You're ready to sign on the dotted line, but stop and take a deep breath first. This is everything you need to know before signing that rental lease agreement.

What is a rental lease agreement?

A rental lease agreement is a legal document that sets out the terms for you to rent a residence from a landlord, apartment community or property management company.

The agreement protects you and the prospective landlord. Both of you need to abide by the rental lease agreement's terms.

It's smart to get a second set of eyes on the lease before you sign it. Colleen Wightman, a licensed Realtor and a leasing specialist based in Rochester, NY says, "Have a licensed real estate agent or, better yet, an attorney look at the lease agreement. You are legally bound once you put your signature on it…Let the landlord or property manager know at the time of signing that you've had it reviewed by an attorney. That will make the landlord pay attention; you are someone who knows what you're doing."

Reviewing a lease.

What's in this agreement?

The rental lease agreement starts off with the basics: your name, the date, the name of the person or entity who will be leasing the property to you and the property's physical and address.

While each lease is different, they will all cover the following information:

  • Arrangement to lease: There's an acknowledgment from both parties that you and the prospective landlord agree to the arrangement. The rental lease agreement will name the length of time, i.e., the number of months you will be renting for and when that begins and ends. This is either for a long-term or short-term duration.
  • Rent: It will state the rent amount, to whom you'll pay the rent; how you'll pay it (debit or credit card, some other electronic system, personal check) and when it's due. The lease agreement will state the day rent is due each month and what happens if you fail to pay the rent — such as late charges.
  • Additional monies: This section would discuss situations in which you might pay extra money in addition to the monthly rent. “These would be things like a non-refundable pet deposit or perhaps an additional month's rent in lieu of you having a perfect credit score," said Wightman.
  • Property use: This part clarifies who will be living in this rental — you alone? with a roommate? spouse? pet? — and it states that the apartment is only for residential purposes with no illegal activities permitted.
  • Apartment possession: You are not liable for the rent if the landlord or management company doesn't let you move in on the date promised. Your rent will then be pro-rated.
  • Security deposit: By signing the agreement you acknowledge that you will pay the landlord a specified amount of security deposit (usually equal to one month's rent). This money will cover any property damages that you incur. The landlord must notify you in writing when and how much of the security deposit they keep. Keep in mind, the security deposit is different from “last month's rent," money you pay upfront to cover the final month you will live in the apartment. In some states, the security deposit pays for that final month. Check your state laws regarding the use of security deposits. Also, check your state's laws regarding how your landlord holds your security deposit.
  • Addendums, provisions and disclosures, and amendments: This section lets you know that if you or the landlord/property management company want to modify this rental lease agreement in any way, it must be done in a written agreement signed by you (the tenant) and the landlord/property management company. What might you need to modify? Let's say the apartment comes with one parking space, but you've got a motorcycle and a car and you want to park your motorcycle on the side of the building if that's possible. “If you're augmenting what's offered — have it put into the lease because both parties have to agree to it," shared Wightman.

Is the rental agreement lease term flexible?

Yes! You might sign a short- or long-term lease.

Leases come in all sorts of durations. Maybe you can sign a lease that's longer than 12 months and can get a more favorable monthly rate. Or perhaps you need the apartment for less than 12 months. Maybe the landlord will agree to a six-month or even month-to-month lease, in which you actually rent one month at a time (this will likely be more expensive).

The bottom line is that anything like this needs discussing upfront, documented on the lease agreement and signed by both parties.

A couple reviewing a lease.

What if I need to break my lease agreement?

The short answer is, “Yes, you can…but."

There will be information on your lease agreement about the rules on “early release" — likely resulting in penalties for breaking your lease. You may have to give a certain amount of notice if you choose to do this. You may have to find another renter to take your place. Or, you might have a buyout clause.

Check your lease agreement upfront so that you can prepare in case this happens. And, always be honest and open with your landlord. You don't want to incur financial penalties or land in court.

What about working from home?

The coronavirus pandemic sent many of us into our bedrooms with our laptops. But if your rental contract says you're only using your apartment for residential purposes, will you get in hot water for working from home? As long as you're not inviting a third party into your home to conduct business, you're all right.

Fair housing and discrimination

Before you sign the lease, make sure to read through the fair housing laws. It's important to make sure that the person renting the apartment is in compliance with all fair housing laws.

Service animals can be a hot-button issue. Even if there's a no-pet rule, Wightman says “As long as you have all your paperwork in order, a landlord cannot deny renting to you because you have a service animal."

But make sure you get it into the lease that you have a service animal and that you're in compliance with any and all appropriate paperwork you may need to provide. Also, it's important to know that the landlord will likely ask for a non-refundable pet fee. It's best to prepare for that miscellaneous cost.

Sign of the times

Read through any sort of documentation that you're going to sign and be held accountable to. So often, people don't think about “the legal ramifications of signing something they're not thoroughly reading," said Wightman.

You may feel the urgency from this rental market, but take the time to go through the rental lease agreement. “Being aware upfront and being thorough is always in the renter's best interest," Wightman shared.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.
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Stacey FreedStacey Freed is an award-winning writer and former senior editor for Remodeling, a trade publication focused on the business of the remodeling and construction industry. As an independent writer, she continues to write about the building, design, architecture and housing industries. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and USA Today special interest publications, Realtor magazine, This Old House, Professional Builder and online at AARP, Forbes.com, House Logic and Sweeten.com among other places.

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