A residential lease agreement is a type of contract between someone who owns housing and someone who wants to live in it. The contract governs how each side uses, takes care of and pays for the property in question. As with all contracts, it doesn't necessarily have to be written.
There are four different types of contracts that exist between landlords and tenants.
1. Fixed-term tenancy (also known as “tenancy for years”)
A fixed-term tenancy is a rental agreement that ends on a specific date. Typically, fixed-term leases last for a year—so, for instance, a lease starting on September 1st would end on August 31st of the following year. However, fixed-term leases could potentially be as short as a month or as long as five or 10 years (although usually only commercial leases are that long).
Under a fixed-term lease, the terms of the lease agreement are locked in until the agreed-upon end date. A landlord can’t raise the rent or kick out a tenant for no reason until the lease expires. And a tenant can't break a fixed-term lease early without their landlord's agreement—except in a handful of specific scenarios.
2. Periodic tenancy
A periodic tenancy is a lease agreement that has no set end date. It automatically renews at the end of each “period”: it can be weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even yearly (although a month-to-month agreement is the most common type of periodic tenancy). Periodic tenancies can be established by a written, signed lease agreement—but often they are created through a verbal agreement and don’t involve a written lease.
A periodic tenancy ends when either the tenant or the landlord notifies the other person that they’d like to terminate the agreement. Typically, notice must be given at least a month in advance for month-to-month leases, although the exact requirements vary depending on state law.
3. Tenancy at sufferance (or holdover tenancy)
A tenancy at sufferance happens when a tenant stays past the expiration date of their lease—either the end date on a fixed-term lease, or the date listed on a notice of termination for a periodic tenancy. Until the landlord decides to either treat the tenant as a trespasser and evict them, or accept their continued rent payments and create a new month-to-month tenancy, the tenant is considered a tenant at sufferance, or a holdover tenant.
4. Tenancy at will
A tenancy at will is a kind of informal agreement between a tenant and landlord. This type of tenancy is established when the tenant takes possession of a unit with the landlord’s permission, but without specifying how long they’ll stay or whether they’ll pay rent. (As soon as rent payments are agreed upon, a tenancy at will typically becomes a periodic tenancy.) A common example of a tenancy at will would be someone allowing their friend to crash on the couch for a few months rent-free.
Even though they don’t pay rent, at-will tenants have certain rights. They can’t be kicked out with no warning. In California, for instance, a landlord must give an at-will tenant 30 days’ written notice before forcing them out—similar to the process for terminating a month-to-month tenancy.
Finally, keep in mind that the exact legal definition of these terms varies slightly by state. Some states consider any periodic tenancy without a written lease agreement to be a tenancy at will, even if the tenant pays a set amount of rent each month.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.