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What to Look for When Signing a Lease

Leases are usually standardized at the state level, but may include some landlord-friendly terms. Make sure you ask the right questions before you sign for an apartment.

If you're thinking about signing a lease, the chances are high that it's extremely long and full of fine print. You can't be blamed for signing and initialing without reading the entire thing carefully—but you'll have more leverage if you understand the basics of leases and know which terms to watch out for.

Remember: it's always possible to discuss and negotiate changes in the lease. You can clarify terms or add new ones, as long as you and the landlord both initial next to them. The same goes for crossing things out. These questions should help guide you through the important parts of the lease to make sure it works for you.

How long is your lease?

If you signed a lease agreement (or you're thinking of signing one), then it will likely be a fixed term or a month-to-month tenancy.

Fixed term: This is the most common type of lease. It automatically ends on a specified end date, usually one or two years. As a renter, the benefit of a two-year lease is that your rent won’t go up for at least two years. This situation benefits landlords as well, ensuring they won’t need to fill the space for two years.

Month-to-month: This can be oral or written and automatically renews after a specified number of days, unless you or your landlord gives advance notice. Your rights as a tenant are the same as when you’re in a fixed-term tenancy.

When and how should you pay rent?

Your lease will state the amount you must pay in rent each month, when the payment is due, and how exactly the rent should be paid. Check to see that your landlord has included the preferred or acceptable payment methods and if there are any charges associated with a rent check bouncing.

Is there a grace period or late fee?

Check to see if your lease mentions a late fee or a grace period for late rent. You want these to be specified in your lease because it prevents your landlord from making any changes while the lease is active.

How much is the security deposit?

Your lease should always state the amount of the security deposit, what it can be used to pay for at the end of your tenancy, and where it will be held. Even if this is governed by state law, it’s a good idea to have it spelled out in your lease.

What’s the process for subletting?

If there’s a chance you’ll need to sublet your apartment, consider including specific information about the subletting process in your lease. This can cut down on confusion or disagreements in the future. Pretty much all leases will have a term that says you are allowed to sublet or assign your lease as long as you get landlord approval. You should ask for your landlord to add a line specifying who they will approve and who they won't approve—this will make it harder for them to ignore or refuse your request, should you ever want to sublet or assign.

You can also ask that the lease outline in detail any reasons that your landlord may refuse a subtenant you recommend. It’s likely that your landlord will expect a subtenant to meet the same criteria they asked you to meet, but having this written explicitly in the lease is a good idea. Some states have reasonable refusal laws governing when and why a landlord can refuse a subtenant.

Are there any restrictions on additional tenants?

You also might see a term in your lease specifying the maximum number of occupants allowed to live in the unit. Make sure you're okay with this number and that it doesn't contradict state regulations on the topic—it's pretty common for states to specifically give tenants the right to live with one other person or with members of their immediate family.

Does the lease mention “joint and several liability?”

If you're signing a lease with someone else, look for the words "joint and several” and make sure you understand what that entails. In brief, this term means that if your co-tenant does anything wrong, it's as much your responsibility as it is theirs.

Are there any weird lifestyle restrictions?

Many leases will include a clause stating what a tenant can and can’t use the unit for. A typical lease will usually say that you can’t run a business out of the rental and can’t use it for any illegal activity. Some leases also include quiet hours or restrictions on having guests or pets. Keep an eye out for any strange restrictions you may not want to agree to.

Is your landlord responsible for repairs?

Keep an eye out for any terms that say something like “There is no warranty of habitability” or that tenants don't have the right to withhold rent if there is a break in basic services. In pretty much all states you do, legally, have this right. If you see a provision that says otherwise, you should ask to cross it out. In general, be vigilant for any illegal terms that may crop up in your lease—these can vary based on the state, but in general there are some tenants’ rights that you can never sign away.

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.