Apartment Leases: What Every Renter Needs to Know

September 04, 2017
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More than 12 million students have returned to college over the past month. Amid the flurry of registering for classes and ordering textbooks, many rushed through an important transaction that could heavily influence their success or failure over the coming year: leasing an apartment.After spending days searching rental websites and touring apartments, many students are tempted to snatch the keys from the landlord and sign whatever lease is put in front of them. These are legal documents that delineate both their rights and their responsibilities, and all renters, not just students, need to fully understand them before they agree to them. Renters also need to understand that leases can be negotiated.That is particularly the case for students who are renting private apartments instead of university-affiliated dorms, an increasing trend according to the Los Angeles Times. To assist those who are in the process of signing a lease, here are a few of the typical elements of a residential lease and some of the more nuanced provisions to look out for in the paperwork.THE FUNDAMENTALS OF A LEASE: WHO, WHAT, WHENA residential lease agreement is between the owner/manager of a property (known in legalese as the “lessor”) and the tenant (the “lessee”) to establish the terms of the tenancy. As such, it should always delineate these fundamentals:Names and contact information of both the lessor and the lessees; be sure any roommates are included on the lease sothey are held to the same requirements;Address (including unit number) and a basic description of the property to be rented;Length of the tenancy (with specific dates, typically amounting to a year);Amount and due dates of monthly rent, as well as timelines and penalties for late payment;Whether the landlord is responsible for utilities (and if so, whether he/she will set limits upon your utility usage);Amount, due date, and conditions surrounding return of a security deposit;Rules and any associated fees/security deposits for pets, smoking, etc.;Responsibility for repairs and general upkeep of the property.These items are the bare bones for a sound residential lease. If you find any of these terms to be missing from your lease, consider it a red flag and bring it up with the property owner or manager immediately.WATCH OUT: POTENTIAL NUANCESOften, you or your landlord will want more than the bare minimum for your lease agreement. If you see one of the clauses below in your lease, make sure you understand it fully. If you don’t see one of these in your lease, consider whether you’d like to negotiate the agreement to include it before you sign.Lease break procedure and fees: Landlords and management companies often charge a fee for the early termination of your lease (from a couple months’ rent up to the remainder of the lease term). However, many states require a “duty to mitigate,” meaning landlords must make a reasonable effort to re-rent the property and eventually release you from your financial obligations.Automatic renewal clause: Some agreements will stipulate that you are expected to leave the property on the end date of the lease, and others will state that the lease is automatically renewed (often on a month-to-month basis thereafter). Pay attention to which (if any) of these scenarios is included, as well as whether you must provide written notice of your intent to move (and how long that notice must be, such as 30 or 60 days).Modifications: If you have your heart set on red dining room walls, you’ll want to check whether the lease has any provisions about making significant changes to the property. Sometimes exceptions can be made ahead of time, but make sure that before you start knocking down walls, you get it in writing in the lease.Sublet provisions: Summer internship, sudden career change, crazy roommate… there are dozens of reasons why you might end up wanting to sublet your place for a few months. Many residential leases have provisions — voidable by state law in some cases — that affirm whether sublets are permitted and any related protocol. They may answer questions like: Does your roommate have to agree to have a subletter? Do they get any discretion over who you sublet to? To whom does the subletter pay monthly rent? Read for these carefully, because it could mean the difference between recouping your rent or losing it entirely.Damage and destruction clause: Damage and destruction (D&D) clauses spell out if and how a landlord would be responsible in case of a natural disaster. If you’re not sure whether to get renter’s insurance, the terms associated with this clause may help you to choose one way or the otherSIGN AND SEAL ITOnce you’ve carefully read over your lease and made any necessary changes, make sure you, your landlord, and any roommates you may have added their signature to the lease (if a roommate’s name is not on the document, they are not legally liable for the rent). And finally, keep a copy of your lease for future reference and rest easy in your new digs knowing that you fully understand every word of it.To learn more about how a LegalShield membership can help you to understand your lease and protect your from future headaches, click here. NOTE: Portions of this blog originally appeared at Shake.