What is a Lease?
The best way to think of a lease is this: it is a contract
that specifies what you and your landlord agree to do and provide
to each other. Since most landlords require you to sign a
lease before you move into your new place, it is important to know
exactly what you are signing. A lease outlines the
responsibilities and obligations of both the owner and tenant(s) of
a particular apartment or house. It details the rules by
which landlords and tenants agree to live. Once signed a
lease governs what landlords and tenants can and cannot do.
Should you become involved in a legal proceeding, courts will
generally hold you to everything you have signed. Leases
therefore are documents of extreme importance.
Always Read It Before You Sign It
Keep in mind that leases are legally binding. If you
and your roommates sign a lease, you are all bound by the
terms of the agreement. Moreover, you and your roommates are
jointly responsible in most cases. So if your lease states
that the rent is $1,000 a month, then (unless your lease states
otherwise) you and your roommates are collectively responsible for
the entire sum each month. If one person does not contribute
her or his share, then all tenants on the lease are equally
responsible for the missing amount. Be sure that you can
count on those with whom you are signing a lease. Your legal
and financial well-being depends upon their reliability. It is
highly advisable to have a lawyer look at a copy of the proposed
lease before signing it.
A landlord is similarly bound to the terms of the lease.
Once a lease is signed, no one can be made to accept additional
provisions while the lease is in effect. Written leases are
not required. It is up to the parties to decide whether the
lease will be signed or not. If the lease is signed, it is
strongly recommend that you obtain a copy of it. If the
landlord seems reluctant to provide a copy or promises that one
will be delivered, you may withhold your signature until you
actually receive your copy.
In cases where there is no written agreement, the lease can be
enforceable as an oral contract. Realize that verbal leases,
by their very nature, are difficult to substantiate should they
become subjects of legal action involving disputed facts. It
is usually in the best interest of tenants and landlords to have a
written lease. If you have never signed a lease with your
landlord, do not worry. If you have been paying rent (and
have the receipts or cancelled checks to prove it) and the landlord
has accepted it, then you are a tenant and are entitled to all the
rights accorded tenants under state law. In such cases, you
do in fact have an oral agreement. In this case, you should
ask your landlord for a receipt every time you pay your
Paying Your Rent Late
Many leases provide for the payment of late charges if the rent is
not paid by a certain day each month. This charge is supposed
to cover the money lost by the landlord as a result of the late
payment. Courts will usually enforce late charges if they are
reasonable and are spelled out in the lease. However, if the
landlord knows or should know that your monthly income regularly
does not arrive by a certain day, he/she should pick a later date
that is fair to both of you and include it as part of the written
Late charges may not be enforced if the reason the tenant did
not pay the rent when due was because the landlord failed to make
needed repairs. Tenants should have proof of bad conditions
in the rental. Courts may not enforce late charges in
non-payment of rent cases unless there is a written agreement
signed by a tenant stating that late charges are to be considered
part of the “rent”. In either case the tenant may want to
consult an attorney before they decide not to pay their
• Negotiate a different rent due date if it will help you
pay the rent on time.
• Understand your lease’s late charge policy.
• Do not pay a late charge if such a charge is not included in
the lease you signed.
Renewing and/or Terminating Your
Many yearly leases, if written, will have a section
explaining how you can renew the lease. A yearly lease that
is not resigned automatically becomes a month-to-month lease when
the written lease expires – unless you have moved out.
Landlords are also bound to the terms of the lease. Once the
lease is signed, changes to the lease can be made, through both the
tenant(s) and landlord must agree to sign the amended version of
Leases may contain clauses detailing the conditions under which
the lease can be ended prematurely. Sometimes a landlord may
require only 30 or 60 days notice for renewing or vacating the
apartment. If this is the case, it will say so in your
lease. Otherwise, you are bound to the conditions of the
agreement for the entire period set forth in the lease. If
you signed a 12-month lease, then you and your roommates are
responsible for, among, other things 12 months’ worth of rent.
Likewise, a landlord cannot end a lease ahead of time except under
well-defined circumstances, unless one of the few situations occur
and in most cases they must tell you in writing what they are
It is extremely important that you make every effort to uncover
problems with prospective rental before you sign the lease.
In addition to visiting units, ask the current tenants about
problems they have had with either the structure, the landlord, or
any housing code violations at that rental. You many not
uncover anything wrong, but your efforts may mean fewer headaches
for the duration of your lease.
Landlords can put clauses into your lease that allow or restrict
certain actions in the rental property, and it is incredibly
important to be aware of these. Inspect your lease carefully
as you would inspect the physical condition of the rental.
For example, do not sign a lease with blank spaces in it.
Some clauses in leases are there at the discretion of the
landlord. You may come across such items as these:
• No subletting or assigning of the lease is permitted (or
not without written consent by the landlord.)
• No pets allowed.
• Tenants must provide the landlord with copies of the
• Tenants are required to obtain rental insurance.
Some clauses in the lease may be illegal, for
• Your security deposit is non-refundable.
• Tenants may not have cable television.
• The landlord is not responsible for repair and maintenance
of the rental.
When Fellow Tenants Violate the Rent
If a tenant is violating any part of the lease, bring it to his/her
attention. If they persist in violating the lease, call a
group meeting. Discuss the issue and try to come to an
acceptable resolution to the matter. He/she should understand
that their actions could cost them time and money, especially if
the problem results in a court action. Remember that all of
you signed the lease. This (generally) makes each tenant
individually and jointly responsible for every legal provision in
the lease. One person’s violation of the lease is the
responsibility of all the tenants. If you fail to pay your
rent, the whole group is in default – unless you make up the
difference. Depending upon the seriousness of the violation
and the nature of your relationship, you may want to speak to the
landlord about the matter. Some landlords will help you exert
pressure on the offending party. In some instances, you may
want to consult with an attorney.