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Lease Primer

About Leases
A lease is a written agreement between you and your landlord. Once signed, a lease is a binding contract. In general, a lease will cover the following areas:
  1. Lease Term – Most leases are for a one-year term. Unless stated otherwise in the lease, most contain a clause allowing the lease to continue on a month-to-month basis. A month-to-month lease is an agreement for a one-month time period that is renewed automatically each month for another month until terminated by either side. Common practice is for a written lease to require 30-day notice. A tenant must give written notice of intent to terminate by mailing or hand delivering a copy to the landlord.
  2. Monthly Rent – This is the amount you and your landlord will have agreed to. The rent amount should be stated in writing in a lease.
  3. Security Deposit Amount – A security deposit is almost always required to offset the cost of repairing any property damage caused by you during the lease. Find out what the deposit covers and the conditions for a refund. You should inspect the property with the landlord and note any damages in writing and/or take photographs. Many states require landlords to deposit your security deposit into a separate, interest bearing account and pay you the interest it earns while you are living in the rental.
  4. Utilities/Services – This section states which utilities the Landlord will be responsible for and which utilities the Tenant will pay.
  5. Building Rules and Special Clauses – Many rental communities have a set of guidelines which helps the tenants co-habit peacefully and respectfully. These may be included in a lease.
A Word on Rent Control
Many cities have legislation on rent control. Rent control is a legal term that describes when a municipality, county, state or country imposes restrictions on property owners that regulate or prohibit rent increases. Most rent control laws allow for regulated rent increases. Get familiar with your city’s legislation on rent control and how it can affect you. Mostly, it will depend on what kind of rent control applies in you area. Generally, there are two types of rent control:
  • Rent Control - "Rent control" itself limits the amount of rent that can be charged to an individual by setting the amount by which rent can increase annually. Usually this amount is a set percentage of a price index. If a tenant moves, the rent can be increased, but the price can increase annually only as much as the set percentage allows.
  • Strict Rent Control - Under "strict rent control," landlords cannot raise the amount of rent even when the property is vacant.
Rent control also means that property managers and owners must provide tenants with just cause notice when serving a tenant with an eviction notice.

A lease can contain several types of different information. The most important thing to remember is that you should carefully read and understand your lease. If you have trouble understanding sections of the lease, ask someone you trust for help. Leases are not just formalities and, once signed by both parties, are fully enforceable whether or not you have read it. Most landlords use standard leases, but you can and may negotiate changes to clauses that you find unreasonable. To do this, cross out or amend the clause and both parties must initial the corrections on both your and your landlord's copies.
Keep in mind, the Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for anyone to be denied housing on the basis of color, sex, religion, or national origin. The local county government regulates tenant-landlord relations. For additional information, check the government section of your phone book under "Housing".

Understanding Your Lease
Before you sign anything, make sure you have read and re-read your lease. Make sure you understand all aspects of the lease. If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask! Here is some more advice to follow for a smooth lease process:
  • Carefully review all the important conditions of the tenancy before you sign on the dotted line. Your lease or rental agreement may contain a provision that you find unacceptable -- for example, restrictions on guests, pets, design alterations or running a home business.
  • Get everything in writing. This will avoid misunderstandings and disputes. Keep copies of any correspondence and follow up an oral agreement with a letter, setting out your understanding.
  • Protect your privacy rights. A common conflict between landlords and tenants is confusion over a landlord's right to enter a rental unit and a tenant's right to be left alone. If you understand your privacy rights (for example, the amount of notice your landlord must provide before entering), it will be easier to protect them.
  • Know your rights to live in a habitable rental unit -- and don't give them up. The vast majority of landlords are required to offer their tenants livable premises, including adequate weatherproofing; heat, water and electricity; and clean, sanitary and structurally safe premises. If your rental unit is not kept in good repair, you have a number of options, ranging from withholding a portion of the rent, to paying for repairs and deducting the cost from your rent, to calling the building inspector (who may order the landlord to make repairs), to moving out without liability for your future rent.
  • Keep communication open with your landlord. If there's a problem -- for example, if the landlord is slow to make repairs -- talk it over to see if the issue can be resolved short of a nasty legal battle.
  • Purchase renters' insurance to cover your valuables. Your landlord's insurance policy will not cover your losses. Renters' insurance typically costs $350 a year for a $50,000 policy that covers loss due to theft or damage caused by other people or natural disasters. It also covers you if you're sued by someone who claims to have been injured in your rental due to your carelessness.
  • Make sure the security deposit refund procedures are spelled out in your lease or rental agreement. To protect yourself and avoid any misunderstandings, make sure your lease or rental agreement is clear on the use and refund of security deposits, including allowable deductions.
  • Learn whether your building and neighborhood are safe, and what you can expect your landlord to do about it if they aren't. Get copies of any state or local laws that require safety devices such as deadbolts and window locks, check out the property's vulnerability to intrusion by a criminal and learn whether criminal incidents have already occurred on the property or nearby. If a crime is highly likely, your landlord may be obligated to take some steps to protect you.
  • Check to see how much advance notice you must give before moving at the end of your lease term. A 30-day written notice is normal when rent is paid monthly.
  • Know when to fight an eviction notice -- and when to move. Unless you have the law and provable facts on your side, fighting an eviction notice is usually short-sighted. If you lose an eviction lawsuit, you may end up hundreds (even thousands) of dollars in debt, which will damage your credit rating and ability to easily rent from future landlords.
By all means SAVE A COPY OF THE FINAL LEASE signed by you and the owner or manager. This is the most important document when it comes to settling an apartment disagreement. You should also keep a copy of the apartment/rental housing rules (sometimes called "community policies") for the same purpose. It's amazing how many people will sign documents without actually understanding or even reading them. Maybe the contract looked too long, or perhaps the language seemed confusing. It's okay. The time you spend completely understanding this contract will only benefit your position as a tenant.