Signing a Lease

Get informed before you sign on the dotted line

A lease is a written agreement between two or more parties that outlines a series of agreements regarding the rental of a residential property over a set period of time (usually one year). A lease is a legal contract, provided its terms don’t violate any laws. You should never sign a lease unless you are able to and intend to fulfill the obligations contained in it.

The information here doesn’t cover all the legal issues related to leases, but it’s a great place to start. For complete legal advice, consult an attorney.

Before You Sign

So you’ve found an apartment that you love. That’s great, but your work isn’t quite done. Before you sign your lease and make things official, make sure that you get a copy of it in advance from your potential landlord. This way, you can make sure you have the time to:

  • Read it. Go over the entire lease carefully and make sure you understand all of the terminology. Find out if there are any rules not listed in the lease (e.g. no painting the walls). Find out if you have any responsibilities not listed (e.g. mowing the lawn). To be safe, include everything in the lease.
  • Determine how to terminate it. Find out how much notice you have to give to terminate the lease. Thirty days’ notice is fairly standard. Does it have to be written notice? Never sign a lease with an automatic renewal clause.
  • Protect your privacy. Make sure that there is a clause in the lease stating that the landlord must give notice prior to entering the premises. Other than in the case of an emergency, a landlord must give at least 24 hours’ notice. Never allow your landlord unlimited access to your apartment.
  • Note all pre-existing damage. Take pictures of the apartment before you move in. Make a list of everything that is broken or damaged (including stains in the carpet and holes in the wall). Have your landlord sign this list so that you can’t be blamed for the damage when you move out.
  • Get your pets approved. If you have a pet, get written permission to bring it inside the apartment.
  • Have the money. Never sign a lease that you can’t afford. If the lease is for 12 months, you need to be able to guarantee you can pay for 12 months. Keep in mind that if you have a roommate who leaves before the lease expires, you may be responsible for paying his or her share of the rent for the remainder of the lease. Make sure there is no clause in the lease that allows your rent to be increased during the term of the lease. Find out what the penalty is if you miss a rent payment.

After you’ve gone through all these steps, you’re ready to sign. Once you’ve signed, make sure you get a copy of the lease to keep handy. In fact, you should also keep copies of all receipts you receive for rent checks and any other important documents relating to the rental property.

Verbal Leases

Not all landlords provide their tenants with a written lease. Some opt for a verbal agreement. Verbal leases qualify as oral contracts and are enforceable in court. They provide less protection for tenants because there is no proof of any of the agreed-upon terms. Written leases are always the best way to go, but if for some reason you must accept a verbal lease, make sure to keep records of all your receipts. It’s also a good idea to write down all the agreed-upon terms for your own records.

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