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By E. Drew Nelson, Attorney

Home ownership rates in the United States reached an all-time high of 69.20% in 2004; while there have been a few upticks, there has been a gradual decline in home ownership over the past decade. During the fourth quarter of 2016, the average home ownership rate was 63.7%[1].

Some people rent because they cannot afford to purchase a home, while others do so for convenience – they may move frequently and like the flexibility of renting, or they may prefer having a landlord to handle all the maintenance and repairs on the property.

Whether you are a tenant (also called the renter or lessee) or the landlord (the owner or lessor), having a signed lease agreement provides protection for both parties. If you will be renting a property from another party, here are some common things to look for:

  1. What is the term? Commonly leases may be for 12 months, but you may find leases that are written for shorter (or longer) terms, or operate on a month-to-month basis.
  2. What are the notice requirements? If you wish to terminate the lease or not to renew it, how much notice must you give to the other party? Can you terminate the lease verbally or via email, or do you have to sign a form at the rental office? Many leases have automatic renewal clauses, so you may end up obligated for another 12 months if you do not provide sufficient notice in the form the lease specifies.
  3. Are there extra costs involved? A friend leased an apartment that required all tenants to pay for valet trash service. While this was a nice feature, there was not a choice to remove your own trash. She paid an extra $25/month on top of the rent.
  4. If you break the lease by moving out early, what are the penalties? Most leases give the landlord the right to sue you for the full amount he or she would have collected under the lease agreement, though you may find leases that permit you to terminate them early under certain conditions, i.e., if you buy a home or can provide evidence of a job transfer. If you need to break the lease early, talk to the landlord; they may be willing to work with your or only hold you responsible if they cannot find another renter. Occasionally, there are instances where the landlord wishes to sell the property and will attempt to break the lease to give clear title to the buyer. If you are renting a house, check to see if the lease has a clause like this; if you agree to it, you may have to move again on relatively short notice.
  5. What obligations do you have as a tenant above and beyond payment of rent? Do you have to maintain the grounds of the property (say mow the yard and dispose of trash at a leased home)? Do you have a limit on the number of vehicles or people allowed on the property? Do you have obligations relating to maintenance of the property or systems such as HVAC, electrical or plumbing? These additional costs may impact your budget!

As a tenant, you have some common responsibilities:

  • You must pay your rent in full and on time; if you do not, expect that you may be charged late fees in accordance with the lease. Nonpayment of rent may result in eviction.
  • You must generally maintain the property in good and safe condition and not cause any damage absent normal wear and tear. Check the lease to see how the landlord handles requests for property improvements, i.e., if you want to paint the walls, add a ceiling fan or light fixture, etc.
  • You must follow other conditions of the lease that may restrict your use of the property. This may include such things as a limit on the number of guests you may have, how long those guests may stay, the number of vehicles you may park on the property and where you can park them, use of the fitness center or amenities, etc.)

On the other side of the coin, landlords also have some common responsibilities and duties under the law. Tenants should be aware of what landlords are obligated to do. They must:

  • Provide your leased space in a habitable and safe condition. You may wish to ask for a walk-through before signing the lease to ensure everything is up to par. In cases where problems occur afterwards, keep a record of all maintenance requests and follow-up.
  • Make reasonable and timely repairs upon proper notice. Ask what the process is to report problems – there may be an online system, or an email may suffice.
  • Properly maintain a tenant’s security deposit (if one was paid) as detailed under law. These funds must be kept separately from other monies collected by the landlord. Do note that some landlords have non-refundable deposits for certain things, i.e., a pet deposit.

If you are unsure about any of the terms or conditions in a lease you are asked to sign, or if you need a lease for a property you plan to rent out, it is always a good idea to speak with an attorney.