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Tenant Lease Agreement FAQs

Does a rental agreement or a lease have to be in writing?

No. Most states recognize oral leases or rental agreements that are for a year or less. However, oral agreements often lead to ambiguity about the obligations of each party since memories fade over time.

A written agreement will define the obligations and rights of the tenant and the landlord. A tenant lease agreement or rental agreement should include:

  • The names of the tenants and the landlords
  • The address of the rental unit, including the apartment number
  • The term of the tenant's occupancy
  • The rent amount the tenant will pay
  • The amount of the security deposit
  • Whether the tenant may have pets
  • Whether parking is available
  • Whether the landlord or the tenant pays for utilities
  • Whether subletting is allowed
  • How many people may live in the rental unit
  • The reasons the landlord may enter the unit
  • The party responsible for paying the legal fees when a dispute arises

Rental and lease agreement forms are usually available at office supply stores and in books about landlord and tenant rights, or in FindLaw's form store.

What provisions are prohibited in residential rental agreements and leases?

State laws vary, but rental agreements and leases may not contain certain provisions. The most common prohibited provisions include:

  • The exclusion of tenants based on race, color, national origin, or sex
  • The prohibition of children, unless the property is a senior housing facility
  • A tenant waiver of the right to sue the landlord
  • A tenant waiver of the right to a refund of a security deposit
  • A waiver of the landlord's duty to keep the premises habitable

In some states, when a landlord includes provisions prohibited by law the lease or rental agreement is invalidated. The tenant may be able to recover damages and attorney fees if the landlord was aware that the provisions violated the law.

Is there a difference between a rental agreement and a lease?

Yes. A rental agreement, or a periodic or month-to-month agreement, is a written contract for a short-term tenancy. Most rental agreements are for 30-days, but can be for other periods. With a short-term tenancy, the landlord may also change the rental terms, such as the rent amount, by providing proper notice to the tenant.

A lease agreement, or a fixed-term lease, is a written contract for a term of tenancy that is usually six-months or a year. For the term of the tenancy, the rights and obligations defined in the tenant lease agreement cannot change until the term expires or upon the tenant's agreement in writing. When the lease expires, the parties may create a new lease, the landlord may decline to renew the lease, or if the tenant remains in the rental unit, the tenancy automatically becomes a month-to-month agreement.

Are there limits on how much a landlord can charge for a security deposit? What can a landlord use a security deposit for?

In at least half of the states, a landlord may not require the tenant to pay more than one to two times the rent for a security deposit. In many states, the landlord must place the security deposit in a separate account, and in some cases, the landlord must even pay the tenant interest on the deposit.

A landlord may charge the tenant a security deposit to cover the cost of unpaid rent, damage, and for cleaning dirt and grime beyond normal wear and tear. Once the tenant moves out, the landlord can use the deposit to make repairs that did not result from ordinary wear and tear. A landlord, for instance, may not charge a tenant to replace a worn hallway carpet, but can charge the tenant for the cost of fixing large holes in the wall. The landlord must return any unused portion of the security deposit within the time specified by a state's guidelines.

Under what circumstances can a landlord raise the rent or evict a tenant from a rent-controlled property?

Rent control laws limit the amount a landlord can charge for rent and the reasons for terminating a tenancy. California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia are the only states with rent control laws. Rent control boards, either elected by voters or appointed by the mayor or the city council, determine the amount of rental increases. Rent controlled properties are usually limited to older buildings built before a specific time.

Rent control ordinances allow a landlord to increase the rent under certain conditions. The most common include:

  • Annual rent increase: the rent control board sets the amount, usually a percentage, that a landlord can increase the rent each year
  • Increased operating costs: a landlord may request the board approve a rent increase when the cost of maintenance or property taxes have risen
  • "Vacancy decontrol": when a tenant vacates the property or renews the lease, a landlord may raise the rent as much as allowed by a specified percentage or by as much as the landlord determines

Rent control ordinances also control when a landlord can evict a tenant. Typically, ordinances allow eviction under a few circumstances:

  • The tenant violates a tenant lease agreement or rental agreement term, such as the failure to pay rent
  • The landlord plans to live in the unit
  • The tenant is a nuisance or engages in illegal activity
  • The property will no longer be used as a rental

A landlord may not evict a tenant unless there is a legal reason for doing so.

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