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Signing a Lease or Rental Agreement FAQs

Elegant brownstones and townhouses in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn, New York City

Answers to your frequently asked questions about rent increases, late charges, rental terms, and security deposits. When these become legal issues, they are handled by landlord-tenant laws in each state.

Click the questions below to jump to the answer you need:

Are There Restrictions on How Much a Landlord Can Raise the Rent?

When Can a Landlord Raise the Rent?

If a rent control ordinance does not apply, a landlord can raise the rent after giving the tenant proper written notice. Generally, the landlord may increase the rent for a month-to-month tenancy by giving the tenant a 30-day notice. It is important to check your applicable state's renter law because some states require a landlord to give 45 or 60 days notice to a periodic tenant.

How Does a Landlord Raise the Rent?

To raise the rent on leased property, the landlord must wait until the end of the lease term, unless the tenant agrees or the terms of the lease allow it. At the end of the tenancy, the landlord and the tenant may enter into a new lease with new terms regarding the rent, or they may continue the expired lease on a month-to-month basis.

How Much Can a Landlord Raise the Rent By?

Rent control ordinances limit rent increases on rent-controlled properties. Typically, a landlord may raise the rent by a certain percentage each year. Most city and county ordinances also allow a landlord to raise the rent when a tenant moves out or if the landlord receives the Rent Control board's approval.

How Do I Know If My Home Is Rent Controlled?

Rent control laws only apply to specific properties, usually older residential properties built before a particular time. Rent control ordinances exist in communities in California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia. For more information about rent increases, you can refer to local rent control ordinances.

When Is Rent Due?

A landlord can require a tenant to pay rent on any day of the month or even multiple times per month. 

For example, a landlord can make rent due on the day of the month that the tenant moved in or can have the tenant pay rent on the first and fifteenth of every month. In most circumstances, though, rent is due on the first day of the month. In many states, if the due date falls on a weekend or a legal holiday, the rent is due the next business day.

How Much Can a Landlord Charge for a Security Deposit?

A landlord can collect a security deposit from a tenant to cover the cost of damage and unpaid rent. The money for damages is used to make the rental property ready for a new tenant. Landlords should expect some "normal wear" from renters living in a place for months, but some can be very strict on the damage they will and will not overlook.

 Every state has different guidelines:

  • Half of the states prohibit a landlord from charging a tenant more than one to two times the rent. For example, if the rent is $1,000, the safety deposit usually cannot be higher than $1,000.
  • Other states allow any amount to be charged for the security deposit. Often this is one month's rent, so if the rent is $1,300, the deposit will be another $1,300.

Some states also require the landlord to place the security deposit in a bank account and to pay the tenant interest on the deposit after the tenancy ends. You can learn about tips for rent and security deposits to help avoid problems.

How Do I Get My Security Deposit Back?

After a tenant vacates a rental unit, the landlord must return the unused amount of the security deposit to the tenant within the time specified by state law. If the tenancy ends with an eviction, you may not get the security deposit back.

What Is the Difference Between a Rental Agreement and a Lease?

There is no strict legal difference between a rental agreement and a lease agreement. 

In some instances, a rental agreement or a periodic tenancy may refer to a short-term rental contract. The term can be for any amount of time, but month-to-month leases are the most common. 

lease agreement, also known as a fixed-term lease agreement, allows the tenant to rent the property for a set term. Most lease agreements are for six months or a year. The terms are unalterable during the lease unless the tenant agrees to the changes. Unlike a rental agreement, a lease does not automatically renew upon termination. Instead, a lease becomes a month-to-month tenancy if the landlord allows the tenant to remain in the rental unit and pay rent after the lease ends.

What Is a Month-To-Month Rental Agreement?

Each month the tenancy automatically renews for a new term unless the landlord or the renter ends the tenancy by giving a 30 day written notice. Changes to the terms of the rental agreement can be made by providing the appropriate written notice.

What Terms in a Lease or Rental Agreement Should a Tenant Be Aware Of?

The following issues are warning signs that your tenant rights could be in jeopardy:

  1. Terms that favor the landlord and not the renter (terms should be fair for both people)
  2. Illegal terms
  3. Blank spaces on a lease or rental agreement

What Terms Unfairly Favor a Landlord?

A renter should be cautious when signing a lease or rental agreement that contains terms that unfairly favor the landlord. These can be harmful to the renter over time, such as:

  • Automatic rent increases that are based on the landlord's "increased operating costs"
  • Shared utility meters
  • An agreement to obey "future rules" implemented by the landlord

What Lease Terms are Considered Illegal?

Some provisions violate the law. In many states, the inclusion of the following terms will result in the invalidation of the lease or rental agreement:

  • "Hold harmless" clauses -- This means a renter gives up their right to sue the landlord
  • A provision that waives the tenant's right to a refund of a security deposit
  • A waiver of the landlord's duty to keep the premises habitable
  • A requirement that permits the landlord unrestricted entry (beyond what the law allows)

What Do Blank Spaces on Lease Paperwork Mean?

A renter should always avoid signing a lease or rental agreement with blank spaces. These likely mean the landlord does not know exact dates and details yet, so they fill-in-the-blanks later. However, a landlord could fill blank spaces in with dates, terms, or statements that you do not agree to. Later on, they could use this lease to get you in trouble with the law. Never sign a contract without dates and terms already printed out.

Is There a Grace Period for Paying Rent Late?

Most state laws do not recognize a legal grace period for paying rent late. In fact, a landlord can deliver a "pay rent or quit" notice the day after the rent is due. Some landlords, however, will include a grace period in the lease or rental agreement.

Can a Landlord Charge a Late Fee?

A landlord can charge a tenant a late fee when rent is received after the due date. A landlord must include the late fees in the rental or lease agreement. Some states limit the amount a landlord can charge in fees, but even states without limitations will prohibit charging unreasonably high fees. Typically, a late charge of 4% to 5% of the rent is acceptable.

What Happens If I Do Not Pay My Rent?

Your landlord or lease agreement may have penalties, and the next steps already in place. Likely, you will be given a "pay rent or quit" notice or an immediate eviction notice. With a landlord's consent, you may have a few days or a week to vacate. If you do not leave when asked they may sue you in an eviction lawsuit.

If you have the rent money but are having paycheck or banking issues, or problems with your online rent payment app, you should tell your landlord right away. With proper notice about an app or technical issue, your landlord may be understanding, or you may be able to find effective defenses to eviction.

What Happens If I Pay My Rent, but My Landlord Claims I Didn't?

This could be a misunderstanding or might be an indicator of bad behavior from a landlord. You may want to move properties anyway, or you can find an attorney to handle the eviction lawsuit. This may involve showing proof of your payment, explaining your side of the story, and suing your landlord for their false claim.

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