Read Your Lease

I answer several questions every day about the relationship between landlords and tenants.  Nine-tenths of these questions come from the tenants:

“My landlord came in my house to fix a toilet.  Can I sue?”

“I’ve been renting a room from my buddy, and he wants me to move out.  Do I have to?”

“Can I have a satellite dish on my balcony?”

“My friend moved in with me, and the leasing agent says she has to leave.  Why?”

“My hot water doesn’t work.  What should I do?”

“My rent was late because the check got lost.  Now my landlord wants to charge me a late fee.”

“I want to paint my apartment.  Can I do that?”

“It is really hot in my apartment.  I want air conditioners installed, but my landlord days no.  How can I make her buy me air conditioners?”

“My wife lost her job and we can’t afford the rent anymore.  Can we move out?”

And, the big landlord question:  “Can my tenant really break their lease because they have military orders to move?”

I wish I was making up these questions.  I’m not.

There is a straightforward progression of how to find the  answers to these questions, with nearly every question being answered by one of two resources.

Read Your Lease

Almost all of these questions are addressed in your lease agreement.  A typical lease includes sections on:

  • tenants (people who are financially responsible for the lease),
  • any other occupants (typically, but not always, children),
  • limits on occupancy, guests, and visitors,
  • amount of rent, due date, any grace period, and late fees,
  • appliances included in the lease, and responsibility for repairs,
  • property condition, and responsibility for repairs and maintenance,
  • utilities included and not included in the lease,
  • pets, whether they are permitted, any restrictions, responsibility for property damage,
  • landlord’s access to property,
  • property modification,
  • restrictions on activities, such as businesses, or illegal activity,
  • any or all other things that either the landlord or tenant want to be addressed in the lease,
  • lease termination terms and notifications,
  • military lease termination,
  • expectations for condition of property at end of lease.

In nearly all the questions that are asked by tenants, my first response is “read your lease.”  The landlord usually knows exactly what is listed in the lease because the landlord usually writes the lease.  As a business person, the landlord has taken time, energy, and money to ensure that the lease says exactly what the landlord wants it to say.  This doesn’t make the landlord a bad person, it means that the landlord wants to make sure that there are no misunderstandings.

Most tenants get a lease, glance over it, and sign without truly understanding all the parts.  Leases are long, and they are often written in legal language that is hard for a regular person to understand.

If you are currently in a property, you might want to give your lease a good read to know what it says. In the future, it helps if you can get time to read the whole thing and have all your questions answered. Don’t let anyone push you into signing a lease without having the time to digest it.

If you don’t currently have a lease, ask your landlord if you can get a written agreement. It will protect the landlord as much as it protects you, and it could save a lot of aggregation in the future.

Know State and Federal Law

Every state has different laws regarding landlord-tenant relations.  A quick internet search for “landlord tenant” and the name of your state will likely turn up a pile of resources to answer every possible question.

In addition, there are some federal laws that apply to rental real estate. Landlords can not discriminate on the basis of age, disability, national origin, pregnancy, race/color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides military members with certain protections regarding evictions and lease terminations.

Each state also has different ways in which the law and the lease work together.  In many cases, state laws overrides the lease agreement.  However, in some states (Pennsylvania is one example), a tenant who signs a lease that contradicts state law is considered to have waived the legal protects of the law.

Many people feel like it is a lot of work to understand their leases and know the laws that apply to housing.  However, housing is typically a family’s largest expense, and problems with housing can cause a huge emotional strain.  Even if reading documents isn’t easy for you, take the time to learn about the responsibilities and protections in your lease and the applicable laws.  It can save you a lot of money and a lot of stress.

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.