What to know before you sign that rental lease agreement | Renting | Roost
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Before you sign a lease

Eight things every renter should know

We get it. Reading a rental lease agreement isn’t all that much fun. It’s usually full of boring legal language and lots of detail. But we highly recommend you find a comfortable chair, put on your headphones and settle in for some focused reading.

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Knowing exactly what’s expected of you will prevent future disagreements and headaches. And frankly, as soon as you’ve signed on the dotted line, you have a lot less negotiating power and you’re legally responsible for keeping up your part of the agreement.

We recommend you pay special attention to the following parts of your lease.

Roost Tip! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Most people don’t understand the legal jargon and terminology, and it’s better for both you and your landlord to be on the same page.

1. Who’s listed on the lease

If someone’s name isn’t listed on the rental lease agreement, they’re not legally responsible. So, if you decide to get a roommate, ask your landlord to add them to the lease. If you don’t, and your roommate stops paying their share of the rent, it’ll be all on you. Also, most landlords require that you contact them before anybody else moves in.

Read the lease! That’s the advice of Jessica Ornsby of the A+O Law Group. “This seems intuitive, but many tenants fail to do so prior to
filing.” Ornsby says. “Doing a quick once-over of the document may alert the tenant to terms that appear questionable. Tenants should consider consulting with a landlord-tenant attorney before filing and make note of the following important clauses: rent due-by date; notice term for non-emergency entry into the unit; clauses regarding payment of legal fees; lease termination clauses; and maintenance requirements for the tenant.”

2. When your rent is due and the grace period 

A rent grace period is how many days after rent is due you have to pay it without incurring a late penalty. Most rental agreements allow for three to five days. If you don’t pay rent before the grace period expires, you’ll be charged a late fee, which could be either a flat fee or a percentage of the monthly rent.  

Roost Tip! If you’re going to be late, contact your landlord in advance to let them know and reassure them you’ll get it to them. This builds trust and goodwill. 

3. Anything money-related

  • Lease amount. Verify the monthly payment and the due date. Before you sign the lease, you may be able to negotiate a lower rate if you’ve done your market research, sell yourself as a good tenant and if the building has open units. Ask for a lower price that is still reasonable for the area. You may also be able to ask for a lower security deposit and/or fee waivers.
  • Security deposit. Most states limit the maximum amount a landlord can ask for a security deposit. The standard is one month’s rent, but it can vary depending on your credit score. If your credit score is poor, your landlord may ask for more. If you come with great references and a good credit score, you may be able to request a lower security deposit. And, more properties are allowing for security deposit insurance alternative products. Pay attention to when you get your security deposit back. A standard lease states the landlord is required to release the money within 30 to 60 days after you vacate the property if you’ve met all of your obligations, such as making all rent payments, moving out of the apartment on time and returning the property in good condition
  • Fees and add-ons. We’ve seen quite a few different types of fees included in rental agreements. Your landlord shouldn’t charge for all of these, but it’s likely they may charge some. Make sure you know what you are agreeing to. Clarify and negotiate where you can and make sure to account for extras in your budget. 
  • Security deposit
  • Application fee
  • Pet fee
  • Move-in fee
  • Lawn/landscaping fee
  • Early termination fee
  • Storage fee
  • Check fees
  • Amenity or property fees
  • Co-signer fee
  • Late fee
  • Interest
  • Credit card fee
  • Parking fee
  • Processing fee
  • Unreturned fees, locks and duplicate keys
  • Tenant screening fee (replacement tenant)
  • Utilities
  • Trips to unlock premises
  • Legal fees

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Roost Tip! Check your rights for your state. Most states require that add-on fees are clearly spelled out in advance. Your landlord is not allowed to tack on extra ones halfway through your lease.

4. Utilities

Most of the time, you’re directly responsible for covering your utilities but some properties are bundling this into the total monthly charges. Some may offer special discounts for WiFi and water. Just make sure you’re clear.

5. Apartment repairs and who fixes what

Your rental lease agreement should specify your responsibilities and those of your landlord. Some properties will fix everything and others require you to fix minor things, like a clogged drain.   

6. Other details that matter

  • Parking: Do you have a designated parking spot?  Is it an extra fee? Where do guests park? 
  • Occupancy: The number of people you can have live in your apartment. This also affects if you can add roommates to the lease later. 
  • Smoking: Is it allowed in the unit or on the property? 
  • Overnight guests: Is there a limit to how long a guest can stay with you? 
  • Modifications: Some leases won’t allow you to paint, hang pictures using nails that leave holes, replace carpet, walls, etc. 
  • Apartment or condo association rules: If your apartment or condo is part of an HOA, you’ll also need to comply with the community rules and regulations, such as landscaping, parking and move-in procedures. 
  • Pet policy: Restrictions on animal type, breed, and size are common — if pets are allowed at all. Service animals, however, are exempt under the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits landlords from discriminating based on disability.
  • Renters insurance: Many leases now require renters have insurance to cover things like theft, fire, water and personal liability. Fortunately, the average cost of renters insurance is $14 per month. 
  • Subletting: Can you Airbnb your unit or sublease it to someone else should you decide to move elsewhere before your lease is up? 

7. Access to the premises

Landlords are allowed to check the condition of your rental unit. This is usually not a problem until you decide to move out and your landlord wants to start showing your apartment to potential new tenants. Your rental agreement will specify how many hours of notice they need to give you — typically 24 to 48 hours.  

8. Termination and renewal date

Usually, a rental lease agreement requires that you give your landlord at least 30 days notice that you plan to move out. If you don’t, your lease will often default to a month-to-month agreement, which could also result in a rent increase.

Beware of auto-renewal clauses that lock you into another year at a higher rate. And don’t forget that if you move out before your lease is up, you’ll likely have to pay an early termination fee. 

Roost Tip! If you’re planning to move out, start the conversation with your landlord well in advance. If you want to get out of the lease early and they have some interested new tenants, you might be able to negotiate leaving early without an extra fee.

Rental leases can be complicated and overwhelming, but taking the time to do a good read-through will help you feel more confident signing it or negotiating any of the terms. (Want more details? Check out our Roost Renter Rights for a summary of state-mandated requirements.)

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Last Updated: August 24th, 2021