First and foremost, let’s make one fact clear: The purpose of a lease isn’t for landlords to spring “gotchas” on their tenants.
Leases exist so the landlord/tenantagreement can be super clear. The purpose of a lease is to spell out any “what if?” scenarios, and make sure that everyone has an understanding of how to handle a variety of situations before they enter into an official relationship.
Here are eight items you should look for when signing a lease:
1. Assignment: Can you “assign” the lease to someone else — meaning, can you allow another tenant to take over the terms of your lease? If so, then you’re free to sublet your dwelling in case you need to move-out early. If not, then you’re stuck with an early move-out penalty. Speaking of which …
2. Early Termination: What’s the early termination penalty? Many landlords charge one month’s rent, but don’t assume that this is always the case — check your lease to see what happens in the event that you need to leave before the lease is over.
3. Deadlines: When is the rent due? After which day is it officially late? What are the late fees, when do they start getting assessed, and do these have any upper limits? Some leases, for example, might specify that rent is due on the 1st and will start incurring a $10 per day late fee after the 3rd, up to a $200 maximum. If the lease says “time is of the essence,” that’s legal-speak for “these deadlines are serious.”
4. Damage: Most leases will have an attached amendment or addendum in the form of your Move-In Inspection Report, which describes existing damage. (For example, perhaps the hardwoods were already scratched when you moved in.) Carefully detail the property condition upon move-in, as this addendum becomes part of the lease and plays a huge role in determining whether or not you receive your security deposit in full.
5. Pets: Are you allowed to have pets? What kind? Are there any weight or breed restrictions? Do you need to pay a pet fee? What is the penalty for an undisclosed pet? Some leases might specifically exclude certain breeds, like pit bulls, or might state that any tenant with an undisclosed pet will be evicted.
6. Paint and Fixtures: Do you have the right to change fixtures, such as installing a nicer shower head or a bigger ceiling fan? Can you paint the walls? If so, are you required to change these back at the end of the year?
7. Temperature: Are you required to keep the thermostat at any particular minimum or maximum temperature? Some leases require that you keep the heat at at least 50 degrees in the winter (even if you’re out of town) to prevent pipes from freezing, or conversely, that you keep the A/C at 80 degrees in the summer to prevent mold.
8. Notification and Escalation: Do you need to inform the landlord in writing of your intent to move out? If so, how far in advance? Many leases will require a 60-day move-out notice, and automatically convert to month-to-month at the end of the lease in the absence of a written move-out note. Furthermore, some leases will automatically “escalate” (raise the rent) at the end of the term.
One final note: Be wary if your landlord pressures you to sign a lease on the spot without reading it first. You should always take the time to carefully review the lease and ask for clarification about anything you don’t understand.
Similarly, ask your landlord to write any verbal promises (if applicable) into the lease. This can be as simple as the landlord handwriting the promise, and then initialing the changes.
Finally, remember that you’re entitled to receive a copy of the lease at the time of signing. This means you’ll always be able to reference the agreement, whenever you need to clarify the rules.
Paula Pant is an award-winning journalist specializing in personal finance, investing, real estate and entrepreneurship. She's a former Deputy News Editor of the Colorado Daily (EW Scripps).