Leases and Landlords

A. Written Rental Agreements

The written rental agreement specifies all the terms of the agreement between you and the landlord. For example, it states the rent, the length of time between rent payments, and the landlord’s and your obligations. It may also contain clauses on pets, late fees, and length of notice.

The length of time between rent payments is important. It determines the amount of advance notice that the landlord must give you before raising the rent, changing other terms of the tenancy, or lawfully ending the rental agreement. The length of time between rent payments also determines how much advance notice you must give to the landlord before you move out of the rental unit.

B. Leases

1. Things to Remember

  • A lease states the total number of months that the lease will be in effect.
  • Most leases are in writing, although oral leases are legal. If the lease is for more than one year, it must be in writing.
  • It is important to understand that even though the lease requires the rent to be paid monthly, you are bound by the lease until it expires.
  • If you have a lease, the landlord cannot raise your rent while the lease is in effect, unless the lease expressly allows rent increases.
  • The landlord usually cannot evict you during the period of the lease, except for reasons such as your damaging the property or failing to pay rent; however, check for any specific conditions in the document that may be listed as grounds for eviction.
  • Even if the lease allows rent increases, the lease should specify a limit on how much and how often the rent can be raised.
  • The disadvantage of a lease is that if you need to move, a lease may be difficult for you to break, especially if another tenant cannot be found to take over your lease.
  • Before signing a lease, you may want to talk with a campus official, attorney, legal aid organization, or housing clinic to make sure that you understand all of the lease’s terms, your obligations, and any risks that you may face.
  • There is no “standard rental agreement” or “standard lease.” Therefore, you must carefully read and understand the entire document before you sign it.
  • The written rental agreement or lease should contain all of the promises that the landlord or the landlord’s agent has made to you, and should not contain anything that contradicts what the landlord or the agent told you.
  • If the lease or rental agreement refers to another document, such as “tenant rules and regulations,” make sure you read a copy of it before you sign the written agreement.
  • Don’t feel rushed into signing.
  • It is important to obtain the signatures of all tenants involved so that your friends are just as legally bound as you.

2. Key Items
The written rental agreement or lease should contain key items, such as the following:

  • The names of the landlord and the tenant
  • The address of the rental unit
  • The amount of the rent
  • When the rent is due, to whom it is to be paid, and where it is to be paid
  • The amount and purpose of the security deposit
  • The amount of any late charge or returned check fee
  • Whether pets are allowed
  • The length of time guests are allowed to stay in the rental unit without additional charges
  • The number of people allowed to live in the rental unit
  • Whether attorney’s fees can be collected from the losing party in the event of a lawsuit between you and the landlord
  • Who is responsible for paying utilities (gas, electric, water, and trash collection)
  • Who is responsible for taking care of the yard (if there is one)
  • Any promises by the landlord to make repairs, including the date by which the repairs will be completed
  • The name and address of the authorized manager of the rental property and an owner (or an agent of the owner) who is authorized to receive legal notices for the owner. This information can be posted conspicuously in the building instead of being disclosed in the rental agreement or lease
  • Whether you can sublet the rental unit
  • The conditions under which the landlord can inspect the unit
  • Whether you must park your car in a certain place
C. Before You Sign

1. Rental Application
Before renting to you, most landlords will ask you to fill out a written rental application form. The rental application is like an application for a job or a credit card. The landlord may ask you what kind of job you have, your monthly income, and other information that shows your ability to pay the rent.

  • A rental application usually asks for the following information:
  • Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of your current and past employers
  • Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of your current and past landlords
  • Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of people who can give you a personal reference
  • Your social security number

2. Credit Checks
The landlord or the landlord’s agent will probably use your rental application to check your credit history and past landlord-tenant relations. The landlord may obtain your credit report to help him or her decide whether to rent to you. If the landlord obtains your credit report, the landlord must give you a copy of the report if you request it.

3. Application Screening Fee
When you submit a rental application, the landlord may charge you an application screening fee. Legally, this fee cannot be more than the landlord’s actual out-of-pocket costs, and can never be more than $30. The landlord must give you a receipt that itemizes his or her out-of-pocket expenses in obtaining and processing the information about you. The landlord must return to you any unused portion of the fee.

4. What is Unlawful Discrimination?
It is unlawful for a landlord to refuse to rent to a tenant or to engage in any other type of discrimination on the basis of group characteristics specified by law (such as race or religion) that are not closely related to the business needs of the landlord. Under California law, it is unlawful for a landlord, managing agent, real estate broker, or salesperson to discriminate against a person because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, or disability. California law also prohibits discrimination because of a person’s mental or physical disability, or because of personal characteristics, such as a person’s physical appearance or sexual orientation, that are unrelated to the responsibilities of a tenant.

5. Limited Exceptions for Single Rooms & Roommates
If the owner of an owner-occupied, single-family home rents out a single room in the home to a roomer or a boarder, and there are no other roomers or boarders living in the household, the owner is not subject to the restrictions listed under unlawful discrimination. However, the owner cannot make oral or written statements, or use notices or advertisements that indicate any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, or disability.

A person in a single-family dwelling who advertises for a roommate may express a preference on the basis of gender if the roommate will share living areas (such as the kitchen, living room, or bathroom).

The landlord may ask you about the number of people who will be living in the rental unit. However, the practical rule is this: a landlord can establish reasonable standards for the number of people per square foot in a rental unit.

6. Landlord’s & Tenant’s Duty of Good Faith & Fair Dealing
Every rental agreement and lease requires that the landlord and tenant deal with each other fairly and in good faith; in other words, you and the landlord must be honest and reasonable with each other. This duty of good faith and fair dealing is implied by law in every rental agreement and every lease, even if it is not expressly stated.

7. How Much Money Can the Landlord Require as Security Deposit?
For rental of an unfurnished rental unit, a landlord may require a maximum of two month’s rent as a security deposit. For a furnished rental unit, a landlord may require a maximum of three month’s rent. The landlord can require the tenant to pay this amount in addition to the first month’s rent. If the tenant has a lease of six months or longer the landlord may charge a security deposit of up to six months’ rent. (If the tenant has a waterbed or has a lease of six months or longer, the landlord legally may require a larger deposit. If the tenant has a waterbed, the landlord may charge an additional deposit equal to one-half month’s rent along with a reasonable fee to cover administration costs.)

8. Pets
Before signing a lease, make sure you talk with your landlord about their pet policy. It is also a good idea to ask whether an additional security deposit is required for pets.

9. Renter's Insurance
Renter’s insurance protects tenants against property losses, such as losses from theft or fire. It also protects tenants against liability (legal responsibility) for many claims or lawsuits filed by the landlord or others, alleging that the tenant has negligently (carelessly) injured another person or damaged the person’s property.

Why You Should Consider It
Carelessly causing a fire that destroys the rental unit or another tenant’s property is just one example of negligence for which you could be held legally responsible. You could be required to pay for the losses that the landlord or another tenant suffers. Renter’s insurance would pay the other party on your behalf for some or all of these losses.
Your landlord probably has insurance that covers the rental unit or dwelling, but you shouldn’t assume that the landlord’s insurance would protect you. If the landlord’s insurance company pays the landlord for a loss that you cause, the insurance company may then sue you to recover what it has paid the landlord. (If you use a waterbed, the landlord can require you to have a waterbed insurance policy to cover possible property damage.)
Make sure that you check with your parents to find out if you are covered under their homeowners’ insurance and what the policy covers if something happens in your rental unit.

Adapted from Santa Clara University.