Leases can include just about anything the law allows. Here are some key clauses that you should be aware of.
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What are the most important lease clauses from the point of view of landlords?
The most important clause to landlords is the duty of the tenant to pay the rent in full and on time. This includes the right to charge a fee for damages if payment is late. Other important clauses grant the landlord the right to enforce the rules and regulations written into the lease.
What are the most important lease clauses for tenants?
From the tenant’s standpoint, the lease should state the duty of the landlord to maintain the physical condition of the premises. Other clauses should state the right of the tenant to terminate the lease if the landlord fails to make needed repairs. Where the law allows it, the tenant should have a clause specifying the right to hire workers to correct defects in the premises and to charge the landlord for the cost or deduct it from the rent. A clause giving the tenant the right to pay reduced rent is important if the landlord fails to make repairs.
Can the landlord enter a tenant’s premises without notice?
Normally a landlord has no right to enter a tenant's apartment unless the tenant gives consent. Under the general concept of landlord-tenant law, the landlord has surrendered possession of the premises entirely to the tenant for the term of the lease.
But a written lease will almost always give the landlord the right to enter to show the premises to prospective buyers or prospective tenants and to make necessary or agreed repairs. A lease may require the landlord to give a 24-hour notice, but some leases do not require any prior notice or restrict the time or frequency of entry.
State and local laws may also give landlords the right of access. Usually these ordinances require landlords to give reasonable advance notice and to enter only at reasonable times and not so often as to be harassing.
Does the tenant owe the landlord a late fee if the rent is not paid on the date specified in the lease?
Not unless a late fee is specified in the written lease. Some municipal ordinances restrict the amount of late fees that a landlord may charge. State courts have also ruled that such a fee may be charged to cover the damages incurred by the landlord, but cannot be so large as to constitute punishment. Only the government has the right to punish or penalize someone for misconduct.
Is the landlord liable for the damages incurred by a tenant who was injured because of inadequate maintenance of the property?
Many leases contain clauses, called exculpatory clauses, in which the tenant automatically excuses the landlord from any liability for damages from any cause whatsoever. Only about half of the states prohibit such clauses in residential leases.
If the lease does not contain an exculpatory clause or if the state makes such a clause illegal, it will be up to a court to decide whether the injury resulted from some negligent act by the landlord.
Some courts have held that if the tenant's injury resulted from the landlord's violation of the housing code, the landlord is plainly negligent and liable. Other courts have required the tenant to prove negligence. That is, there must be evidence that the landlord knew or should have known of the defective condition before the tenant's injury. Furthermore, the landlord must have failed to make repairs within a reasonable time or in a careful manner.
Can the tenant, with the landlord's consent, operate a business out of the rented premises?
How residential property may be used legally is governed by local zoning ordinances. In residential areas, some ordinances permit white-collar work, such as accounting, word processing, tutoring, and counseling, but forbid any commercial, retail, industrial, or manufacturing use.
Most leases provide that the tenant must use the premises solely for residential purposes. Thus, business uses would be illegal even if the zoning law allowed them—unless the tenant and landlord had eliminated the clause in initial negotiations for the lease or had modified or eliminated it during the term of the tenancy as an amendment to the lease.
Whose improvement is it?
Disputes often arise when tenants install more or less permanent fixtures, such as chandeliers or ceiling fans, in their apartments. Can they remove them when they move out?
Under the general concept of landlord-tenant law, tenants may do anything they wish as long as they do not damage the property. But most leases do not allow a tenant to install such fixtures without the landlord's approval. Sometimes the lease provides as well that such fixtures become the landlord's property when the lease expires. Some leases permit removal of the fixtures if the wall or ceiling is restored to its original condition.
What does "right of quiet enjoyment" of the premises mean?
That legal phrase does not refer to noise; it refers to the tenant's legal right to occupy the apartment. The landlord would violate the right by renting the same apartment to two different tenants or by removing the tenant's belongings.
So what about noise?
Some courts have held that the landlord has the duty to keep tenants from annoying others where the lease contains a clause requiring tenants not to disturb their neighbors. Because they control who may rent in the building, it is appropriate to require landlords to enforce their own rules.
Is renting a condo unit different under the law?
A tenant who rents a condominium has two obligations, one to the condo unit's owner and one to the condo association.
The condo owner is the landlord. But the association sets the rules and regulations for the building and controls the common areas. Depending on local law, the association may have the right to seek eviction of a condo tenant who violates the rules. It may also have the right to seek the tenant's eviction if the condo owner fails to pay the regular association assessments. All states and many municipalities have passed special condo laws, although in some cases they do not apply to buildings with only a few units. If you rent a condo, check the local law.
In a legal dispute between the landlord and the tenant, does the tenant have to pay the landlord's attorney's fees?
It depends on what the lease says. Most standard-form leases make the tenant responsible for paying all attorney's fees incurred by the landlord in enforcing the provisions of the lease. But some state or local laws restrict that provision to situations where the landlord wins a lawsuit and the court awards fees; if the tenant wins, the landlord pays the fees.