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Terms to Understand in Understand in Your Apartment Lease

Leases are usually standardized at the state level but might include terms within them or in attached riders that are more friendly to your landlord.

If you're thinking about signing a lease, the chances are high that it's extremely long and full of fine print. You can't be blamed for signing and initialing without reading the entire thing carefully, but you'll have more leverage if you understand the basics of leases and know which terms to lookout for.

Remember that it's always possible discuss and negotiate changes in the lease. You can clarify terms or add new ones as long as you and the landlord initial next to them. The same goes for crossing things out.

Basic terms

Even the most obvious terms can have weird sticking points that cause you trouble down the line, so make sure to read all of these:

Type and length
Security deposit

Terms to lookout for

Here are some common changes that landlords make so that leases work better for them, hoping you won't notice:

Joint and several liability
Restrictions on additional tenants
Sublets & assignments
Lifestyle restrictions
Breach and default

Type and length of lease

If you a signed lease agreement or you're thinking of signing one, then it will be likely be a fixed term or a month to month tenancy.

Fixed term: This is the most common type of lease. It automatically ends on a specified end date. It will usually last for one or two years. As a renter, the benefit of a two year lease is that your rent won’t go up for at least two years. This situation benefits landlords as well, ensuring they won’t need to fill the space for two years.

Month to month: This can be oral or written, and automatically renews after a specified number of days unless you or your landlord gives advance notice. Your rights as a tenant are the same as when you’re in a fixed term tenancy.

If you live in a rental without a lease, then you're either an at-will tenant or a tenant at sufferance.

At-will tenancy: This is when there's no written lease between the landlord and tenant but the landlord did agree to let you live in the unit. This kind of tenancy usually exists between a landlord and a tenant who have established trust.

Tenancy at sufferance: Also known as a holdover tenancy, this is when you do not have the landlord’s permission to live in the unit.

Rent amount and how to pay

Your lease will include how much your rent is, when it is due, and how exactly the rent should be paid. Check to see that your landlord has included the preferred or acceptable payment methods and if there are any charges associated with a rent check bouncing or late rent payments.

You want a late fee and grace period for late rent to be specified in your lease, because it prevents your landlord from making any changes while the lease is active.


Ask about how the unit is metered, average monthly utility expenses and if the landlord will pay if the utilities go above a certain number. The last thing you want is to be stuck paying for utilities that other people used if there isn't a meter in your building for each unit.

Security deposit

Your lease should always say how much the security deposit, what it can be used to pay for at the end of your tenancy and where it will be held. Even if this is governed by state law, it’s a good idea to have it spelled out in your lease.

Joint and several liability

If you're signing a lease with someone else look for the words "joint and several" and make sure you understand it. This means that if your co tenant does anything wrong, it's as much your responsibility as it is theirs.

Restrictions on additional tenants

You also might see a term in your lease specifying the maximum number of occupants allowed to live in the unit. Make sure you're okay with this number and that it doesn't contradict state regulations on the topic - it's pretty common for states to specifically give tenants the right to live (for example) with one other person or with members of their immediate family.

Sublets, assignments and roommates

If you for any reason anticipate that you may need to sublet your apartment during the lease term, consider including specific information about the subletting process and rules for subletting in your lease. This can reduce confusion or disagreements in the future. Pretty much all leases will have a term that says you are allowed to sublet or assign your lease as long as you get landlord approval. You should ask for your landlord to add a line specifying who they will approve and who they won't approve - this will make it harder for them to ignore you and refuse to give you consent should you ever want to sublet or assign.

You can also specifically ask that the lease outline in detail any reasons that your landlord may refuse a subtenant you recommend. It’s likely that your landlord will expect a subtenant to meet the same criteria he asked you to meet, but having this written explicitly in the lease is a good idea. Some states have reasonable refusal laws governing when and why a landlord can refuse a subtenant.

Most leases don't specify what happens if you want to add a roommate to your lease. Either the roommate applies as a new tenant and joints you as a (joint and severally liable) tenant on the lease, or you add them as a subtenant. Some landlords call this an occupant or a resident.

Lifestyle restrictions

Many leases will include a clause stating what a tenant can and can’t use the unit for. A typical lease will usually say that you can’t run a business out of the rental and can’t use it for any illegal activity. Some leases also include quiet hours or restrictions on having guests or pets. Keep an eye out for any strange restrictions you may not want to agree to.


Look for a term that says you don't have the right to pay less rent (or any rent at all) if there is a pause in basic services. In pretty much all states you do, legally, have this right - so if you see a term that says otherwise you should ask to cross it out.

Breach of lease and default

Pretty much all leases will define what is and isn't a breach of the lease (which would be grounds for your landlord to terminate the lease even if you didn't want to move) and default. For all you know, they'll declare you in default and start eviction proceedings fifteen days after rent was due if you haven't sent it in. Look for anything weird here.

Next steps

Have a lease that you're not sure if you should sign? Send it to use and we'll review it for you. If you're on the hunt for an apartment, one of these posts about getting a lease with poor credit or what goes into an application for a lease might be helpful!

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.

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