For Rent

By Chandra Orr

March 21, 2008 5 min read


A good lease protects tenant and landlord alike

By Chandra Orr

Copley News Service

Leases and security deposits aren't just a formality. They exist to protect landlords and tenants alike. Before you make reservations for the moving van, make sure you have all the details.


When renting property, a written, legally binding lease is essential. Don't move in without signing one. And don't sign one until you read all the fine print.

"It's very important to understand the agreement before signing it because you are assuming a large degree of lawful responsibility. Many times, tenants have broken lease conditions without even knowing it," said real estate expert Kendra Todd, winner of season three of "The Apprentice" and host of "My House Is Worth What?" on HGTV.

Standard leases vary from clause to clause, and rental laws vary from state to state, so spend some time going over the details. Familiarize yourself with your state's landlord-tenant laws, and be sure the lease falls within those legal parameters. You can check your state's Web site for local provisions. Some even have downloadable handbooks that explain landlord-tenant laws.

The lease should outline, in detail, the length of the rental period, the monetary compensation - including the security deposit - and the rights and responsibilities of both the tenant and the landlord.

"This way everyone is protected," Todd said.

If any portion of the lease seems vague or unclear, request that the clause in question be rewritten in plain language that you understand.

"Most importantly, in the event of unforeseen circumstances or tragedy, you should know the exit policy," Todd said.


Before signing, ask about your landlord's policy in regard to the security deposit, which is designed to cover property damages that exceed normal wear and tear.

Will your landlord automatically charge you to have the apartment professionally cleaned or repainted once you move out? How much will they charge you to fix common damages when the lease ends?

Make sure you get all your questions answered. There should be no surprises when it comes to the security deposit - and you don't want to be hit with a huge bill when you move out.

To get the maximum amount of your deposit back, it's important to document the general condition of the apartment before you move in.

"Treat the home the same way as you would a rental car," Todd said. "Be sure the flaws are known to the landlord before signing the lease. This way, you will not be held responsible for previous damages."

To help with the process, most landlords provide a move-in checklist. Ideally, you and your landlord would conduct a pre-move inspection of the property and note any defects on the checklist. The checklist would then be signed by the both of you, and you would each keep a copy.

From obvious damages to subtle wear and tear, document everything. It may not seem like a big deal now, but a little dent in the wall or scratch in the countertop could cost you later if not noted it on the checklist.

Ultimately, you are responsible for the property while you live there, so treat it as you would your own home.

"Always leave the property in the same, if not better, condition than when you moved in," Todd said. "Even spending a small amount of money out of your pocket - $20 for easy fixes - will help insure you get your entire security deposit back."

Let your landlord know about any needed repairs as they come up. Don't wait until you move out to report the burner on the stove that won't work or the clogged sink in the bathroom.

Ask your landlord for a list of emergency on-call repair personnel, including plumbers, electricians and heating and air-conditioning specialists. If pipes freeze in the dead of winter while your landlord is on vacation in Aruba, you'll be glad you did.

When you move out, give yourself enough time to leave things right. Patch up nail holes in the walls, give the place a fresh coat of the same paint and thoroughly scrub the place until it shines.

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