What's on an Apartment Rental Agreement (Lease Agreement) - dummies

What’s on an Apartment Rental Agreement (Lease Agreement)

By Pierre Lehu

When you rent an apartment, you’ll sign a rental agreement (lease agreement) — a legal document stating your responsibilities as a renter. An apartment rental agreement can be short and simple if the landlord owns very few units, or it can be five to ten pages full of complicated language if the landlord owns many apartments. In either case, the lease agreement covers several important items in addition to the actual amount of rent you’ll be paying and when that payment is due.

Length of term

The shorter the term (of your stay in the apartment), say one year, the more freedom you have when it comes to renewing your lease or moving out. Conversely, a longer term allows you to lock in a particular rent (no price increase!), even if there’s an escalating clause for subsequent years. If you leave before the end of the term, you’ll lose your security deposit; and if the landlord wants to sue you, you’ll have to pay all the rent over the course of the term, whether you’re living there or not.


Landlords insist on a security deposit, both to protect themselves if you fail to pay the rent and to use to repair any damage you may have done to the apartment. If you return the apartment in good shape, you’ll get the deposit back when you move out. If repairs are needed, they’ll be deducted.

One reason many landlords ask for two months deposit is keep their tenants from not paying the last month and there being no money left to draw on to make repairs. In most states, the landlord is required to pay the tenant interest on the deposit.

If you’re aware of a problem, like a leak, and fail to report it to the landlord in a timely manner, the agreement may state that you’re liable for any damage, so be sure to let your landlord know about a problem as soon as possible, even if your landlord is slow to make repairs.


In some apartments the tenant must pay for every utility (water, gas, electricity, garbage collection, heat, and so on), while in other apartments some utilities may be included in the rent. You might even see text about agreeing not to waste utilities that the landlord provides.


Landlords want to know to whom they are renting, so they protect themselves from having their tenants let someone else live in the apartment, be that while you’re living there (including a boyfriend/girlfriend or family member not named on the lease) but mostly if you were to leave the apartment for a time and want to let someone else stay there and pay the rent.

But even if your lease has a clause that doesn’t permit you to sublease, if you speak to your landlord, and if the person you want to sublease to has good referrals, you might be given permission. Just remember, you’ll still be responsible for late rent, damage, or other costs incurred by the people you’ve subleased to. And if you sublease illegally, you’ll have broken the terms of the agreement and the landlord can take you to court and throw you out.

Other terms: Late fees, insurance, improvements, pets, and more

Your rental agreement may state the amount of late fees that can be applied if you don’t pay your rent on time; forbid you from having a pet; and make you buy renter’s insurance. Here are other terms that might be on the agreement:

  • Spell out what being a good tenant means, in terms of noise, and so on

  • Make you ask for permission before making any alterations to the apartment and/or make you pay to restore the apartment to the way it was before leaving if you do, even if you think of them as being improvements

  • Allow the landlord access to the apartment to make repairs or inspections or to show the apartment once you give notice that you’re leaving. The landlord, however, will have to give you reasonable notice before entering you place — unless there’s an emergency, such as a broken water pipe.

  • Prevent you from conducting a business on the premises

  • Specify furnishing and/or appliances that are included if the apartment comes furnished

  • List when you’re allowed to move in and out (particularly if there’s a service elevator that must be reserved)

  • If the landlord is responsible for painting, and state how often painting will occur

Going to court

Most rental agreements specify the conditions if you and the landlord have a legal dispute, including which court (which may be limited to arbitration) and under what circumstances you might have to pay the landlord’s legal fees.