Paycheck Chronicles

Tenant-Landlord Questions: What Does Your Lease Say?

large apartment building
(Winifred Brown/DVIDS)

I get a lot of questions about issues between landlords and tenants. Military families are often tenants, landlords or both. Being either a renter or a landlord means opening yourself up to all sorts of challenging situations. Many of those issues can be resolved with a thoughtful lease that is clear and understood by both parties, and some knowledge of state landlord-tenant laws.

Some questions I've had recently include:

"We paid a pet deposit when we moved into our house, and we left the house with no damage. Now the landlord is saying it was a non-refundable deposit. What do we have to do to get our money back?"

"My tenant's lease is up this summer, and I'm marketing the house for re-rental. My tenant is being very uncooperative. What can I do?"

"The water line to the toilet broke and flooded our house. Many of our things were damaged or ruined. My landlord says that our things are not her responsibility. Is that right?"

"My tenant pays her rent on the 4th of every month, even though it is due on the 1st. This makes my mortgage payment late! What can I do?"

"We want to get a dog, but our landlord says no. What can we do to make her change her mind?"

"My tenants want to break their lease because she is deploying. He is moving down the street. They can't do that, can they?"

It might seem surprising, but every single one of these questions has the same first two answers.

  1. What does your lease say?
  2. What does federal, state or local law say?

You might even want to switch the order of those two, since the law is going to override whatever your lease says.

If You Are A Landlord

If you are a landlord, make sure you have a thorough, thoughtful lease, and have it reviewed by a professional to ensure it complies with federal, state and local law. Don't just print a lease off the internet and sign away, and resist the urge to pare down your leases. Good leases are going to be long.

If there are any speical provisions, have the tenants initial next to that particular provision in addition to signing the lease as a whole. For me, this includes expectations at move out, and anything that will incur a fee or charge (smoking, unauthorized pets, unauthorized residents, etc.)

Expect your lease to be an ongoing work in progress as you learn more about landlording. I actually keep a document on my computer that is things that I want to add to my lease the next time we have a tenant turnover. I've yet to write a lease that covers everything.

If You Are A Tenant

If you are a tenant, read your lease before you sign it. I advise taking it to the housing office, legal office or your attorney to have it reviewed first. This is particularly true for leases signed overseas, as they are likely to have provisions that may vary significantly from what you would expect in the United States.

Ask questions, and ask for changes to anything you don't like. Leases are negotiable, as long as the end result is legal. If you don't want to pay a non-refundable pet deposit, ask if you can pay a monthly pet rent or give a larger, refundable deposit. If you won't mail your rent until you get paid on the 1st, ask your landlord if the rent can be due on the 5th. If you will not want to show the house when you move out, don't sign a lease agreeing to show the house for 60 days prior to the termination of the lease. It is much better to set expectations before the lease is signed.

A well-crafted lease provides security and protection for both the tenant and the landlord. Too often, it is treated like a formality in an otherwise casual relationship. The lease is the document that will hold up in court, so be sure it says exactly what you mean, regardless of whether you are the tenant or the landlord. A good lease will answer 99% of landlord-tenant issues and make life easier for everyone involved.

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