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Message # 901 Tenant rights: Renting (Pt. 1)

mp3 #901 What Should you Know Before You Rent? (mp3 file)


This message will discuss the following questions:

1 – Are all rental agreements alike?

2 – Must rental agreements be in writing?

3 – Can you change a written agreement?

4 – Do you owe any money besides rent?

5 – What happens when your lease runs out?

First, are all rental agreements alike?

No. The most common kinds of rental agreements are-"lease" and "month-to-month."

A lease is for a definite period of time - generally one year. Unless you break the terms of the lease, the owner of your apartment or house (your landlady or landlord) cannot raise your rent - unless the lease says otherwise. The owner also cannot ask you to move until the lease is up.

A month-to-month rental agreement is not for a set period of time. It continues until you decide to move or the owner asks you to leave. If you pay your rent monthly, you must give the owner 30 days written notice that you are moving. An owner who wants you to leave or decides to raise your rent must inform you, in writing, 30 days ahead of time. However, you and the owner may agree in writing to a shorter notice. Moreover, if you break the rules, perhaps by using the apartment for illegal purposes or creating a nuisance, the owner can give you a three-day notice.

Next, must rental agreements be in writing?

No. Both leases and month-to-month agreements may be oral or written. However, a lease for more than one year generally must be in writing to be binding.

Oral agreement. With an oral agreement, nothing is written down. You and the owner talk things over and come to an understanding. Some people like oral agreements because they have fewer rules than other agreements do. On the other hand, several months later, you and the owner might remember the agreement differently, so it is usually better to put the agreement in writing.

Written agreement. If you have a written agreement, read it carefully and make sure that you understand everything it says. Sometimes a lease or month-to-month agreement mentions another paper such as "house rules." Do not sign the agreement until you read the extra rules. Also, make sure that any blank spaces in the agreement are filled in or crossed out before you sign it, and ask for a copy.

Whether you have an oral or written agreement, be sure to get the name, address and telephone number of the owner or the owner's agent. You will need this information in case of an emergency, such as a broken water pipe or lost keys. You also should know where to reach the owner if you have a complaint;

Strangely enough, some tenants do not know where to find people who own their apartments. But in California, the law says that the names and addresses of the owner and manager must be on the rental agreement if the building has three or more apartments. Or, they can be posted in the building in two places where tenants are likely to see them. If the owner's address is not listed, talk to your building manager. The manager must fill in for the owner.

Next, can you change a written agreement?

You can make changes before you sign - as long as the owner agrees. Just cross out whatever the two of you agree to take out. Write in any additions. For instance, your agreement may say that the owner can give you as little as seven days notice before raising your rent. If you want longer notice in your agreement, you can ask the owner to change it to 30 days or cross it out. But be sure you both initial all changes.

If you want to smoke or keep a pet in the apartment and the lease says you cannot, you can ask if the owner will change that part of the agreement.

Some written agreements have rules that cannot be enforced. Many rental agreements are printed forms available at stationery stores. Often, these forms are out of date because the law has changed.

You will not be bound by any illegal or outdated rules in the agreement you sign. For example, your agreement may say that the owner is not responsible if you get hurt because the building is not kept in good repair. But, under the law, that may not be true. The agreement might say that you cannot make repairs and then deduct the cost from your rent. But sometimes you can.

Next, do you owe any money besides the rent?

You might. The owner has the right to ask for a number of fees and deposits. And you have the right to a receipt or written agreement that tells what the money is for and how you can get it back.

Although the law considers all deposits to be "security deposits," here are some of the payments that the owner might ask you to make:

Last month's rent in advance. The owner can ask you to pay the last month's rent before you move in. Then, if you give proper notice when you want to move out, you will not have to pay rent for the last month.

Security deposit. This deposit can be used for such things as replacing a window that you broke before moving out. But, if you do not cause any damage, the security deposit will be given back to you.

Cleaning fee or deposit. Some owners want a cleaning deposit or fee. Your lease may say that such a fee is not refundable. But that is illegal. Whether it is called a fee or a deposit, you usually get the money back if you keep your place clean.

The owner either must give you the security deposit no later than two weeks after you move or must tell you in writing why you will not get back some or all of the money - and how it was spent. An owner who needs to use part of the money for cleaning or repairs must give you the rest. What if the owner does not notify you, or you believe the owner is not entitled to keep the money? Then, you can sue in small claims court. If you win the case, you could get part or all of your deposits back. You also may be paid a penalty if the court decides that the owner failed to return the deposit because of "bad faith," which means it was not by mistake.

California law puts a limit on the deposits that the owner can ask for, no matter what they are called. All of them cannot add up to more than the cost of two months' rent for an unfurnished apartment or three months' rent for a furnished place.

Also, keep in mind that you are not covered by the owner's insurance policies. If you wish, you can purchase renter's insurance which covers your belongings against fire or theft.

Next, what happens when your lease runs out?

Read your lease carefully. It may say what you must do. For example, the lease may have an "automatic-renewal" clause. This means that, before the lease runs out, you must tell the owner if you plan to move. And the owner must ask you to move before the lease ends. Otherwise, the lease will be renewed for the same period of time as the original agreement.

The automatic-renewal clauses cannot be enforced unless they are printed in bold type.

What if you have a six-month or one-year lease, but no automatic-renewal clause? If you pay rent monthly and the owner accepts your rent after the lease is up, the agreement is automatically renewed - but only on a month-to-month basis.

Some leases do not say that they last for a year or for a certain period of time. Instead, they might say the agreement ends on a particular date. In this case, you can stay on in the apartment past that date on a month-to-month basis if the owner accepts your rent payment.

Review Part 2 of Message # 902, "What should you know before you rent?"

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