When You Have Decided to Rent


Before you sign a rental agreement or a lease, read it carefully so that you understand all of its terms. What kind of terms should be in the rental agreement or lease? Can the rental agreement or lease limit the basic rights that the law gives to all tenants? How much can the landlord require you to pay as a security deposit? This section answers these and other questions.

What the Rental Agreement or Lease Should Include

Most landlords use printed forms for their leases and rental agreements. However, printed forms may differ from each other. There is no "standard rental agreement" or "standard lease!" Therefore, carefully read and understand the entire document before you sign it.

The written rental agreement or lease should contain all of the promises that the landlord or the landlord’s agent has made to you, and should not contain anything that contradicts what the landlord or the agent told you. If the lease or rental agreement refers to another document, such as "tenant rules and regulations," get a copy and read it before you sign the written agreement.

Don’t feel rushed into signing. Make sure that you understand everything that you’re agreeing to by signing the rental agreement or lease. If you don’t understand something, ask the landlord to explain it to you. If you still don’t understand, discuss the agreement with a friend, or with an attorney, legal aid organization, tenant-landlord program, or housing clinic.

Key Terms Within the Agreement

The written rental agreement or lease should contain key terms, such as the following:

  • The names of the landlord and the tenant.
  • The address of the rental unit.
  • The amount of the rent.
  • When the rent is due, to whom it is to be paid, and where it is to be paid.
  • The amount and purpose of the security deposit.
  • The amount of any late charge or returned check fee.
  • Whether pets are allowed.
  • The number of people allowed to live in the rental unit.
  • Whether attorney’s fees can be collected from the losing party in the event of a lawsuit between you and the landlord.
  • Who is responsible for paying utilities (gas, electric, water, and trash collection).
  • If the rental is a house or a duplex with a yard, who is responsible for taking care of the yard.
  • Any promises by the landlord to make repairs, including the date by which the repairs will be completed.
  • Other items, such as whether you can sublet the rental unit and the conditions under which the landlord can inspect the rental unit.

In addition, the rental agreement or lease must disclose:

  • The name, address, and telephone number of the authorized manager of the rental property and an owner (or an agent of the owner) who is authorized to receive legal notices for the owner. (This information can be posted conspicuously in the building instead of being disclosed in the rental agreement or lease.)
  • The name, address, and telephone number of the person or entity to which rent payments must be made. If you may make your rent payment in person, the agreement or lease must state the usual days and hours that rent may be paid in person. Or, the document may state the name, street address, and account number of the financial institution where rent payments may be made (if it is within five miles of the unit) or information necessary to establish an electronic funds transfer for paying the rent.
  • The form in which rent payments must be made (for example, by check or money order). (As a general rule, the landlord cannot require that you make rent payments in cash.)

Every rental agreement or lease also must contain a written notice that the California Department of Justice maintains a Web site at www.meganslaw.ca.gov that provides information about specified registered sex offenders. This notice must be in legally-required language.

A rental agreement or lease may contain other terms. Examples include whether you must park your car in a certain place, and whether you must obtain permission from the landlord before having a party.

It is important that you understand all of the terms of your rental agreement or lease. If you don’t comply with them, the landlord may have grounds to evict you.

Don’t sign a rental agreement or a lease if you think that its terms are unfair. If a term doesn’t fit your needs, try to negotiate a more suitable term (for example, a smaller security deposit or a lower late fee). It’s important that any agreed-upon change in terms be included in the rental agreement or lease that both you and the landlord sign. If you and the landlord agree to change a term, the change can be made in handwriting in the rental agreement or lease. Both of you should then initial or sign in the area immediately next to the change to show your approval of the change. Or, the document can be retyped with the new term included in it.

If you don’t agree with a term in the rental agreement or lease, and can’t negotiate a better term, carefully consider the importance of the term, and decide whether or not you want to sign the document.

The owner of the rental unit or the person who signs the rental agreement or lease on the owner’s behalf must give you a copy of the document within 15 days after you sign it. Be sure that your copy shows the signature of the owner or the owner’s agent, in addition to your signature. Keep the document in a safe place.

Tenant’s Basic Legal Rights

Tenants have basic legal rights that are always present, no matter what the rental agreement or lease states. These rights include all of the following:

  • Limits on the amount of the security deposit that the landlord can require you to pay.
  • Limits on the landlord’s right to enter the rental unit.
  • The right to a refund of the security deposit, or a written accounting of how it was used, after you move.
  • The right to sue the landlord for violations of the law or your rental agreement or lease.
  • The right to repair serious defects in the rental unit and to deduct certain repair costs from the rent, under appropriate circumstances
  • The right to withhold rent under appropriate circumstances.
  • Rights under the warranty of habitability.
  • Protection against retaliatory eviction.

Landlord’s and Tenant’s Duty of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

Every rental agreement and lease requires that the landlord and tenant deal with each other fairly and in good faith. Essentially, this means that both the landlord and the tenant must treat each other honestly and reasonably. This duty of good faith and fair dealing is implied by law in every rental agreement and every lease, even though the duty probably is not expressly stated.

Contact AACSC

Apartment Association,

California Southern Cities
333 W. Broadway St., Suite 101
Long Beach, CA 90802
(562) 426-8341

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