While I mostly deal with home buyers and sellers, occasionally a buyer may want to lease a home for a year or so before making the final purchase. I might help them find a property to lease until the time is right for them to purchase.
But with a lease comes the paperwork. You are there in front of the landlord. He/she hands you a pen, slides the paperwork across, smiles and ask you to sign right here, and here, and here. This can be intimidating, to say the least. After all, you’re a good tenant, right? What could go wrong. You reach for the pen…
HOLD IT. Stop right there. Rewind. The paper you are about to sign is a binding legal document. The conditions it outlines are binding for the term of the lease, usually one year. That means the court can hold you to every clause in that lease, as long as that clause is legal. And a lease is just a starting point for negotiations. You can ask for modifications to the lease, even strike out clauses with a pen, as long as both parties agree.
It is VERY important to review the lease in detail. Even if the lease mistates the law – and it will normally mistate it to the benefit of the landlord – getting your rights enforced can be a long, tedious, expensive and frustrating process.
First, be sure and get a copy of the lease in advance so you can review in private. You don’t want to be asking questions on your cell phone in front of the landlord, especially if it is a hot property in tight market. The landlord might opt to work with someone “less difficult”.
When you are reviewing a lease, you want to take into account not only the legalese in the lease, but also the person you are dealing with. Be on alert if the landlord:
- Doesn’t give you a copy of the lease in advance
- Rushes you to sign on the spot
- Says about a clause that you question, “Oh, it’s just a formality; we don’t enforce that.” If that’s the case, ask the landlord to remove it.
- Makes an oral agreement, but is reluctant to add it to the contract
- Brushes off your concern by saying, “It’s just a standard agreeement.”
After reviewing the document, make a not of any clauses that you find troubling or are unsure about and seek counsel from friends, an attorney, or a tenants association.
Here are a few clauses you should be careful with:
- Tenant is responsible for repairs.
Sure, if you tear up the carpet or throw a baseball through a window, you need to fix it. But what if the air conditioner quits, or the windows stop sliding in their warped frames? It’s the landlord’s responsibility to make repairs and keep the building in a save and working order. Oklahoma law actually requires the landlord to maintain the building in proper working order, so even if this clause is in the contract, it is only enforceable for damage caused by the tenant. You can get a judge to explain all this to the landlord later, or you can save the expense of court by striking this illegal clause at the outset.
- Landlord may enter at any time – or for any reason
Sure, a landlord wants access to their property, but you, the tenant, has a right to privacy and that right is protected by law. Oklahoma has very strict rules that outline the reason a landlord may enter, how much notice he must give, how he provides this notice in writing, and even the consequences should he fail to follow the rules. But it is best to be clear about when the landlord can enter your living space in advance, so get them to put it in the contract so everyone is clear.
- Tenant will pay $___ for maintenance fees
Many fees are legal, so be careful what you sign. The lease might say you must pay $50 fee for lawn mowing. Before you know it, the lawn guy is showing up every two weeks, winter, spring, summer and fall and you end up paying an extra $100 per month. And it is legal – a judge will say “it’s in the lease”. If there is a fee clause in the lease, you want to make sure it specifies how often and under what circumstances the fee will be charge, not just the amount.
- Lease will automatically renew
Don’t sign this. You want the ability to renegotiate your lease. If not, you might forget, the lease renews and when you try to move you are stuck for another year.
Most landlords are honest and want to work with tenants in a positive way, and they won’t mind negotiating a lease that works for both parties. If not, then look elsewhere.