BEFORE YOU SIGN A LEASE...
A lease is a legally binding contract (rental agreement) between the tenant and landlord. By entering into a lease, a tenant binds him or herself to certain obligations, including the obligation to pay rent and to stay in the apartment for a certain period of time.
Rental agreements can be either:
Any rental agreements may be:
• for a set period of time, such as for one year
• for an open ended period of time, either month-to-month or week-to-week
There is often a financial price to pay for a tenant "breaking a lease" early. Generally, a tenant can get out of a lease early, with no further liability, only if the landlord has not repaired serious housing code violations within a reasonable time after being notified of them in writing by the tenant. If the tenant breaks the lease for a reason that is not the fault of the landlord, the tenant can be held liable for the rent until the lease expires or the apartment is re-rented, although the landlord has an obligation to make a good faith effort to re-rent the apartment as quickly as possible.
Leases must comply with applicable laws. Any provision(s) in a lease which violates a law cannot be enforced by the landlord, even if the tenant agrees to the provision(s) in writing. Parts of the same lease that do not violate the law, however, will be enforceable.
Many leases, including some drafted by lawyers, contain provisions that cannot be enforced because they violate landlord/tenant law. Some common lease provisions that are partially or completely unenforceable include the following:
LATE FEES: A late fee can only be for the money that a landlord can document loosing because the tenant is late with the rent. A late fee provision that is simply a standing penalty, or is otherwise not reasonably related to the landlord's actual expenses, is not enforceable.
TENANT DEFAULT: Some leases state
that if the tenant "defaults",
such as by not paying rent or by breaching
a lease provision, the landlord can
reenter the apartment and make the
tenant leave at once or within a few
days. This is not legal. If a landlord
wants a tenant out, the landlord must
follow proper eviction procedures,
and may only reenter the apartment
and move the tenant's property out
after getting a court order. This will
usually take several months, and the
tenant will have a chance to fight
the eviction in court. Any lease provision
which states that the tenant waives
his or her right to the full eviction
process is unenforceable.
LANDLORD ACCESS TO THE HOME: The landlord must give a tenant 48 hours notice before entering the tenant's home, unless there is an emergency or the tenant agrees to let the landlord in. If the lease calls for less notice, or no notice at all, this is a violation of the law.
REPAIRS: The landlord is responsible for arranging and paying for all repairs to the apartment, unless the tenant or the tenant's guest caused the damage. A lease provision that requires the tenant to be responsible for normal repairs is invalid.
DEPOSITS: Landlords must return the deposit or give the tenant a written, itemized list of the deductions within 14 days of the day the tenant moves out. A lease provision that says the landlord has longer than 14 days is invalid. In Burlington and Barre City, landlords must pay interest on the deposit. In the rest of the state, landlords do not have to pay interest unless the lease specifically says they will.
Many leases state that if the tenant leaves before the lease period ends, the tenant forfeits some or all of the deposit. If the tenant moves out early because of serious problems with the apartment (such as major health or safety code violations) and the landlord has been notified but taken no significant remedial action in an appropriately timely manner, the landlord ordinarily cannot legally keep any of the deposit.
ABANDONED PROPERTY: If a tenant leaves property behind, the landlord must store the tenant's personal property in a safe and dry location for at least 60 days. Landlords may dispose of trash, garbage or other worthless refuse immediately. The landlord must send the tenant a letter, mailed to the tenant's last known address, notifying the tenant that the he or she plans to take possession or dispose of the property if the tenant does not claim it within the 60 day period. The 60 days begins to run from the date of the notice, not the date that the tenant abandons the unit, so if the landlord intends to dispose of the tenant's property he or she must send this notice first. The tenant may claim the property within the 60 days by providing the landlord with a reasonable written description of the property, as well as payment of the fair and reasonable cost of storage and any related reasonable expenses incurred by the landlord. If the tenant provides the written description and payment to the landlord, the landlord must make the property available to the tenant immediately, at a reasonable place. The landlord may only require the tenant to pay the reasonable storage and related expenses before returning the property.
ATTORNEY FEES: Leases often state
that a tenant is liable for the landlord's
attorney fees if they go to court.
This lease provision, however, simply
gives the landlord the right to ask
the judge to order the tenant to pay
the attorney fees. It is up to a judge
to decide if the tenant has to pay,
and if the tenant wins the case, or
the judge decides it is not fair, the
tenant will not have to pay the attorney
The rights and responsibilities of
tenants are fully explained in the
book Renting In Vermont, and before
entering into a lease it is a good
idea to look at this book. Single copies
are available for free from your local
Community Action or Legal Aid office,
or from Vermont Tenants, Inc. Bulk
copies are available on a sliding scale
from Vermont Tenants, Inc. If you have
any questions call Vermont Tenants,
Inc. at 864-0099.
This handout was prepared by Vermont
Tenants, Inc., a program of the Champlain
Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
It was developed with legal assistance,
but does not constitute a legal opinion
Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity