Residential Lease Agreement

A standard residential lease agreement (or “rental agreement”) is a written document between a landlord and tenant that formalizes an agreement to rent real property for a fee. The contract must include specific details such as the monthly rent and the responsibilities of each party.

State-Specific Lease Agreement Templates


Residential Lease Agreement Basics

Standard residential leases should contain the following elements:

  • Premises. The space to be rented.
  • Landlord. The owner of the premise or lessor.
  • Tenant. The renter who wants to live in the premises or lessee.
  • Term. The length of time the tenant will stay at the premises.
  • Rent. The amount of money paid by the tenant.

Rental lease agreements may also be used for these dwellings:

  • Duplex
  • Townhouse
  • Room Rental
  • Mobile Home
  • Vacation Rental
  • In-law Suite
  • Other living spaces
  • Rent-to-own options

Lease vs. Rental Agreement

A rental agreement secures a tenancy for a short period of time, typically a month. Month-to-month rental agreements automatically renew each month unless the landlord or tenant provides their notice to terminate. Landlords can typically increase rent, change the terms of tenancy, or terminate the agreement on short notice. Landlords in steady rental markets often prefer month-to-month agreements. However, month-to-month tenancies mean tenant turnover which involves more work to keep the property full.

A lease secures a tenancy for a longer period of time, typically a year. During that time, the landlord is not allowed to raise the rent, change the terms of the tenancy or terminate the lease on short notice unless the lease allows for modifications or the tenant agrees in writing to the changes. Landlords in high vacancy areas often prefer leases.

Types of Lease Agreements

Fixed-term. The most common form of tenancy is a fixed-term arrangement with payment due every month, usually on the first day, and the term is usually for one year. Under normal circumstances, these agreements cannot be terminated by the landlord or tenant during the term.

Month-to-Month Rental Agreement. Also termed “tenancy at will” has no end date but either the landlord or tenant may decide to alter or terminate the agreement with usually at least one month’s written notice.

Roommate Agreement. This contract binds the tenants that are collectively renting from a landlord. A roommate agreement is when more than one person lives in a residence together while sharing the common areas. The agreement can be constructed in two ways:

  • Among roommates. This agreement is between the roommates and establishes any items to create a happy living atmosphere.
  • Among roommate(s) and landlord. This agreement is between the roommate(s) and the landlord allowing the roommate(s) to rent a room from the landlord and share common areas.

Sublease Agreement. This is when a tenant has a lease and is forced to vacate the premises while still being liable until the end of the agreement period. They can, with the landlord’s permission, rent the space to someone else in order to help pay for the rent.

Renting Without a Lease Agreement

Renting a property without clearly written rules and expectations of the tenancy is an invitation for trouble. The landlord-tenant relationship can be complicated—with so many federal, state and local laws that govern residential property rentals makes it that much more complex. By writing a lease or rental agreement, all of the details of your tenancy will be recorded and legally binding—and as a result (if written in detail) can reduce unintentional lease violations by either the landlord or the tenant.

Some landlords don’t use written leases—they prefer to have a verbal agreement with their tenants. While verbal agreements can be legally binding, they can be difficult to prove to a judge. By signing a written rental agreement or lease your arrangement becomes legally binding and you have proof of your agreement. Here are a few more reasons why using a written lease is important:

  • Complies with state and local law. Many state and local laws require written rental arrangements for tenancies that last longer than a year. Also, some state and local landlord-tenant laws require landlords to make disclosures or impose duties relating to tenancies.
  • It helps you avoid disputes. With no clear written agreement, every conflict has the potential to escalate into a legal battle.
  • Ensures your rights to security deposits. Without a written agreement, landlords run the risk of not being able to collect or use a security deposit for unpaid rent or damages.

Common Lease and Rental Agreement Provisions

A residential lease or rental agreement is a written plan of the tenancy—it defines the rights and responsibilities of both the landlord and tenant(s). It also serves as a guideline for when rent is due, the duration of the tenancy, and specific rental provisions that are either required by law or agreed to by the landlord and tenant.

Lease terms and conditions should be negotiated (if negotiable) by the landlord and tenant(s). If you are concerned that you’re not getting a good value for the amount you would be paying on rent or are worried by the house rules and provisions that have been added on to a lease, then negotiating terms can help you find out what options are available to you.

To negotiate rent, get an idea of the market pricing in your area, by going online and viewing related properties and their monthly asking price. Landlords are less likely to negotiate on the price of rent and more likely to offer tenants additional benefits. So, what else can be negotiated on besides the rent? Here are a few items you might consider trying to negotiate:

  • Security Deposit
  • Late Rent Penalties
  • Parking
  • Storage
  • Utilities
  • Smoking Policy
  • Subletting
  • Cosigners

Keep in mind, landlords are not required to negotiate rental pricing, fees, benefits or other provisions they have added. However, tenants have the right to shop around and not sign a lease that does not fit their criteria.

The length of a lease or rental agreement will vary based on the number of provisions it contains—don’t worry if yours is more than a few pages. These documents should be written clearly (preferably typed) and straightforward. Regardless of whether you choose to complete a lease or a rental agreement, you’ll want to address the following:

Deposits and fees. Some of the most common issues between landlords and tenants center around security deposits. Many states have laws that limit the amount a landlord can ask for, how the deposit can be used, how the deposit will not be used and how the deposit will be returned after any deductions or non-returnable fees have been deducted. Expect to detail the amount of the security deposit, cleaning and pet deposit, or the last month’s rent. You might also want to include details on where the security deposit will be held and if the landlord will pay interest on the deposit (required in some states).

Grounds for termination of tenancy. Landlords often include a clause stating that any violation of the lease or rental agreement by a tenant or their guests can be grounds for terminating the tenancy. Laws for terminating a tenancy differ based on the type of lease agreement signed (lease or rental agreement) and by the state and in some cases the city in which the property resides.

Names and addresses of landlords. The landlord’s name and complete address should be included in a lease or rental agreement. If the landlord is using a property manager or company that is authorized to receive notices on their behalf their name and address should be included also. Some states require a landlord to disclose the contact information of anyone authorized to speak on behalf of or accept payments for the property to the tenant(s).

Names of tenants and occupants. Each adult who resides in the rental should be named as a tenant and sign the lease or rental agreement. By requiring all adult occupants to be official tenants allows a landlord to hold each tenant legally responsible for paying the total amount of rent and following the terms. If one of the tenants terminate their lease, landlords can legally seek the entire rent payment from any of the other tenants on the lease. Additionally, if one of the tenants move out or violates the lease, the landlord can terminate the tenancy for all of the tenants.

Rent. There’s a lot more to this than the monthly rent amount. Leases and rental agreements typically specify the amount of rent due, when and where it’s due, acceptable forms of payment and any additional charges or late fees that apply. Keep in mind, in areas without rent control, landlords can charge any amount for their property.

Rental property details.  Your lease or rental agreement may include the property (premises) details such as storage areas, furnishings, and other amenities that are included with the rental property.  Before signing a lease or rental agreement, make sure that it includes the complete address (building and unit number, if applicable) as well as any amenities promised. For example, if the rental includes storage space, you will want to provide information on where it is and how to access it.

Tenant’s maintenance responsibilities. Leases or rental agreements usually include a provision making the tenant responsible for keeping the rental clean and in good condition. It also obligates a tenant to reimburse their landlord to repair any damages they caused. Some leases and rental agreements detail specific tenant responsibilities, in addition to what they can’t do in the way of repairs.

Term of the tenancy. The term of the tenancy is the length of time the property will be rented. A lease should include a start and end date. If it is a rental agreement (usually short-term tenancies) it should include a start date and renew automatically until the landlord or tenant decides to terminate.

When and how landlords may enter the property. Many state laws specify when landlords may legally enter a rental property and the amount of notice required to the tenant. Landlords will sometimes include this information in the lease or rental agreement while others might not be aware of these laws and write in illegal provisions. Check your state and local access laws and make sure that your lease or rental agreement is compliant with them—illegal entry and tenant privacy violations typically have legal consequences.

Disclosures and Other Provisions

After adding all of the essential information to the lease or rental agreement, you may want to tailor it to reflect the individual aspects of your rental. If a rule or regulation is pressing enough to you that you would want to terminate a tenancy if it was violated, be sure that it is included in the lease or rental agreement. Additional rules that are not as important can be written in a supplementary document. Here are some commonly included policies that are added to a lease or rental agreement:

Attorney fees and court costs in a lawsuit. Some leases and rental agreements will define who pays the expenses of a lawsuit if the landlord and tenant go to court over a breach of your rental agreement or lease such as, a dispute about the security deposit. These clauses explicitly require the losing side in a landlord-tenant dispute concerning the lease or rental agreement to pay the winning party’s attorney fees and court costs.

Condition of the rental unit. Leases and rental agreements customarily include a provision in which the tenant agrees that the rental is an inhabitable condition when they move in and promises to alert the landlord immediately to any dangerous conditions if they occur.

Extended absences. Some landlords require their tenants to notify them (in advance) of any extended absences they plan to be away from the premises. This is usually anything longer than a week. This clause can also state that the landlord has the right to enter the rental unit during your absence to main­tain the property (if necessary).

Limits on guest stay. Landlords might limit overnight guests to keep long-term guests from attaining the station of full-fledged tenants who have not been screened, approved by the landlord or listed on the lease or rental agreement.

No illegal activity. Landlords can limit their potential liability by including a clause prohibiting illegal and disruptive behavior—like using drugs, dealing drugs or causing trouble. If the tenant is involved in any illegal activity, the landlord can terminate their tenancy.

Pets. Landlords can prohibit all pets, or restrict the types allowed—with the exception of service and emotional support animals. If a rental is pet-friendly, it is helpful to include pet policies in the lease or rental agreement. Examples of this would be to write out how many pets a tenant can have, what types, breeds, and sizes of animals are allowed.

Restrictions on the number of occupants. Landlords will typically set a limit to the number of people who can live in their rental property. Federal law requires that landlords allow two people per bedroom.

Restrictions on the use of the property. Landlords can set any kind of rules and restrictions that they want on their rental property—as long as it’s not discriminatory, retaliatory or violates your state’s laws.

Smoking. Landlords can prohibit or restrict smoking of any kind in their rental property. If the landlord wants to limit smoking, they should include where tenants may smoke.

State and local disclosures. Many state and local laws require landlords to disclose documentation, policies, or specific unit information to tenants prior to moving in. Since these laws vary from state to state (and sometimes by city or county) it is important to have your agreement looked over by a landlord-tenant attorney in your state to guarantee the correct disclosures are included in your lease. Some disclosure laws impose heavy fines or legal ramifications to landlords if they are not followed.

Common state and local disclosures include:

  • notice of mold if the landlord knows that it exists
  • disclosure of recent deaths that occurred in the rental unit
  • state sexual offender registry information
  • notice of sex offenders that live in the area

The only federally required landlord disclosure pertains to lead-based. Known as Title X, this disclosure is designed to protect families from exposure to lead from paint, dust, and soil. Section 1018 of this law requires the disclosure of known information on lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards before the sale or lease of housing built before 1978.

Subletting. Cautious landlords do not allow tenants to sublet their rental property without their written consent. Landlords should review their state’s subletting laws to see if they are required to allow subletting.

Utilities. The lease should state who pays for each utility that services the premises. Generally, a landlord will cover the garbage and water. Tenants normally pay for the internet, cable, gas and electric service.

Conditions That Invalidate a Lease

Residential leases or rental agreements can contain provisions that violate state, local and/or federal laws. It is unlawful for a landlord to require a tenant to waive any of their rights or place discriminatory conditions in a lease or rental agreement. Illegal provisions may result in the landlord being liable for damages.

Here are a few examples of illegal provisions:

Charging penalties instead of fees. A penalty is a means to prevent specific behavior, while the fee is intended to cover losses. Individuals are not legally allowed to charge penalties but they can charge fees. So basically, while fees are legal, they cannot amount to a penalty. An example of this may be increasing the fee for late payments in order to punish the tenant for paying late. These penalties are not only unenforceable, but they may also violate state and local laws on landlord retaliation.

Making the tenant responsible for maintenance and repairs. Landlords need to pay for the property’s maintenance and repairs, however, many leases and rental agreements are written to purposely confuse tenants when describing the landlord’s responsibilities. This is to make tenants feel that the maintenance and repair responsibilities are theirs. Watch for language stating the tenant is responsible for maintenance and repairs — it is illegal and unenforceable.

Warranty of habitability. Every state has specific health and safety codes that provide minimum standards for rental units. If those standards are not met, proper notice is given by the tenant and the repairs/fixes are still not made within the allowable time period, a tenant would be considered “constructively evicted”. Do not sign a lease without a clause requiring the landlord to keep the unit habitable.

Security deposit. Security deposit deductions are the most common cause of lease disagreements. Tenants cannot be charged for damage they did not cause, costs the landlord did not incur, or normal wear and tear of the property. Many states regulate how a landlord can use a security deposit. Before signing a lease or rental agreement, make sure that it does not contain language that deviates from your state and local laws.


Landlord Licenses and Leases. In Washington, D.C landlords are required to obtain a rental license and business license (D.C. Code § 47-2828) prior to discussing a lease or rental agreement with a prospective tenant.

Additionally, read more about predatory lease agreement clauses and issues here.

State Requirements for Providing Copies to Tenants

After a lease agreement is signed by both the landlord and the tenant, the landlord may be required by state law to provide a copy of the rental agreement upon request. Those states include the following 11:

  • California. The landlord must provide a copy of the rental agreement or lease to the tenant within 15 days of its execution by the tenant. (Civ. Code §§ 1962(4))
  • Delaware. The landlord must provide a written copy of the agreement, free of charge (§ 5105 (b))
  • Hawaii. Landlord shall furnish a copy of the lease or rental agreement to the tenant. (§521-43(d))
  • Kansas. The landlord must give the tenant a copy of the lease that has been signed by both parties, and if the landlord does not do so and then later accepts rent from the tenant, that acceptance gives the rental agreement the same effect as if it had been signed and delivered by the landlord. The term of any such lease is limited to one year, regardless of the term stated in the lease. (§§ 58-2546)
  • New Mexico. Written rental agreement required to be given to each resident prior to move-in. (§ 47-8-20(G))
  • New York. In New York City, the landlord shall provide the tenant with a copy of any written rental agreement within 30 days of ratification. (General Obligations Law § 5-701).
  • Tennessee. A written lease is required for rental agreements that are for three years or longer. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-7-101)
  • Oregon. The landlord shall provide the tenant with a copy of any written rental agreement and all amendments and additions. (Or. Rev. Stat. § 90.220(3))
  • Utah. Before a lease begins, the owner must deliver an executed copy of the rental agreement, if the rental agreement is a written agreement; and a copy of any rules and regulations applicable to the residential rental unit. (UCA §§ 57-22-4(4))
  • Washington. For written rental agreements, the landlord shall provide an executed copy to each tenant who signs the rental agreement. The tenant may request one free replacement copy during the tenancy. (RCW §§ 59.18.065)
  • Wisconsin. Rental agreements and rules and regulations established by the landlord, if in writing, shall be furnished to prospective tenants for their inspection before a rental agreement is entered into, and before any earnest money or security deposit is accepted from the prospective tenant. Copies shall be given to the tenant at the time of the agreement. (Wis. Admin. Code §§ 134.03(1))