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Understanding Your Lease
by Catherine Steele
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Remember that high school commencement speech about going out into the world and becoming an adult? Or maybe you were too busy planning your graduation party to pay attention (no one listens to those speeches, anyway). In any case, now you're getting ready to find your own place to live. Maybe you've already been to IKEA to pick out the perfect furniture for your very first apartment. Now for one of your first adult responsibilities - it's time to sign a lease. But before you get out your pen know what you're signing.

A lease is a written contract between a property owner and a renter. And, it's legally binding (which means that you have some rights, and the landlord has some rights... and if either party defaults, bad things can happen). Some of the sections of a standard lease:

No, not the beer bashes with hot women and music. "Parties" means the people living in the apartment.

The lease usually states how many adults will be living there. All your friends might want to move in, but your landlord won't be excited to find eight adults in an apartment he rented to four. He can kick you out for adding extra people, so call first for permission.

"Premises" simply means that address of the property you are renting. It's your new address!

Security Deposit
The security deposit covers damage. It's typically due before you move in, so plan ahead.

The refundable portion will be paid back to you when the lease ends. Check to see if you're required to provide a 30-day written notice before you move out. And, clean the apartment thoroughly when you leave.

Term of Agreement
The time period the lease is in effect. If you sign a one year lease, you are responsible for the rent the entire year, even if you want to move out earlier.

Rent and Late Fees
This outlines the amount of rent, and the date it's due. Don't mess around; this is where you can get into trouble. The lease often has a "grace period," after which a late fee is due. These add up. Paying late makes your landlord cranky. Not paying at all gets you kicked out.

In many cases, you'll pay some utilities, and the landlord will pay some. This section states who pays what.

Sometimes you can have them, sometimes you can't. Don't get a puppy if the lease says "no pets." Simple as that.

If the property owner says you can't smoke in the apartment, don't. And yes, that goes for any guests that come over. And yes, the landlord can'tell if you've been smoking inside. He won't like it.

Assignment or subletting means that you've rented the apartment to someone else, but your name is still on the lease. Some landlords allow this; others don't. Check your lease to be sure. In any case, your landlord wants to know who's living in his apartment. Give him a call before you make any changes. If you decide to sub-let, look closely at the lease to see just what your responsibilities are.

Maintenance, Repairs, Alterations
Nope, you probably can't paint your bedroom day-glo orange. Or knock down a wall. And, if something breaks, call the landlord. It's his responsibility to make repairs quickly.

Most leases state that you have to let the landlord inspect your apartment. Typically, you get advance notice (24 hours, at least). Most landlords have better things to do than tour your apartment. Unless he thinks you're running a meth lab, or you haven't paid rent, it probably won't happen.

Owner Not Liable
Get renter's insurance to cover your personal property in case of fire, flood or disaster. The landlord isn't going to pay for your IKEA sofa if the place burns down.

The landlord will keep the premises maintained, pay the utilities he's responsible for and rent to you until the lease ends. You will pay the rent on time and follow the rules outlined in the lease. Everyone does what they're supposed to do; everyone's happy and no one's in default.

Attorney's Fees
If the landlord violates the lease, you can'take him to court. If you violate the lease, he can'take you to court. The loser often pays the attorney's expenses. Ouch.

Illegal Activity
Paying the rent by dealing drugs: bad idea. Running a prostitution ring in the apartment: bad idea. Don't do anything illegal; you can get evicted.

Most leases require that any notices be in writing and be delivered at least 30 days before going into effect.

Depending on your specific lease, and the state you live in, there may be other sections for you to look at. Pay close attention and read the entire lease. Get everything in writing and discuss with the landlord any questions or concerns before you sign. Then, get ready to move in!

Catherine Steele is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. She's rented many apartments, and never once been evicted.

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