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The concept of renting seems easy enough – find a place that meets your needs, agree with the landlord on price and length of lease, sign and make your payments.  But you should understand the importance of your obligations as a tenant as well as the obligations of the landlord under the lease.

LEASE BASICS

A lease is a contract between tenant and landlord for the use of a property. The lease term is typically for 12 months, but can span a greater or lesser time period.  Leases can also be “at will,” which means there is no set end date. The lease continues month to month until either the landlord or tenant provides the other with the requisite notice to terminate the lease.  The lease also sets forth most of the obligations for landlord and tenant as they relate to the rental.

General Landlord Obligations

  • Warranty of Habitability: A landlord must ensure that the leased premises are fit for living. This means a landlord is required by law, regardless of specific contract terms, to provide access to hot water, heat, light and electricity.  But even though these basic services must be provided, it is permissible for a landlord to specify the services for which he or she will pay within the terms of the lease.
  • Warranty of Quiet Enjoyment: Once the lease term begins, tenants have a right to full access and use of the premises, undisturbed by the landlord. For example, a landlord cannot change the locks without providing a key or use a portion of the rented space without permission and agreement from the tenant.

General Tenant Obligations

  • Rental Payment: Tenants have a duty to pay rent for the entire lease according to the terms set forth in the lease. If a tenant fails to pay rent on time, the landlord can take action and begin eviction proceedings. The landlord may also be able charge a late fee or penalty.
  • Duty to Report: Generally, a tenant does not have a duty to make repairs unless required to do so under the lease. But, if major repairs are needed for the rental, such as fixing a leaky roof or broken window, or there are concerns about flooding, the tenant has a duty to inform the landlord of the need for repairs and to give the landlord adequate time to respond.

LEASE PROVISIONS

Rather than create and write a new lease for each tenant, many landlords use “standard form” leases which include basic provisions.  Tenants do have the ability to negotiate with the landlord over the terms of the lease before signing.

A tenancy without a defined time period is called a tenancy at will.  As a tenant at will, tenants still have a right to “lawful and exclusive possession” of the rented property, even if there is no written lease. A landlord may not enter a tenant’s property without permission, unless an emergency arises or immediate repairs are needed.  Generally, a tenant at will maintains a month-to-month rent payment schedule.

Outside of the terms in a standard form lease, landlords may attempt to include many of their own provisions to favor themselves. Landlords cannot disclaim all liability, however.  Even if certain terms are included in the lease, those terms are not always enforceable against the tenant.  Keep in mind the following examples of provisions that landlords can—and cannot—include within your lease:

Provisions the Landlord CAN include in the lease:

  • Require tenants to remove snow. Snow removal, as well as other ordinary maintenance (such as yard work and picking up small trash) items may be included in the lease if the tenant has a means of egress separate from other occupants.
  • Require tenants to pay for various utilities. One selling point for some rental units is the inclusion of certain utilities such as heat, water or electricity.  Tenants must be careful to note which utilities will be their responsibility and which will not.
  • Require tenants to pay rent by a particular method. Tenants may be required to have rent paid by direct deposit, check, cash, or online.  The terms of the lease will often dictate this requirement and may be negotiable if discussed with the landlord in advance of the signing of the lease.

 Provisions the Landlord CANNOT include in the lease:

  • Disclaim liability for all common areas such as elevators, stairways, lobbies or hallways.  These areas are often used by other residents, cleaning staff, delivery people, invitees and the landlord.  Accordingly, the landlord is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of these areas.
  • Disclaim liability for all irregularities inside the apartment not caused by the tenant or their guests such as a broken heater, rodent or cockroach infestation, lack of hot water, or loss of water pressure.  The landlord is required by law to provide habitable premises so that the tenant has full enjoyment of the property he or she has leased.
  • Require tenant to make all necessary repairs, large or small such as a leak in the roof or an electrical issue.  Issues that are beyond the control of the tenant are generally the responsibility of the landlord.
  • Landlord can enter the property at any time for any reason.  A landlord does not have an unconditional right of entry—the tenant is paying rent in exchange for the right to exclusive possession.  The landlord can enter to make repairs or show the unit to a prospective tenant, but only after making a reasonable effort to notify the tenant first (with very few exceptions, such as emergency repairs).

“BREAKING” A LEASE

The general rule is that a lease is a contract that obligates the tenant to pay rent and the landlord to provide habitable living space for a set period of time.  During that time, the landlord cannot raise the rent or levy additional charges, nor can the landlord evict a tenant through court proceedings before the end of the lease term unless the tenant breaks the terms of the lease.  Similarly, the tenant is obligated to pay rent for the full term of the lease unless the landlord breaks the terms of the lease.  Therefore, tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term whether or not they continue to live in the rental unit.  Limited exceptions include:

  • The tenant is starting active military duty;
  • The condition of the rental unit violates Massachusetts health or safety codes;
  • The tenant is a victim of domestic violence; or
  • The landlord harasses the tenant or violates the tenant’s right to privacy.

In Massachusetts, landlords are required to make a reasonable effort to find another tenant if the tenant tries to leave early without the landlord’s approval. Once the landlord finds another tenant, the tenant who broke the lease will no longer owe rent from the time the new lease begins.  Accordingly, tenants can often minimize their financial responsibility by working directly with the landlord rather than simply moving out and continuing to be responsible for the remainder of the rent and hoping the landlord finds someone else. Common courtesy and communication, such as writing a letter explaining why the lease is being broken may help the situation. If possible, outgoing tenants should try to secure a new qualified tenant with good credit and references to take their place and sign a new lease.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Visit our website on tenant rights for more information.  Also review the landlord obligations page. If you have further questions, call the Consumer Information Hotline at (617) 973-8787 or email us.

 

 

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