Signing a Lease

The most important step in protecting your rights as a tenant is to read your lease and understand what your responsibilities are when you sign it.

A written lease protects both you and your landlord by clarifying the rights and obligations of each party. Verbal agreements are difficult to prove or enforce should a problem arise. A tenant's lack of awareness of the obligations they agreed to in their leases does not release them from those obligations. To avoid surprises, obtain written copies of all your agreements, and make sure you understand the obligations that you are taking on under those agreements when you sign your lease.

Any changes or additions to the lease should be agreed to by both you and your landlord. They should appear in the lease before it is signed, and should be initialed by both you and the landlord. A rider or addendum may be attached to the lease and should be signed and dated by both parties. If the landlord has agreed to make repairs, for example, this statement should be included in the rider.

Some landlords require a co-signer on a lease if a student is under 21 years of age and has no prior rental references. After you have signed the lease, the landlord may mail it to whomever you designate (usually a parent) to obtain another signature. The co-signer will be held responsible if the rent is not paid or if any problems arise.

Be sure to get a copy of the signed lease from your landlord and keep it in a safe place. You may need it for future reference or if any problems occur during the term of the lease.

The following points should be covered in the lease:

  • Names and addresses of landlord and tenant(s).
  • Description of the property being rented.
  • The number of people allowed to live in the unit. DC law prohibits occupancy by more than six unrelated persons.
  • Dates covered by the lease, when and if the lease can be renewed, and when and how the lease can be ended. If the lease is terminated early, is there a penalty?
  • Are you allowed to sublet?
  • What is the amount of the rent and when is it due? Is there any grace period if not paid on this date? Is there a penalty for late payment? When can the rent be increased?
  • Are utilities included in the rent? If some are included, they should be specified.
  • Who is responsible for maintenance and repairs? How will these costs be handled? Are you expected to pay any part?
  • Is extermination part of the maintenance? How often will it be done? Who will pay for it?
  • Are pets allowed? If so, is there an extra charge?
  • If the accommodation is furnished, a list of the furniture and its condition should be included in the lease. Who is responsible for the furnishings in case of fire or theft?
  • Who has the right of entry to the rental unit? May the owner enter for inspection or repairs?
  • Is a security deposit required? If so, how much? When and under what conditions will it be returned?
  • If renting a room within a house, what areas may you use and when? Are there any kitchen restrictions? What are the guest policies?