The ‘Good-to-Knows’ of Lease Writing

Before we get into the weeds with this guide, let’s make something clear: please consider consulting an attorney or professional Washington, DC property management company about lease writing. There’s too much at stake here for you to try to only self-teach.

It is, however, good practice to have a basic understanding of what goes into a lease and where to keep a watchful eye. This post will focus on the “good-to-knows” because you should have someone on your side that is professionally trained in the “need-to-knows.” No, your brother who just read a Wikihow does not count as “professional.”

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Common Elements of the Lease:

  • Names and dated signatures of the lessor(s) and lessee(s)
  • The property address
  • The beginning and ending dates
  • The rent terms — that includes the amount, due dates and policy on late rent
  • The security deposit amount and the terms in which it will be returned
  • Policies about parking, pets, overnight guests, subletting among others
  • Notice and other requirements around terminating the lease
  • Notice that violation of lease terms is grounds for eviction
  • Date the lease was signed
  • Required disclosures (i.e., lead-based paint disclosure)
  • Policies regarding utilities (does the landlord or tenant pay, etc.)
  • Maximum occupancy
  • Policies regarding storage areas
  • Policies regarding landlord right of entry
  • Situations where the tenant will be asked to grant access to maintenance workers

If you’ve seen a lease before you know that they can be quite long, and too many people neglect to read them. That won’t be you though, dear reader. You’ll read it cover to cover. Here are the things you’ll keep a laser-sharp eye out for, in any case.

The security deposit and the terms in which it will be returned

Security deposits are necessary to help ensure landlords have the money to make the repairs that they’re required to make. However, many landlord-tenant relationships are soiled when it comes time to return what’s left of the security deposit.

These disputes happen when there isn’t enough communication and understanding regarding the laws, lease and the day-to-day operations of a landlord. To avoid this, first, you must state clearly what you will be responsible for fixing out of your pocket and what the tenants will have to cover. We outlined this in more detail in the next section. However, as a general rule of thumb, the landlord must cover wear-and-tear, and the tenant’s security deposit covers unpaid utilities, damaged property, and post-lease cleaning.

Next, you must communicate clearly with your tenants when you’re pulling from their security deposit pool. You must provide an itemized list of repairs of what you used the deposit for at the end of a lease. However, if they can keep a running tab on how much they can expect back at the end of their contract it’s less likely they’ll be shocked or angry to receive less than expected.

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Finally, you have to understand what your state’s laws are regarding security deposits and the schedule in which you must return them. Often, landlords make repairs after the tenants move out, but that doesn’t mean you can drag your feet with their money. For example, in DC a landlord must return the remaining balance of the security deposit within 45 days of lease termination.

Communication and understanding are essential for an amicable move-out.

Who is responsible for what?

Read the DC Tenant Bill of Rights.

Did you read it yet? Didn’t think so. At least take a peek at Section 6. Stop reading this until you have done that.

Okay, you’re back. Good. Let’s talk about the Warranty of Habitability; every state has some implicit or explicit variation of it. It states that you, the landlord, must keep your property up to code. That includes heat, light, air ventilation, pests, safety and security among other things. Think of all basic modern comforts and amenities necessary in your location. Air conditioning is more important in Arizona than it is in Alaska, so the responsibilities of landlords change accordingly.

In addition to Warranty of Habitability, landlords also typically cover “normal wear-and-tear.” You can negotiate the specifics of what “normal” counts as, but this tends to include everything from dishwashers that breakdown from age to scuff marks on the walls and stains on the carpet. These clauses prevent landlords from charging tenants additional fees for merely existing — rent is meant to cover that. Any negligence on the tenant’s part is their responsibility, like if they grind up a glass in the garbage disposal or break a window.

An attorney or property manager can help you write a lease that makes the distinction more clear and defensible in court. We strongly recommend this.

Notice and requirements for terminating the lease

Evictions are upsetting and an option of last resort, but they are sometimes necessary. There are also many legal hurdles and restrictions that go into an eviction. In DC, a landlord may only evict a tenant for one of ten statutory reasons.

  • Nonpayment of rent
  • Violation of an obligation of tenancy, of which the tenant failed to correct after notice
  • Tenant performed an illegal act within the rental unit
  • Landlord seeks in good faith to occupy the rental unit for personal use and occupancy
  • Landlord sells the rental unit to a party who seeks in good faith to occupy the rental unit for personal use and occupancy
  • Landlord seeks to renovate rental unit in a manner in which tenant cannot safely hold
  • Landlord seeks to demolish rental unit
  • Landlord seeks to rehabilitate rental unit substantially
  • Landlord seeks to discontinue rental unit for housing and occupancy; or
  • Landlord seeks to convert the rental unit to a condominium or cooperative after securing governmental approval.

We’ve said it plenty of times in this article, but it’s worth restating — please consult an attorney or professional property manager. Landlords must go through the judicial process for all evictions and RAD filings must be submitted in all cases other than those on non-payment. Multiple steps are required to file for an eviction properly. Eviction is a time-consuming and complicated process. You can attempt to go it alone, but you risk your own mistakes and bureaucratic slog.

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We also want to stress that you cannot attempt to evict someone outside of the judicial process. In DC, you can’t raise the rents with the intent to force them out, lock the doors, remove their property or force them out in any way on your own. It’s illegal, and you can face lawsuits.

There are many resources online to help you create a lease on your own. One important final note is that in lease disputes if one section of the document is ruled invalid, the rest of the text is usually sustained. Regardless, be diligent with this piece of the landlord guide to avoid winding up in small claims court. Happy leasing!

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