The All-Important Lease

My new tenants gave me their security deposit, and signed the lease tonight, which means I got to take that “FOR RENT” sign out of my yard. The lease itself, I’ve hemmed and hawed over since the beginning. I’m still not sure I’ve got it just right.

There are many standard lease forms out there. There are, of course, many online sources to sift through. My local multi-housing organization sells a standard form for a couple of dollars. I also have a book called Every Landlord’s Legal Guide that includes a standard form. My tenant screening service offers a lease. And, of course, my city’s tenant’s rights organization offers their own version of a standard lease, for free. When I first bought my duplex, my boyfriend at the time (who also owned a duplex) was using a lease drawn up by his father, a patent lawyer who had been renting out investment property for years. He claimed it was “bulletproof.”

Well, when I was reading many of the standard lease forms (ESPECIALLY the one from the tenant’s rights organization), they all seemed to be written explicitly to protect the tenant. After all, in most cases where there is a landlord/tenant dispute, the landlord is made out to be the bad guy. And while this may sometimes be the case, I’m not a “bad guy.” I wanted something to protect ME.

And the free one, from the tenant’s rights organization was several pages long. It even included a little schedule where I was supposed to fill in all of the utility bills for the past year! Sorry, I’m not out to stomp upon any tenant’s rights, but there’s no way I’m using that one.

And so I settled upon the “bulletproof” lease, and made some additions and subtractions. I removed some things that seemed unnecessary; I also added some clauses that I lifted from old leases I had filed away from my renting days. I also included some things that applied directly to my property (outlining where tenant storage is, pet policies, etc.). My landlord book said to state these kinds of things separately, in a “house rules” amendment, but that seemed odd to me. I wanted to have it all on one simple piece of paper to sign. My landlord book ALSO said not to make any changes to any lease without first running them past a lawyer. Not having a lawyer at my direct disposal, I took my chances and added this clause, lifted directly from my landlord book:

All of the terms and provisions of this Agreement are fully set forth herein, and no prior understanding or obligation not expressly set forth herein shall be binding upon the parties, and no subsequent modification of this Agreement shall be binding upon the parties unless in writing. Waiver of any term of this rental agreement at any time shall not be deemed a waiver on any other occasion nor of any other term. If any provision of this Agreement is held to be nonenforceable, the remainder of this Agreement shall not be affected thereby and shall remain valid and enforceable.

And hoped that I hadn’t altered the lease’s “bulletproof” qualities.

I’m currently dating an attorney (don’t I sound fancy), and I asked him to have a look at my current lease. His first question — “Are you sure this was written by a lawyer?” Great. So it’s not bulletproof after all? He suggested I go with a standard lease, if only for the reason that if there’s a dispute, the answer is known. With my non-standard lease, there is more room for argument. However, I hadn’t found a standard lease that I was happy with, and didn’t have a lot of time for searching. So, I modified the lease some more, ran it past him, and went with it. At least for now.

Another benefit to a standard lease, I realized after my lease signing, is that the tenants may trust it more. Mine has clauses about them accepting all drains as free and clear, what happens if the duplex is destroyed by civil riot; all sorts of odd things. My new tenants are smart girls, the type who actually read leases, and I think it seemed a little weird to them too. Perhaps not the best way to get off on the right foot in a landlord/tenant relationship.

I think I’ll take my lawyer’s advice, and use a standard lease next time. I’ll have to do some searching to find one I’m happy with, and then draw up a separate “house rules” amendment to sign separately. For now, though, I’m just thrilled to have found new tenants so quickly.

If you don’t have the budget for consulting an actual lawyer (although really this isn’t the kind of place to cut corners), it’s good to at least have some sort of legal book to use as a guide.

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