There are some things in life you can be casual about. Happy hour, cut-off shorts, kickball, responding to texts from your mom. There are other things, however, that you definitely cannot be casual about. Chief among those are your rights as a renter and the terms of your lease. Understanding your renter’s rights and what a lease guarantee is crucial to the stability of your living situation and your budget. Don’t panic if you’re not sure what it’s all about. Here’s a basic rule of thumb: Get all agreements and arrangements between you and your landlord signed in writing.
For more details tips and advice, check out this guide to NYC renters rights and leases in NYC.
What is a Lease?
Yeah, sure, you know what a lease is more or less, right? Sure you do, but it’s important to know the technical definition of what a lease is. In technical terms, a lease is a written, contractual agreement between you and your landlord that outlines the terms on which you will rent your apartment and the length of time the lease is valid.
A lease includes the legal terms relating to and information about:
- Length of the lease
- Rent payments, including penalties for late payment or failed payment
- Security deposits
- Right of Habitability
- Special rules, such as use of candles, holiday decorations, noise, etc.
Why Should I Sign a Lease?
Leases protect both you and your landlord by ensuring that both formally agree to the same terms. It ensures that a tenant will be supplied with the property in a habitable condition for the duration of the lease. Additionally, it locks in the cost of the apartment at an agreed-to rate for the duration of the lease, preventing a landlord from raising your rent before the lease is up, without notice.
It also ensures your landlord that rent will be paid on time each month and what will happen if it is not paid. The lease further serves to protect the landlord financially from any damage caused to the property.
What Happens If I’m Late on My Rent?
Most leases will stipulate penalties for late rent payments. Typically it will be a small “late fee” for one-time occurrences. For repeat offenses, the penalty can be severe, culminating in possible eviction. If you realize that you’re going to be late on rent payments repeatedly, it is best to have a discussion with your landlord early on and review the terms of your lease.
Can I Withhold Paying Rent?
In short, yes. But, be careful. If you believe that your living conditions violate the “warranty of habitability” standards, then you have every right to withhold rent. Before you do this, however, it is best to check with the resources on NYC Fair Housing’s website to ensure that you will be protected by anti-retaliation laws.
So, What is the Warranty of Habitability?
Whenever you sign a lease, you are protected by what New York City calls the Warranty of Habitability. Essentially, it ensures that paying rent is obligatory only if the property provides habitable living conditions. This is an important protection for tenants, ensuring that landlords maintain safe and comfortable apartments.
The Warranty of Habitability includes protections around:
- Hot water
- Broken locks
- Lead paint
- …and many other common property issues
How Do I Renew My Lease?
At the end of a lease cycle, most landlords will offer you the right to renew your lease — provided you were a good tenant. This will typically include signing another contract for a new duration of time (one year, two years, etc.), and in New York City, this re-signing is typically accompanied by an increase in rent.
What is a Fair Rent Increase?
It’s illegal for a landlord to raise the rent on your apartment until the lease reaches its termination date. That’s great for you but there’s often a catch. When your lease termination date finally rolls around, your landlord will most likely jump on this opportunity to raise your rent.
Unless you live in rent-stabilized, rent-controlled, or subsidized housing, a landlord can technically raise the rent as much as they want to when renewing a lease. In most cases, landlords typically increase rent by between 3 and 6 percent. If your apartment was undervalued or came with rent concessions when you signed the previous lease, you should expect to see an increase closer to 6 percent. Likewise, if your neighborhood has greatly gentrified over the course of your lease, your landlord is likely to capitalize on that and present you with a higher rent increase. In almost all cases, landlords usually will give at least 30 days notice of the option to renew a lease, with the corresponding rent increase.
If you receive a rent increase that seems egregious, it is possible to negotiate — just as the rent in your original lease was negotiable. All in all, it is typically cheaper and more financially secure for a landlord to retain their current tenants, so determine what you consider to be a fair increase (based on the standard of living rate, the neighborhood value, etc.) and have a discussion with your landlord.
When it comes to rent-stabilized, rent-controlled, or subsidized housing, landlords are limited in the amount that a rent can increase, either by percentage or total property value. Nyc.gov is a great resource and starting point if you are looking for specific rules regarding these types of properties.
What If I Don’t Renew My Lease?
If you choose not to renew your lease, you are required to vacate the property on the last day of your lease. This includes removing all furniture and property and returning the keys.
Before vacating an apartment, your landlord will typically send you a letter or email describing the state the apartment should be left in, which should serve as your outline for receiving your security deposit. After you have moved out all your stuff, your landlord will come around and inspect the apartment. Depending on the state of your apartment, your landlord will either refund your deposit in full or send you an itemized list of deductions based on damage to the apartment.
Pro Tip: It’s super important to take pictures when you move in so you have visual evidence to compare the original pre-occupancy condition with the post-occupancy condition. In the case that your landlord fails to return your security deposit, or you receive deductions that you do not agree with, this will be necessary in taking the issue to small claims court.
How Do I File a Complaint About My Landlord?
If you find yourself needing to file a complaint against your landlord, you can do it through NYC’s 311 service. It is generally advised that you contact your landlord about a known issue before filing an official complaint with the city. This gives you a stronger case should the complaint be contested or challenged.
Most people contact 311 with complaints around:
- Heat and hot water
- Broken locks
- Unsanitary conditions
How and Why Can I Be Evicted?
You can be evicted for two main reasons:
- Failure to pay rent
- Violation of the lease terms
If you fail to pay rent, and repeatedly fail to do so in violation of their lease, your landlord can provide a three-day notice to pay rent. If rent is not paid in those three days, your landlord can continue with eviction proceedings. That means that you will be served with an eviction notice by a marshal, and be removed from the apartment approximately four to six days later.
If you violate any terms of a lease, your landlord has grounds again for eviction. Typically, your landlord will provide a 30-day notice for you to correct the violation. If you fail to correct the violation in that time, then your landlord can continue with eviction proceedings.
Yikes! Try not to let this happen to you. Being in contact with your landlord regarding any rent payment or lease violation issues early on in the process can help prevent situations from escalating to an eviction. Being upfront and having open lines of communication around these issues in imperative for both protecting yourself and your property.