What to Pay Attention to When Signing a Lease


By SAJE Staff

August 25, 2023

Signing a lease might feel scary if you’ve never done it before. A lease is a legal contract, so it’s important to understand what the terms and conditions mean and what your rights as a renter are. If you’ve already checked out a place and liked what you saw, let’s dig into what to pay attention to when reviewing the lease.

Rent Control 

Check to see if the unit you intend to rent is covered by the City of Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance, Los Angeles County’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, or the California statewide rent control law AB 1482. These laws not only limit the amount the landlord can increase your rent every year, they also provide just-cause eviction protections and establish the amount of relocation assistance you can receive for a no-fault eviction, along with other protections.

Correct Names and Addresses

Make sure all names are right—yours, others, even the landlord’s. A small spelling mistake can become a big deal later. This goes for addresses and unit numbers, too. Be extra careful—check, check, and check again.

Security Deposit

The security deposit is money you give the landlord to prove you intend to move in and care for the unit. This money can be used to pay for specific kinds of property damage caused by you or your guests. 

It’s important to know the amount the landlord wants for the deposit. Currently, California law caps most security deposits at one month’s rent. Any more than that is illegal, except if the landlord owns two or fewer properties that collectively have no more than four rental units.

It’s also important to know how long it will take to get your security deposit back when you move out, and what expenses it might be used to pay for. If the lease doesn’t specify, ask the landlord to include these details.

If the landlord does deduct money from your security deposit when you move out, they must send you copies of the receipts. For more information about the rules governing security deposits, refer to California Civil Code § 1950.5.

Renter’s Fees

Be sure you understand all the fees specified in the lease. Common fees include the security deposit (or first and last month’s rent), application fees, pet fees or deposits, utility fees, late rental payment fees, maintenance and repair fees, parking fees, cleaning fees, HOA charges, and early termination fees. Not all leases have all these fees, but if you want to talk about or negotiate any fees, do so before you sign.

Note that in the City of Los Angeles, if you have assistance or support animals, they are not considered pets and you do not have to pay any extra charges or security deposits. To read more about rules governing service and support animals, click here.

Your Responsibilities

Your lease lays out what your responsibilities are as a renter. It covers things like maintenance, when rent is due, whether pets are allowed, how many people can stay in the unit, subleasing, limits on noise, and more. Carefully go through these details before you sign to make sure you are ok with all the rules and responsibilities. 

If something’s missing from the lease but matters to you, ask to add it before you sign. For instance, lots of renters use this moment to talk about adding a pet to the lease. It’s also a good time to set your ideal rent payment date. Some landlords prefer a specific date, but others might be flexible if you have a window of time that works better for you.

Guest Policies

Some leases include guest policies, while others don’t. These policies can set limits on how long visitors can stay. If your lease has a guest policy, make sure you are comfortable with it. This avoids issues like breaking the lease or getting changed extra rent because you have out-of-town visitors who stay with you for a few weeks. You definitely don’t want to get a notice saying you’re getting kicked out for having people over without permission. 

Furnishings and Appliances

If the unit comes with appliances or furniture like a refrigerator, stove, sofas, beds, or nightstands, your lease should list exactly what’s part of the deal. This avoids confusion later on: it ensures you get what you’re supposed to get when you move in, and that the landlord maintains the appliances while you’re there. It also ensures when you move out you aren’t charged for any “missing” items you never got.

Promised Amenities

If your landlord promised you extras like a parking spot or use of the pool, make sure they’re listed in the lease. This creates clarity, and it protects you if they ever take away these perks. Remember: renters in Los Angeles’ rent-controlled units get a rent reduction if services they were promised are suddenly removed. Protect yourself—get it in writing!

Rent Grace Period

Life can get tricky, and your rent might be late. Know how many days you have as a grace period and whether your landlord will charge you any late fees. Talking about this now beats getting a “pay now or leave” notice later. Even better, if you see a delay coming, tell your landlord in advance. It keeps things smoother for both sides.

If you live in the City of Los Angeles, your landlord cant evict you if you fall behind in rent unless the amount you owe is higher than the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for your unit. For more information, click here.

Lease Renewal Clause

Some leases renew automatically after the initial rental period is up, while others require new paperwork or revert to a month-to-month agreement. Knowing what kind of renewal clause you have is crucial. If that information is not in the lease, ask for it to be added. That way, you can plan accordingly, whether you intend to stay or move somewhere else.

Early Termination Clause

What happens if you want to move out before your lease is up? Some landlords might not permit early termination of the lease, as it means they’ll have to find a new renter for the unit sooner than expected. If you break your lease, you may have to pay expensive fees and fines. But you can ask about adding an early termination clause that waives or reduces those fees. And even if the landlord says no, it’s good to understand what the rules are so that there aren’t any surprises if you do need to move out earlier than expected.