Understanding your lease as a tenant

Also in
Show Endnotes
Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

When you are renting a home, you may have a lease or contract. Leases are legal agreements that explain your rights and responsibilities as a tenant, as well as your landlord’s responsibilities. Leases also say the amount of rent you need to pay and the length of your tenancy.  

It is important to understand what is in your lease. If you plan to sign a written lease, read it carefully. If you do not understand something, ask follow-up questions or get advice. Your lease may have clauses that are not legal.  

Both you and your landlord must sign your lease. Within 30 days of signing it, the landlord must give you a copy. If you live in public housing, the public housing authority should always give you a free copy of your lease.  

Keep your lease in a safe place so you can go back to it and read it if you need to.

What should be in my lease?

Leases commonly include:

  • A description of the space you will be renting (number of rooms, size, etc.).  
  • How much rent you need to pay and how often.
  • How long your tenancy lasts.
  • Information about your security deposit if you paid one.
  • Whether you are responsible for paying any utilities like electricity, gas, or water. 
  • Rules and responsibilities that you have as a tenant. For example, rules about pets, subletting, or property damage.  
  • Contact information for your landlord.  
  • Information about how you can request repairs.  
  • Whether you have the option to renew your lease or whether it automatically extends.  
  • Names, addresses, and phone numbers of:
    • your landlord,  
    • any other person who maintains the property, and  
    • the person authorized to receive notices and court papers. (For example, it should include whether you send a court paper to your landlord, the owner, or anyone else.)

Your lease should not include any illegal terms.

How do I know if my lease has an illegal clause?

Your lease could include illegal clauses or terms. Common illegal clauses include:  

  • A clause that says you, as the tenant, are responsible for all repairs. 
    The law requires landlords to make repairs, except for when a tenant breaks something.  
  • A clause that says your landlord can use your security deposit to pay for utilities if you do not pay for them. 
    Your security deposit can only be used to pay for damage you cause, or for rent if you move out and still owe rent to the landlord.  
  • A clause that says you must pay for pay for electricity or gas where the service or bill is in your landlord's name. 
    Your landlord must pay electricity or gas if your apartment is not individually metered to measure only the electricity and gas you use.  
  • A clause that says you must immediately pay all rent due for the rest of your lease term. 
    While you may have to pay some rent if you end your lease early, your landlord is required to find a replacement tenant.  

If your lease has an illegal clause, your lease is not legally enforceable. To learn more, see Before you Move In - Read the Lease Carefully.

If I live in privately-owned subsidized housing, is my lease with a landlord or housing authority?

If you have a voucher or get a housing subsidy, you must sign a lease with your landlord. When a tenancy has a subsidy, the lease must have certain clauses. If you and your landlord want to add anything to this lease, the organization running the subsidy program may have to approve the changes. 

If I live in public housing, do I have a lease?

Yes. If you live in public housing, your lease must be in writing, and it must be signed by both you and the housing authority.  

  • State public housing: The housing authority uses the state’s Form Lease, unless it gets permission from the state to change it. Download a copy of the state public housing Form Lease [Word document].
  • Federal public housing: The federal housing agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has a sample public housing lease [Word document].
How long does my lease last?
For Example

If you sign a 1-year lease for an apartment with rent of $950 a month, you agree to pay the landlord $950 every month for 1 year. During this year, the landlord cannot raise the rent. They also cannot evict you just because they want you to move out. During this year, the landlord can evict you only if you have not paid your rent or if you do not follow the terms of your lease. 

Most leases are for a specific period of time — for example, 1 year. This time period is listed on your lease.  

If I do not sign a new lease, does my old lease still apply?

It depends. Some leases are “self-extending.” Others, you have the option to renew.  

  • Self-extending lease
    If you have a self-extending lease, you and your landlord must give each other written notice if you want to end the tenancy. If neither you nor your landlord gives the other notice, your lease continues automatically with the same terms for the same amount of time as the original lease.
  • Option to renew
    If you have an option to renew, your lease ends at the end of the time period specified. If you want to stay, you must give your landlord written notice. If you want to leave, you do not have to give your landlord notice.  

To learn more and see how to know what type of lease you have, see Legal Tactics, Chapter 4: Kinds of Tenancies.

What if I do not have a written lease?

If you do not have a written lease, entered a “verbal” agreement, or had a written lease that has expired, then you are a “tenant at will.” As a tenant at will, you have certain rights. See Tenants at Will to learn more.  

Note: If you live in public housing, your lease must be in writing. 

This article is an overview. For more in-depth information about leases, see Legal Tactics, Chapter 1: Before You Move In.


Was this page helpful?