Prairie State Legal Services

Renter's Handbook

Basics of the Landlord Tenant Relationship

Get It in Writing
An Oral Lease is Still a Lease
Moving In
Know Your Landlord

Get it in WritingBack to Top

When you make an agreement with your landlord, roommate, or any individual, a general rule is to always get it in writing. This may seem like advice that is only going to make your life more difficult, but oral agreements are often confused or forgotten entirely and have little weight in court because neither person can prove exactly what was said.

When signing a lease, you may want to add things or your landlord may make oral promises about repairs, utilities, etc. which you will want to get in writing. Simply because a lease is on a printed form does not mean you cannot add any provisions or agreements that you and your landlord agree upon. Write any additional agreements on both your copy and the landlord's copy. Both of you should initial the addition. If there is not room on the lease form, write the additional agreement on two pieces of paper, date them, and both of you should initial each copy.

You do not need to use legal terms or big words. All that is necessary is that the agreement be understood, without explanation, by an average person. If your landlord refuses to initial or sign provisions added to your lease, you have good reason to doubt that he or she will honor the agreement later. Landlords are business persons and understand that initialing or signing an agreement will make it binding. If they intend to honor the agreement, they should not hesitate to sign it.

Once you move in, if you develop problems requiring the need for changes or repairs, make your request to your landlord in writing. A polite note, dated and signed requesting the repairs needed is all that is required. Keep track of the dates of letters sent and the repairs requested so you can refer to them later if needed. It is a good idea to make a copy for yourself of every letter you send. If there is any delay in getting work done, do not accept oral promises, but ask that the landlord provide you with a letter stating what work will be done and when. The letter should be signed by the landlord and dated. If your landlord does not want to send a letter, write a note from your landlord to yourself stating, for example: "I will repair (repair) in the apartment located at (address) as requested by (tenant) on (date)." Ask the landlord to sign and date this note. If he or she will not sign it, then you have reason to doubt that he or she will honor the promise. See the section of this handbook, "If Repairs Are Not Done."

This same procedure is often necessary between two unrelated tenants living together (roommates, lovers, etc.). If rent, food, utilities or any other payments are not to be equal, tenants should write out their agreements on these matters and date and sign them.

It is especially important that you get and kepp your own copies of the lease and all correspondence between you and your landlord. Also, if you pay cash for rent, a deposit or anything else, get a receipt and keep it. Without one, you cannot prove that you actually made the payment.

Many people have problems when they pay a deposit for a housing unit, but do not sign a lease and decide to rent elsewhere. As long as the landlord is still willing to rent to you, he or she may not be obligated to return your deposit to you. If you are not sure that you want a particular housing unit, do not make any payment unless you are willing to give up that money if you change your mind. If you give a landlord any money, get a receipt. If you have an agreement that the money will be returned if you decide not to rent, be sure it is in writing. An agreement to return a deposit to you can be written on the receipt and initialed and dated by both you and the landlord. For example: "(Landlord) agrees to return to (tenant) the amount of ($) given as deposit on (address) if (tenant) decides not to rent." Signed and dated.

An Oral Lease Is A LeaseBack to Top

If you pay rent, but have not signed a written lease, then you and your landlord have an Oral Lease agreement. This is a binding contract. Generally, these agreements are from month-to-month, although they may be from week-to-week or for any period of time as long as it is less than a year. The rental period begins on the day your rent is due and renews itself automatically. This oral lease will run until it is properly terminated.

There is one advantage with an oral lease agreement -- you are not bound for more than one rental period. However, the disadvantages of not having a written agreement should cause you to be uneasy about having an oral lease. Your rent may be increased to any amount at any time with very little warning. Also, you can be evicted at any time with very little warning - Problems may arise between you and your landlord over "rules and regulations" that you know nothing about.

Ending an oral lease can also cause problems. If you want to move, you must give your landlord a full rental period's notice in writing. If you pay rent weekly, you must give your landlord seven days' written notice of your intent to move. If you pay rent monthly, then you must give 30 days' written notice. The date that you give notice must be the first or last day of the rental period. This means if you pay rent on the 1st of every month, your lease can only be terminated on the 1st or 31st of any given month.

AN EXAMPLE: You have an oral lease and you pay rent on the 1st day of every month. You want to move out on August 31st. You must give your landlord written notice no later than July 31st. You could not give notice on August 15th, to move on August 31st. Such notice would still hold you liable until September 30th, which is the end of the rental period.

If you fail to give adequate written notice, you may end up owing an additional month's rent or losing your deposit. To avoid additional rental charges, send a signed, dated letter to your landlord or deliver it in person in the presence of a witness. Always keep a copy of the letter, and if you think there may be problems, consider sending the notice by registered or certified mail. You have to give adequate notice and so does your landlord.

If your landlord wishes you to move, he or she must give you written notice. IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE NOTARIZED OR DELIVERED BY THE SHERIFF, BUT SHOULD BE SIGNED AND DATED. You must be given one rental period notice and the date that you have to move must be the first or last day of the rental period. See the section of this handbook, "Eviction."

Rent increases on an oral lease are much the same as notice to move. Your landlord should not raise the rent without first giving you a full rental period's notice of the increase in writing. If you want to move instead of paying the increase in rent, you still must give your landlord proper notice. If you have a written lease, your rent cannot be increased until the end of the lease. This is another reason to avoid oral leases.

Moving InBack to Top

Once you know where you are going to be living, there are a few things you should do immediately to make your apartment your home.

  1. Get your landlord's name, address and telephone number. Also, get the name, telephone number and address of the manager of the property if it is different from the landlord. Make sure you get the name and telephone number of a person to contact in case of emergencies if it is different from the landlord or manager.
  2. If you have not already done so, ask your landlord which utilities you are responsible to pay for. This could include electricity/gas, water, garbage collection and/or telephone. Usually if you must pay for them, then you are responsible for having them turned on. Make arrangements before you move in to have these turned on and have the meters read. By planning ahead, service can be scheduled the day you move in.
  3. Put the names of everyone living in the apartment on the mailbox as soon as possible. The post office may not deliver mail to you until this is done, even if the mail is properly addressed. Women should, as a safety measure, list only their first initial and last name. Men should do the same out of consideration for women.
  4. Before you unpack anything, it is a good idea to check for roaches, ants or signs of rodents. If your landlord is responsible for spraying for bugs and rodents, make sure your apartment has been sprayed recently. If not, ask the landlord to do it. If he or she agrees to do it, get the agreement in writing. If your landlord refuses to spray, find out if he or she is responsible to do it. See the "Housing Code Checklist" section of this handbook.
  5. Make a list of the conditions in your apartment. There is a form for listing the conditions in this handbook entitled Moving In/Moving Out Checklist. Consider taking pictures and date them. This might be necessary if you are concerned about the landlord keeping your security deposit or accusing you of causing damage to the apartment. Find out if your landlord has insurance to cover loss or damage to your personal belongings due to theft, fire, vandalism, smoke, natural disaster, etc. If not, (which is generally the case) you may want to check into the possibility of renter's insurance. Usually, these policies cover loss or damage to all of your personal belongings for a reasonable sum. Renter's insurance does not include insurance for the apartment itself. Various policies cover different things, so ask an insurance agent about the different types of coverage. Check around because rates do vary.
  6. Check the security of the apartment. This is explained in the "Security and Safety" section of this handbook.
  7. You may want to have your apartment inspected by the Code Enforcement Department before you move in. See the Housing Code Checklist section of this handbook.

Know Your LandlordBack to Top

When you are renting an apartment, both you and your landlord have certain responsibilities. Therefore, it is important to know the name, address and phone number of your landlord. If the person you are dealing with is a manager, make sure you know her/his name, address and phone number and find out who owns the property. Make sure you know where to pay your rent and where to contact your landlord for repairs or problems. If you do not have the basic information about your landlord, how will you contact him for emergency repairs?

If you wish to find information about your landlord, here are some suggestions:

  • Phone books and directory assistance have phone numbers and/or addresses.
  • If your landlord has ever sued anyone, his name and address will be recorded in the plaintiff's index at the Small Claims Clerk's Office.
  • County Recorder's Office holds information about deeds and mortgages.
  • Tax assessor's office holds the records which give the value of properties. It also records the amount of taxes and who pays the tax.

Making sure you can reach your landlord can make your life much easier. If problems do arise, knowing where to reach your landlord may be essential.

PSLS Back to Top

Return to Renter's Handbook - Table of Contents

Return to Prairie State Legal Services Home Page

Email Prairie State Legal Services

Prairie State Legal Services Copyright 2000. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Designed and Maintained by ComPortOne