Must a lease be written to be enforceable?

Yes. A landlord must offer a written lease. If the landlord does not do that, the law sets out a specific lease that will apply. This lease has these rules. The lease is 12 months with no automatic renewal. Rent is paid in 12 monthly payments. Rent is due on the first of the month and late after the fifth of the month. A late fee of no more than 10 percent of periodic rent or 10 percent of the unpaid balance, whichever is less, may be charged. The security deposit can be no more than two months’ rent. The landlord and tenant still may enter into a written lease.

What should I be concerned about when signing a lease?

As with any written contract, you should understand and agree with all of the terms. Leases usually are form contracts that may contain language not easily understood and that may unfairly favor the landlord. If you do not understand something, ask the landlord questions and obtain clarification in writing, or seek help from a lawyer. Signing a lease begins a relationship with your landlord that will continue throughout the term of the lease. You therefore should keep records of rental payments, written repair requests, etc.

What are my obligations as a tenant?

You must adhere to the terms of the lease. Generally, you are obligated to pay the rent and to maintain the property in the condition you received it, except normal wear and tear. A good tenant is mindful of neighbors’ rights as well. Generally, no other people may move in with you without a written change to the lease signed by you and the landlord.

Are there specific laws in Virginia that govern landlord/tenant relationships?

Yes. The Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act (VRLTA) applies to all residential rentals. The VRLTA balances rights and obligations between tenant and landlord. Many rental properties use standard leases reflecting the terms of the VRLTA. The VRLTA will apply even if the lease does not reflect the terms of the VRLTA.

What is a security deposit and how is it used?

A security deposit is an amount of money, not to exceed two months’ rent, required by the landlord at the beginning of a lease term. It serves as security for the landlord to cover any damages to the leased property above and beyond normal wear and tear caused by the tenant or their guests or to cover unpaid rent and late charges.

The landlord and tenant should walk through the property together at the beginning and at the end of the lease term. An inspection report should be signed by both the landlord and the tenant at the beginning of the lease to document the condition of the property. Both parties should keep a copy of the report. This report will protect the tenant from an unscrupulous landlord who may try to keep the security deposit to pay for a condition that existed prior to leasing the property. The tenant and a witness should draft a list if the landlord won’t do a walkthrough.

The security deposit is not supposed to be used for the last month’s rent, but it must be returned to the tenant after the landlord conducts a favorable walk-through inspection after the lease expires. Landlords under the VRLTA have forty-five days after tenant moves out before they have to return or account for the use of the security deposit.

In a monthly lease, can I end the lease by just leaving at the end of a month?

No. Unless the parties agree otherwise, if the lease term is month to month, thirty days’ written notice to the landlord is required.

If I sign a lease with friends, and they move out, do I have to pay the full rent or only my share?

Most leases signed by more than one person provide that the tenants are “jointly and severally liable” for the rental payments. That means the landlord has the right to seek the entire monthly rent from any one of the co-tenants even though one or more may have moved. However, if one tenant pays more than their share, they may be able to seek contribution from the co-tenants that abandoned the lease.

If I break a lease, for what amount can I be sued?

If you break a lease, your landlord may seek the loss of rent to the end of the lease term minus any amount received when the property is re-let (leased to another party). The landlord also can seek recovery for any damages to the property above ordinary wear and tear. Lastly, the landlord may be entitled to attorneys’ fees, court costs, and late fees.

How does a landlord terminate a lease for nonpayment of rent?

A landlord may terminate a lease for nonpayment of rent by giving notice to the tenant to either pay what is owed or leave the property. If the tenant pays within five days of receiving that notice, the tenant may remain. If payment is not made, the landlord may begin proceedings to evict the tenant by filing an “unlawful detainer” (eviction) action with the court. If the lease calls for it, a landlord also may recover reasonable attorney’s fees in the event of breach of lease. A tenant may exercise a “right of redemption” by paying the amount outstanding, including any applicable attorneys’ fees, court costs, and late charges, at or before the first return hearing. If the landlord has 5 or more rentals, a tenant may use these rights at any time. If the landlord has 4 or fewer rentals, the landlord may limit these rights to once during the lease period if the landlord first sends a written notice.

Can a landlord use “self-help” eviction methods?

A landlord may not unlawfully exclude a tenant from the premises, interrupt an essential service, or make the unit unsafe. If this happens, the tenant may file a Tenant’s Petition for Relief from Unlawful Exclusion in General District Court and get a court hearing in 5 calendar days.

When can my landlord enter the space I have rented?

The landlord has a right to access the property. If the VRLTA applies, a landlord may enter the property without consent of the tenant in the case of emergency or upon the tenant’s request for maintenance. Otherwise, the landlord may access the property at reasonable times after giving notice to the tenant (at least twenty-four hours’ notice is required for routine maintenance that has not been requested). A tenant may not unreasonably withhold consent to the landlord to enter the property in order to inspect the property, make necessary or agreed repairs, decorations, alterations, or improvements, supply necessary or agreed services, or show the property to prospective purchasers. A tenant may be found in breach of the lease if they do not allow the landlord to access the property. If covered by the VRLTA, refer to Virginia Code Sections 55-.1-1210 and 55.1-1229.

What can I do if a landlord refuses to make repairs to the premises?

A tenant has the right to a fit and habitable rental unit. The landlord must make all repairs needed to keep premises fit and habitable. To enforce the right to get repairs, a tenant must be current in rent, give the landlord a written notice, and wait a reasonable period. If repairs are not made, a tenant can file a Tenant’s Assertion in General District Court. This must be filed no later than 5 days after rent is due. There is no rent withholding in Virginia, except under “repair and deduct.”

If an issue on the property affects life, health, safety, or seriously affects habitability, and a landlord has not begun to address it within 14 days after written notice from the tenant, the tenant may contract to have the repair done by a licensed contractor. The cost may be not more than $1,500 or one month’s rent, whichever is more. The tenant must send the landlord an itemized invoice and a receipt for payment to the contractor for the work done, along with any payment of remaining rent owed.

A tenant should never simply withhold rent, because the landlord may then terminate the tenancy for non-payment. If covered by the VRLTA, refer to Virginia Code Section 55.1-1234.

Am I liable for rent under the lease if I am in the military and am transferred somewhere else?

There are certain circumstances in which military members may terminate a lease. Certain notice is required, and you should contact the legal assistance office at your base for advice on how to proceed at least sixty days before you plan to leave. You also may have rights under a Federal law called the “Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.” If covered by the VRLTA, refer to Virginia Code Section 55.1-1235.

Are there laws that govern the rental of mobile home lots in mobile home parks?

Yes. The Virginia Manufactured Home Lot Rental Act seeks to protect landlords and tenants of mobile home lots. The law has very specific provisions, and if you have a dispute involving the rental of a mobile home lot you should contact an attorney for advice.

So You’re 18 is presented by the Virginia State Bar Conference of Local and Specialty Bar Associations.
For print copies of So You're 18 contact (804) 775-0521 or [email protected].