One of the most frequent pieces of advice that we give at the TRC is to tell someone to read their lease. Tenants, landlords, cosigners, subletters... everyone should know what's in the legal contract that they are signing.
We see this with different faces: occasionally, landlords come into our office hoping to evict a tenant for a clause that isn't in their lease; tenants are startled to find they are being held to a rule that they didn't know about; cosigners are shocked to discover that they can end up with a bill due to the damages of all the tenants. Here are some tips for making sure you don't miss the important parts:
- Joint and Several Liability: for most leases in Wisconsin, if there's more than one tenant, all those tenants are held to all the rules on the lease, and can be held responsible (financially and otherwise) for the actions of the other tenant(s). I wrote about this before, but you should check it out if you haven't read our post about what joint and several liability really means.
- Property Left Behind: In a strange turn of events, the laws about property that a tenant leaves behind at the end of the lease changed twice over the past couple years. As it stands now, when a lease ends (because of a normal expiration, because of a tenant breaking the lease and because of an eviction), the landlord can follow whatever rules they have written into their lease about disposing of the property. An explanation of the exceptions (ie, medical equipment) and how it works is on our page about property left behind. It's important for everyone to know what those rules are, so check them carefully.
- Things that matter when a lease shifts from a term lease to a month-to-month/periodic lease: many leases in Wisconsin have a clause that says something like, "you have to give 60 days notice to end the lease." It's confusing when someone finds this on a term lease (like a year-long lease - doesn't it end when it says that it's going to end?), and the clause's legality in that situation is debatable. However, when a tenancy goes past the end date on the lease, and a tenant is simply paying on a monthly basis, what happens is that all the written rules in the lease become the month-to-month agreement, minus the end date. What to look for: anything about how much notice to give (it becomes enforceable), or what happens when a lease becomes month-to-month or periodic tenancy. As a side note, sometimes, if tenants and landlords do something a certain way for a loooong time, even if there's something different in writing, their common practice can become more enforceable than the written way to do things (this is a legal term called "estoppel" - talk to an attorney if you have questions).
Illegal Lease clauses: There are certain things that are so illegal, that if a landlord puts them on the lease, then the lease can be declared DOA by the tenant. If that landlord simply writes them down into the contract, and doesn't even act on them, those clauses are a reason that a tenant could choose to cancel a lease entirely, on their own, without the landlord agreeing (in writing, though, please). I'm going to list them here, but if you want more information, see our page about ending leases (more exact language and the laws are listed there), contact us, or talk to an attorney.* Here's a general list of these illegal clauses:
- Any threats against a tenant for calling 911 for their safety, as a part of the lease, is an illegal lease clause. (Example: If you call the police more than three times, you'll be evicted.)
- Any kind of process for eviction that doesn't go through court, explained in the lease, is an illegal lease clause. (Example: If you don't pay your rent within 5 days, I'll change the locks and look for a new tenant.)
- Any way for the landlord to make a tenant's rent payments due sooner than usual if the tenant doesn't follow the directions in the lease, is an illegal lease clause. (Example: If you move out early, all your rent is due on the day you leave.)
- A landlord is supposed to look for a new tenant if the old tenant moves out early. Anything that says, once a tenant breaks the lease, then the landlord will make the tenant responsible for all the rent and finding a new tenant, is an illegal lease clause. (Example: It is the tenant's responsibility to find an acceptable replacement if they are not able to complete their lease term.)
- An automatic charge to the tenant for court costs and legal fees if the landlord has to take the tenant to court, written in the lease, is an illegal lease clause. Something that says that a tenant will be charged for court costs and legal fees if the judge says so, though, is okay. (Example: Tenant is responsible for all court fees resulting from non-payment of rent.)
- Anything that gives the landlord the right to represent the tenant in court, written in the lease, is an illegal lease clause. (Example: Landlord is entitled to represent the tenant in small claims court in all matters pertaining to this lease.)
- Anything that would make it so a tenant can't sue the landlord for things that the landlord did wrong (that the landlord knew about ahead of time), written in the lease, is an illegal lease clause. (Example: Any reported repairs will not be the responsibility of the landlord.)
- Anything that makes it the tenant's responsibility to repair the rental if there were a disaster, written in the lease, is an illegal lease clause. (Example: Tenant will be responsible for all damage beyond the landlord's control.)
- Any rule that would make it so the landlord doesn't have to make any repairs, written in the lease, is an illegal lease clause. (Example: Property is rented in as-is condition.)
- Any way for the landlord to evict a tenant because of a crime, when the tenant is also a victim of that crime, written into the lease, is an illegal lease clause. (Example: Tenant will always be held responsible for all crimes of invitees or guests.)
- As of 3/1/14, all leases in Wisconsin are supposed to have a big chunk in them that is called "Notice of Domestic Abuse Protections." If a lease does not have a part that begins with the title, "Notice of Domestic Abuse Protections," then anything in the lease that says anything about the landlord holding the tenant responsible for crimes committed on the property, is an illegal lease clause. (Example, where there is not a part in the lease about "Notice of Domestic Abuse Protections": Tenants will be evicted for any illegal acts or crimes that they have committed where they are not a victim of that crime.)
Wow! Now that I've written it out, there's a lot to look out for! Lucky for you, the TRC does free lease screenings, where we will look over a lease and see if any of this illegal stuff pops out for us.* Contact us if you'd like to talk to a housing counselor about your lease.
* Hi! Did you know that we are not attorneys here at the TRC? And this isn't legal advice, either. If what we've written here doesn't sound right to you, talk about it with someone you trust. For help finding an attorney, check out our attorney referral list.