From Assignment to Force Majeure to Zoning: An A to Z Guide to Landlord-Tenant Legal Terms

From Assignment to Force Majeure to Zoning: An A to Z Guide to Landlord-Tenant Legal Terms

Victoria Pappas
On Friday, June 26th, LawChamps is hosting a free legal meet-up. A panel of lawyers will answer your questions about landlord-tenant law. You can sign up and submit questions here

We thought this would be a good time to introduce you to some legal terms you may hear. Don't worry. We won't quiz you on Friday. 

A as in Assignment


An assignment occurs when the original tenant in a lease transfers all interest in the property to a third party (assignee) for the remainder of the lease period.


This is different from a sublease because all of the original tenant’s rights and obligations under the lease are transferred to the assignee, who now has a direct relationship with the landlord. Additionally, the original tenant releases the right to re-enter and use the property once it has been assigned to another party. 


B as in Breach of Contract 


            Breach of contract occurs when a party breaks one or more of the legal promises they made in a contract they were bound to. 


For example, if a tenant had a dog living in the apartment and the lease signed between a landlord and tenant states that no pets are allowed in the apartment, the tenant has breached the contract.


A lease (see below) is a contract. By signing a lease, you are agreeing to and promising to abide by the terms in it.


C as in Constructive Eviction


Constructive eviction occurs when a landlord does something, or fails to do something, that hinders a tenant’s ability to use and enjoy the property. The tenant has not been formally or physically evicted by the landlord in this case.


Minor things such as chipped paint is not substantial enough to be constructive eviction. Typically, a landlord must have notice of the issue and be given a chance to fix it first.


D as in Deposits, Security Deposits


A deposit, often referred to as a security deposit, is an amount of money given to a landlord before moving into the property. 


It can be refundable or non-refundable and the landlord typically uses the money to repair damages after a tenant moves out. Tenants also use these deposits to secure and show interest in the rental property.


E as in Eviction, Retaliatory Eviction


Eviction is when a landlord removes a tenant from the property they are renting. This typically happens when the tenant has not paid rent, but other breaches of the lease can result in eviction as well.


More specifically, a retaliatory eviction occurs when a landlord evicts a tenant due to anger or to get back at the tenant for taking some action the landlord is unhappy with. These evictions are not based in any illegal conduct or breach of the lease by a tenant and are illegal in most states.


For example, a landlord may evict or threaten to evict a tenant in retaliation to complaints made about maintenance issues or to the health department about violations.


Due to the coronavirus, many states have halted evictions and stated that tenants cannot be evicted due to failure to pay rent.


F as in Force Majeure


Force Majeure refers to a clause or provision in a contract that relieves both parties from legal liability if they cannot perform their promises in the contract due to extraordinary, unforeseen, uncontrollable circumstances that could not be reasonably avoided. These circumstances cannot arise from the actions of either party.


Examples of these circumstances include unpredicted natural disasters or other “Acts of God.”


Force majeure clauses are commonly found in a lot of contracts, but there is a possibility your lease or contract does not have one so be sure to double check.


The American Bar Association discusses in further detail whether the coronavirus can be used as an extraordinary circumstance under force majeure clauses.


H as in Holdover Tenant


A holdover tenant is someone who stays in their apartment or home after the lease expires. If a landlord and tenant do not agree to extend the lease pass its expiration, the tenant is considered to be trespassing and can be sued and evicted. 


I as Implied Warranty of Habitability


            The implied warranty of habitability is an unstated provision in leases that requires the

landlord to ensure the property is safe and habitable before and during the period of the lease.


A breach of this provision can result in constructive eviction, lower rent payments or render the lease voidable


J as in Jurisdiction


            Jurisdiction refers to the power a court has to make a legal judgement on a case and the

            regions in which a court can exercise its powers.


L as in Lease


A lease is an agreement that is both a contract and a conveyance (transfers possession of property from one person to another). Leases create landlord-tenant relationships which contain unique rights, duties, liabilities, and remedies.


Most landlords use standard form leases which are contracts given to the tenant on a take-it-or-leave-it basis without the option to negotiate terms.


M as in Maintenance


Most leases and landlord-tenant relationships require the landlord to provide a livable and safe property where the tenant has quiet enjoyment.


Both landlords and tenants have certain maintenance responsibilities. Be sure to consult with your lease and landlord to know what you both are responsible for doing.


N as in Notice


Notice is a formal announcement that makes a landlord or tenant aware of a certain situation. Notice can be written or oral depending on terms and agreements.


Typically, if you will not renew your lease after it expires, you must give your landlord notice. Landlords usually have to give tenants notice if they plan to come into the leased premise or are doing maintenance work on the building.  Check your lease for specific rules and timelines on giving notice.


O as in Ouster


            An ouster occurs when a tenant is illegally removed or kept out of the property. This can happen when a roommate or landlord changes the locks on a tenant, thereby physically keeping them out of the premises.


P as in Property: Commercial Property and Residential Property


Property is anything that is owned by a person or entity. Real property refers to real estate and land. Residential property is property that is designed and used for people to live in. Commercial property refers to property that is designed and used for business purposes.


Q as in Quiet Enjoyment


Quiet enjoyment is a right the tenant has to possess, occupy, and use for the tenant’s own enjoyment every part of the leased premises without substantial disturbance. 


Every lease contains an implied (or express) covenant of quiet enjoyment. This covenant protects the tenant against a disturbance.


A covenant of quiet enjoyment cannot be waived, meaning a tenant cannot agree to give up the right to quiet enjoyment.


If your right to quiet enjoyment is infringed upon, your landlord has a duty to fix the issue. Depending on your situation, you may be able to terminate your lease or pay lower rent if this covenant is violated by the landlord.


R as in Right of Entry


Right of Entry is the ability to legally go onto a premise or property, without being considered a trespasser.


Usually, landlords must give notice or get permission from the tenant to enter the rental property since tenants are expected to have privacy. Check with your lease or landlord to get specific right of entry rules.


S as in Self-Help


Self-Help refers to a person taking matters into their own hands, without referring to or using the legal process.


For example, if a tenant has breached their lease and the landlord wants to evict, the landlord replacing the locks so the tenant cannot re-enter is a form of self-help.


In almost all states, landlords are not allowed to use self-help in order to evict a tenant. They must go through the formal, legal eviction process required by the state.


T as in Tenant Improvements


These are changes made to the rental property by the tenant to suit the tenant’s needs for the property. Typically, residential leases do not allow tenants to make changes to the property or have to remove and fix any changes made. Tenant’s must usually leave the space as they found it. Again, check your lease for specific rules on improvements.


U as in Uninhabitable Living Conditions


Uninhabitable living conditions are situations that make a property impossible to reside, stay, and or live in. Landlords typically have duties to fix these conditions. Things like an ugly, old carpet or paint color are not serious enough to make a property uninhabitable.


Uninhabitable living conditions can result in constructive eviction, a breach of quiet enjoyment, and in some situations can lower rent or allow tenants to terminate the lease.

V as in Void/Voidable


A lease is void when it is not valid and cannot be considered a contract at all. The lease is unenforceable at law and neither the landlord or tenant can be held liable to the terms. This can happen when the lease goes against public policy or contains an illegal provision.


In a voidable lease, the wronged party can uphold the contract or choose to get out of it.

This is still a valid contract that can be enforced if the wronged party wants it to. Voidable contracts can happen when the landlord fails to tell a tenant about an important fact or defect in the property.


Z as in Zoning


Zoning is the process of dividing land into different districts (zones) in which certain buildings or land uses are permitted or prohibited. Governments use zoning to restrict people from using their land in certain ways through use (i.e. residential or commercial use) and area (i.e. height of a building) restrictions.   



This article is intended to convey generally useful information only and does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions expressed are solely those of the author, not LawChamps.

Victoria Pappas

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