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Anyone who's scraped the last of their money together at the end of the month to pay rent has worried if they'll get fined for paying late. Same for those who've wondered about subletting or leaving their apartment before the lease expires.
But are these fines or penalties legal? And what are the limitations on fines in residential rental or lease agreements?
Learn Your Lease
This item should just be standard in any discussion of landlord-tenant law: know your lease. Don't just skim it; don't just read it; really know the terms of your lease. Because here's the thing -- unless there is a fee or penalty provision in the lease, a landlord cannot charge extra fees.
Even if it's just $10 for a late rent check, or $100 for failing to clean up after your dog, your landlord can't fine you at all unless there is a clause in your rental or lease agreement permitting fines. So make sure you know the exact terms of the lease before paying, or refusing to pay, any fines or penalties.
Late Rent Limitations
If your lease does have allowances for fees or fines, they will probably be tied to rent payment. Many leases will allow landlords to apply late fees to rent payments that are past due. But even if your lease has late rent fines, there will still be limits on how much a landlord can charge.
Landlord-tenant laws can vary state by state, but most have limits on how much landlords can charge for late rent. If a fine higher than an amount reasonably related to the damages suffered by the landlord, it will likely be considered an unenforceable penalty and will probably not be collectable. If you've signed a lease or rental agreement with an outlandish late fee policy, you could refuse to pay it and challenge the fee in court if the landlord tries to enforce the fee provision. Many courts consider the imposition of enormous late fees an important public policy issues and may bar their enforcement.
Lease Provision Penalties
A landlord could also try to ding you for subletting the property or for otherwise breaking the lease. But these penalties are pretty much the same as late rent fees: if it's not in the lease, it doesn't count; and if it is in the lease, it can't be way out of proportion.
There are also limits on what landlords can charge for security deposits, and rules regarding what a landlord can deduct from a security deposit for cleaning and repairs. If you think you have been hit will illegal fees and want to take action, talk to a landlord-tenant attorney in your area.