Who should sign a lease first?

Written on November 30, 2017 by , updated on January 5, 2018

College Student“After you. No, please after you.” That social nicety works at door entrances, but when it comes to signing a lease, there’s no question about who should go first.

An unsigned lease may or may not be enforceable, depending on your state’s law. So, why take the chance of having an ineffective document?

Both landlords and renters should sign a lease for legal purposes. And after lease signing, both parties should have a copy, either printed out or saved online. But who signs first?

The tenant—and here’s why

The main reason the tenant signs first is to avoid confusion. Let’s say the landlord signs first and then sends the lease to the tenant to sign.

What happens if the tenant doesn’t sign? Should the landlord take the rental unit off the market anyway based on a verbal agreement? If so, that’s pretty risky for the landlord. What if the tenant changes their mind? By taking the unit off the market, the landlord would have lost valuable time, possibly missing out on a month’s rent or more.

Conversely, what happens if the landlord, frustrated from waiting for the tenant to sign, sends a lease to a second interested party? That could result in the landlord getting two signed leases.

The landlord signing first could create complications.

Having the tenant sign a lease first solves the problem. Here’s how the process works best:

  • A landlord sends an unsigned lease to a potential tenant. By doing so, they’re offering their place for rent. This usually means the tenant has passed the landlord’s screening process. The landlord, by sending the lease, is letting the tenant know that the rental unit is theirs if they want it.
  • The tenant reviews the lease terms and then decides whether they wish to rent or not.
  • The tenant signs the lease and sends it back if they agree with the lease terms and want the unit.
  • The landlord then signs the lease as well, and sends it back to the tenant. This finalizes the agreement, and the lease is now a legally binding document for both landlord and tenant.
  • Both parties keep a copy of the lease, which has been signed by both parties.

Here are some additional points to keep in mind:

  • Until the tenant signs the lease and sends it back, the landlord can send an unsigned lease to other interested and qualified parties, renting to the first person who sends back the lease.
  • Rental units are typically available until the landlord has a signed lease.
  • Landlords usually require move-in monies at lease-signing time, such as first-month rent and security deposit.
  • If the tenant signs the lease but doesn’t make the required payments, the landlord can void the lease.
  • Once the landlord has accepted a signed lease from one party, they should let all other interested parties know that they are withdrawing the offer, as the place has been rented.

All legal parties should sign a lease

All adults living in the rental unit need to sign the lease. This means anyone over the age of 18 needs to sign it. Here’s a breakdown of everyone who should sign:

  • Couples, married or not
  • Adult children (even if they live there only occasionally, such as during summer)
  • All roommates
  • Any replacement roommates
  • Cosigner (If the live-in tenant doesn’t pay, the landlord can now get the rent from the cosigner.)

Signing a lease makes everyone co-tenants. This ensures the lease terms apply to everyone.

Different ways to sign

People still sign leases the traditional way: sitting down with each other in person and signing a physical copy. This requires, however, that landlords and tenants make an appointment to meet somewhere, and that isn’t always convenient. Here are two other ways:

  1. Send the lease through email or text. The tenant then prints out the lease, signs it, scans it, and sends it back to the landlord. The landlord then does the same—prints out the signed copy, signs the lease, and sends it back to the tenant.
  2. Use a digital signing service. This works if the landlord uses an online digital or electronic lease-signing tool, such as DocuSign, for example.

Related: Top 10 electronic signature tools for landlords

The perfect time to negotiate

When tenants receive the lease, they can use this opportunity to negotiate changes.

Common topics up for negotiation include the rental amount, length of lease, pet policy, yard maintenance, and painting. The landlord doesn’t have to agree to any proposed changes, but they might.

The best procedure for making changes would be for the tenant to bring up any topics of negotiation after reading the lease and before signing it. If the landlord agrees, the tenant can cross out the term being changed, change that particular lease term in pen, and then initial that part. The landlord would also initial the change when they sign.

Or the landlord could issue a new lease with the changed term. The landlord would then send the new lease to the tenant to sign.

Related: How to negotiate changes to a rental lease

The bottom line

Tenants should always sign a lease first. The landlord then signs the lease to finalize the document and make it legal. This keeps everything neat and clean—regarding the lease anyway.

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