Leasing an Apartment

Leasing an Apartment
Ver en Espanol

Last updated: August 2015

The Lease
Landlord and Tenant Rights
Fees and Deposits

The Lease

What is a lease?

A lease is an agreement to rent. Leases can be written or oral. Oral means “spoken.” An oral lease is when you and the landlord make an agreement, but it is not written down. It is better to have a written lease because you can prove the terms of the lease. Courts do not always enforce oral promises.

What should be stated in the lease? 

  • The amount of the rent
  • How long the lease will last
  • How the lease should end
  • How to renew the lease
  • How much will be charged if rent isn’t paid
  • Who is responsible for repairs and how to get repairs made
  • When the landlord can enter the apartment and what type of permission, or notice to you is needed
  • Any other promises made by you or the landlord

What should I do if there is something in the lease that I don't understand? 

Ask the landlord if you can take the lease with you to look it over before you sign it. Make sure you understand all of the terms. Do not rely on the landlord to tell you what the lease means.

If something in the lease is unclear, you should contact a lawyer to review the lease for you. You should ask the landlord to clear up what you don’t understand or replace it with the explanation that they gave you.

If the landlord refuses to clarify, you should be wary of the landlord's explanation of the terms.

If there are parts of the lease that you do not agree with, ask the landlord to change the part that you do not agree with. If the landlord refuses, you should think about not signing the lease.

What do I do with my lease?

Read your lease. Sign it. Keep a copy in a safe place.  

How long does a lease last?

A written lease will say how long it lasts. Oral leases are usually month-to-month. Most written leases are for a year.

At the end of the lease, you have to move out. You do not have to move out if you and the landlord agree that you can stay.

Some written leases automatically renew. The lease can renew as a year lease or as a month-to-month lease.

What are the different types of leases?

Leases are commonly month-to-month, year-to-year, and week-to-week.

Month to Month Lease 

In a month-to-month lease, you pay rent once a month. The lease goes on from one month to the next. The lease doesn't end at a set month. To end the lease, the landlord or you must give a month’s notice.

Year to Year Lease

A year-to-year lease is for twelve months. It is renewable each year unless you or the landlord ends the lease.

Week to Week Lease

A week-to-week lease is for one week. It is renewable every week unless you or the landlord ends the lease.

Landlord and Tenant Rights 

How should I pay my rent?

Pay your rent with a check or money order. Get a receipt for your rent. Keep copies of the checks or money orders and your receipts together in a safe place.

What can I do to protect myself before I move in? 

  • Ask for a written lease
  • Take pictures of the apartment
  • Read anything the landlord gives you
  • Make sure the city will issue an occupancy permit if one is required

Do I need to do a walk-through with the landlord if the apartment passes inspection?

Even if the apartment has passed inspection, before moving in, you should walk through the apartment and make a list of any damage that exists. It is best if you can do this with the landlord.

You should note any damage, such as stains, broken appliances, etc. You should also check all electrical outlets and all appliances that are provided with the apartment to see if they are working. 

You should also make sure the toilet flushes property. Turn on the water in the kitchen and bathroom to see if they have proper water pressure, and check the ceiling for spots, which show possible leaks.

What should I do if the landlord refuses to do a walk-through with me?

If the landlord is not available or refuses to do a walk-through, you should walk through with a friend making note of any damage, and if possible, take pictures.

Make sure the pictures show the damage that you noted. You should keep a copy of the list of damages and give a copy to your landlord asking that he attach it to your lease.

What must a landlord do?

The landlord must:

  • Keep the home up to local building code;
  • keep the home so that you can safely live in it;
  • give you written notice before ending the lease; and
  • not enter the home without telling you in advance, unless it is an emergency.

Can the landlord discriminate against me?

The landlord cannot discriminate against you or refuse to rent to you for these reasons:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Disability
  • Ancestry
  • Marital status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Military status
  • Discharge from the military

The landlord must make reasonable accommodations for disabilities. For example, you might have a seeing-eye dog, but the landlord has a rule that says no pets. However, the landlord must let your dog live with you anyhow. 

What must a tenant do?

The tenant must:

  • Keep the home clean; 
  • not change the home unless the landlord says it is okay;
  • pay rent when due;
  • give the landlord notice before moving out;
  • obey the lease; and
  • tell the landlord about any problems with the home.


The landlord must make sure that the residence is livable, the conditions are not a threat to your safety and health, and complies with the housing code.

What should I do about repairs that are needed before I move in?

Some damage will not need repairing, but you should still note it exists. For instance, a spot on the carpet should be noted, but as long as the carpet is clean, the carpet does not need replacing.

On the other hand, a window may be cracked. This should be noted and you should ask the landlord to repair it before you move in.

Do not sign a lease until all your requested repairs are made.

If the landlord tells you the repairs have been completed, politely request that they walk you through once more before you sign the lease.

Most leases state that all promises that have been made are stated in the lease and no other promises were made. If the landlord promised to make a repair and it is not provided for in the lease, it will be presumed that the promise was not made. You will have to prove that the promise was made.

It is best if your landlord makes repairs before you sign a lease or move in. If that is not possible, you should request written promises made by your landlord. At the very least, you should have someone else present when your landlord is making promises.

What should I do when repairs are needed?

You must tell the landlord about the problem. If the landlord does not fix the problem, write the landlord a letter. Send the letter by certified mail. Ask for a return receipt. Keep a copy of the letter. Keep track of when you made the oral and written demands for repairs. Take pictures of the damage for your records.

If the landlord does not make repairs, you should contact them to find out if and when the repairs will be made.

You can complain to the building department about problems. If the problems are serious, they may condemn the home. Then you would have to move.

If the landlord promises to make repairs, send the landlord a letter, saying what they promised to do.

What should I do if the landlord fails to make repairs after several requests for repairs?

If the landlord still does not make repairs, there are several things that you can do:

  • Report the violations to the housing department and/or health and safety department
  • Repair and deduct the costs
  • Withhold rent (this is risky)
Reporting Housing Code Violations

If the problem may be a violation of the housing law, you should request an inspection and a copy of the inspection report. If the inspection reveals violations of the housing law, then the inspector will demand that the landlord repair the problems.

If the landlord still does not make the repairs, you should tell the building inspector and request that he have the landlord make the needed repairs.

If the violations of the housing code are serious, the building inspector may condemn the apartment for occupancy and you will have to move, immediately. Your landlord cannot evict you for requesting an inspection. If they attempt to do so, contact a lawyer.

If the landlord fails to make repairs, do I have the right to make repairs and deduct the cost from rent?

Under Illinois law, the landlord's failure to make repairs allows you to make the repairs yourself and deduct the cost of the repairs from the rent when:

  • A repair is required under a lease agreement or required under a law
  • The reasonable cost of the repair is not more than $500 or one-half of the monthly rent
  • The landlord is notified in writing by registered or certified mail of the intention to have the repair made at the landlord's expense, and the landlord fails to make the repair within 14 days after notice
  • The condition was not caused by you, your family, or your guest

Exceptions may apply depending on your type of housing and tenancy. If the landlord fails to make repairs, you still must pay rent. Your obligation to pay rent does not depend on the landlord's duty to make repairs.

If you repair and deduct, the landlord may be able to evict you. However, some local laws permit the tenant to repair and deduct and will protect them from eviction, if the repair and deduction were properly undertaken. You should check your local laws to find out about your rights as a tenant.

Under certain circumstances, even where there is no ordinance, judges will not evict a tenant who repairs and deducts the cost from the rent. It depends on how serious the problem is or if a lease requires the landlord to repair and the landlord does not make repairs.

Problems are usually considered serious when they involve essentials, such as heat, electricity, plumbing, water, or security. You should have the premises inspected in order to help determine if the violations are serious. If they are serious and violate the housing code, the inspector will request that the landlord make the repairs. If the landlord does not make the repairs, then you should consider making the repairs and deducting the cost from your rent.

If the problem does not violate the housing code, you should not repair and deduct, unless your lease permits it.

What should I do if I decide to repair and deduct?

If you decide to repair and deduct, there are several things you should do.

  • Inform your landlord, in writing, that if repairs are not made by a certain date, you will make the repairs and deduct the cost from rent
  • Send the letter by certified mail and request a return receipt, or hand deliver the letter to your landlord
  • Keep a copy for your records
  • Get several estimates of the cost to repair
  • Make sure the cost is reasonable
  • If the problem cannot be fixed, you cannot replace it with the most expensive item
  • If the item can be repaired it should not be replaced with a new one
  • If the cost to repair is more than one month's rent, it may not be reasonable to make the repair
  • Get a licensed repairman to fix the problem, if possible
  • Get a receipt that states the cost of parts and labor
  • Send a written statement to the landlord listing the repairs made and the cost of those repairs
  • On the day rent is due, you should pay all of the rent owed minus the deductions
  • Keep copies of the receipts, the statement, and all other communications between you and the landlord

If the landlord fails to make repairs, do I have the right to withhold rent?

Although repair and deduct is preferable, withholding rent is an option if the landlord fails to make repairs. Similar to the repair and deduct option, under Illinois Law the tenant does not have a right to withhold rent because the landlord did not make repairs. If the landlord fails to make repairs, you still must pay rent.

What should I do if I decide to withhold rent? 

  • Write the landlord a letter requesting the repairs and that you will withhold rent if they are not made
  • Send this letter by certified mail and request a return receipt, or hand deliver it to the landlord
  • Keep a copy for your records
  • Hold on to rent money and do not spend it

Can I be evicted for withholding rent?

If you decide to withhold rent, the landlord may be able to evict you. Make sure the repairs are bad enough to justify withholding rent.

If the landlord decides to evict you for withholding rent, it is required they send you a notice demanding that you pay rent within five days or you will be evicted. If you pay rent within the five days, your landlord cannot evict you.


Who is responsible for utilities when I rent?

Before you sign your lease, ask your landlord who will pay for gas and/or electricity and have it included in the lease.

What are my rights if the landlord agrees to pay utilities?

If the landlord agrees to pay utilities like water, gas, and electricity, you have a right to pay the utility bill if the landlord does not pay.

You can take the cost of the utility bill from the rent.

What if the landlord agrees to pay utilities and does not pay?

Under the lease, either the tenant or landlord can agree to pay the utility bills. If you agree to pay the utility bills in the lease, you must pay them. You cannot take the cost of utilities from the rent, even if the utilities are high.  

Sometimes landlords agree to pay the utility bills, but they do not. If this happens, you can pay the bill. You can take the cost of the utility bill from the rent. You should send the landlord a letter, saying you will pay the utility bill. Keep a copy of the letter. Keep a copy of your payment for the utilities.

Can the landlord make me pay utilities after they agreed to pay?

If you have a lease, the landlord cannot change the agreement, unless the lease ends. If the lease is about to end and the landlord wants to change the utility payment agreement, they must tell you at least 30 days before the lease ends.

If you do not have a lease, the landlord must give you at least 30 days notice of their intent to change the oral agreement.

How do I know how much utility service I have used if there is a single utility meter?

If you live in a building where there is a single utility meter and you pay the landlord a part of the bill, the landlord must give the tenant the formula used to determine the tenant's bill in writing, as part of the lease or another written agreement. The formula must include everyone that will use the utility service. The total payments made under the formula cannot equal more than the utility bill. The landlord must give the tenant a copy of the utility bill, if the tenant asks for it.

Can the landlord make me pay for utilities billed to common areas?

Before your landlord can ask you to pay for utilities billed to common areas, they must follow certain steps. The landlord must:

  • Provide you with a written statement of utilities in the common areas, describing what areas and appliances contribute to your bill
  • Provide you with copies of the utility bills for the unit for the 12 previous months, unless you agree otherwise
  • The landlord cannot ask you to collect from other tenants
  • If the landlord reduces the rent for you because you pay for utility usage outside your unit, it must state in writing the amount of the rent decrease

Can the landlord turn off my utilities to make me move?

Water, gas, and electricity are utilities. The landlord may only turn the utilities off to make repairs. The landlord should give you advance warning of any such temporary shutdowns. 

The landlord may not turn the utilities off for any other reason, such as to make you move. If the landlord does this, you can sue them and get an order requiring the utilities to be turned back on.


How can a landlord evict me?

The landlord has to give you a written notice to end the lease, unless the notice requirement is waived in the written lease. The landlord can end it because you did not pay rent, for violating lease conditions, or for no reason at all.

A landlord must give you a 5-day notice if you did not pay rent. The notice must be written. It must say exactly how much you owe. It must give you five days to pay the back rent. If you do not pay back rent within five days, the landlord can sue you in court.

A landlord must give you a 10-day notice to evict you for violation of lease conditions. The notice must state why you are being evicted. After the 10 days have expired, you can be sued in court.

The notice the landlord has to give you to end the lease for no reason at all depends on your lease. If it is week to week, the landlord must give you a week's notice. If it is year to year, they must give you notice between 60 days and 4 months. If it is month-to-month, they must give you 30 days' notice.

After the landlord gives you a notice they have to sue you in court. The judge has to order you to move. The landlord cannot evict you without a court order. If they try, call the Sheriff. 

What is a forcible entry and detainer action?

After the period in the notice has expired, the landlord must file a Forcible Entry and Detainer action, which is basically an eviction suit. Filing a Forcible Entry and Detainer action is the only way a landlord can make you move.

You will receive a summons to appear in court once a lawsuit has been filed. You must appear in court on the scheduled day. You have the right to a lawyer at your cost, trial by jury, present evidence, call witnesses, and ask questions.

It is illegal for a landlord to evict you, or set your possessions out without receiving a judgment for possession of the premises by a court. 

What can I do to protect myself before I move out? 

  • Give the landlord written notice that you are moving. Keep a copy of the notice you send to the landlord.  Give the landlord as much notice as your lease says
  • Give the landlord your new address
  • After everything is out of the home, ask the landlord to go through the home with you. Try to agree on what the damages are. Write down an agreement with the landlord about how much the damages are
  • If the landlord won’t meet with you, take pictures of the home

Fees and Deposits

What is an application fee?

Application fees are charged for the cost of checking your employment, references, and credit to determine if you qualify to rent the apartment. 

You should get a receipt for the application fee. Most application fees are non-refundable. If you are told that the application fee is refundable, make sure that your receipt or other document says so.

What is a security deposit?

Security deposits are paid before you move into the apartment. As with all money paid to the landlord, you should get a receipt.

You should have your landlord write on the security deposit receipt that it is refundable. Your landlord may deduct any unpaid rent or the cost to repair any damage to the apartment caused by you or your guests.

If you decide not to move in, your security deposit is refundable as long as you have not signed a lease. If you have signed a lease and do not pay rent, the landlord can deduct the amount of rent due from the security deposit.

When do I get my security deposit back?

Under Illinois law, for buildings with 5 or more apartments (and under Chicago's Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance) your landlord must send you a list of damages and the cost to fix the damages within 30 days after you move out to keep the deposit. If your landlord does not claim that you damaged the apartment, he must return your security deposit within 45 days after you move out. If your landlord claims that you damaged the apartment, but fails to give you a written statement of the damages, then they must still return your security deposit in full within 45 days.

Under Illinois law, for buildings with 4 or fewer apartments, your landlord does not have to give you a written statement of damages if they want to deduct repair costs from your security deposit. Your landlord must only return your security deposit within a reasonable amount of time. 

Helpful Organizations
The following organizations may be able to help you with

For a list of organizations in your area that may be able to help you, enter your zip code.



We welcome your comments and suggestions

User Survey - Please take a moment to fill out our User Survey to help us to provide better service.

Please do not email legal questions or information about your problem. We will not answer legal questions or provide legal assistance. You can find referrals to legal organizations that may be able to help you by clicking here.