Most provisions in a Wisconsin residential lease agreement are governed by the Wisconsin Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. A contract that is for more than one year must be in writing to be valid, though there are some exceptions for leases. If it is an oral residential lease, it is deemed a periodic tenancy or monthly one if the tenant pays on a periodic basis.
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A written lease is always preferred since it minimizes disputes and makes the parties aware of their various obligations, notice requirements and other matters typically found in residential lease arrangements.
All Wisconsin landlords must abide by certain provisions under state law and some federal laws. For example, you may not refuse to rent to someone on the basis of the person’s race, color, gender, national origin or ancestry, familial status or disability. You also may not retaliate or take steps to force a tenant out by changing the locks, raising the rent or threatening the tenant who has exercised certain rights such as by joining a tenants’ union or complaining to authorities about the condition of a leased premises.
Further, landlords must comply with state and local building and housing codes and provide a fit and habitable residence with heat, hot water, electricity and a functioning plumbing system. Tenants are obligated to maintain their unit and not alter or damage it without the consent of the owner or landlord, to obey the law and not disturb other tenants and to return the premises in substantially the same condition as when first leased.
Contents of a Residential Lease
The terms of the lease are often to the benefit of the landlord in most cases, though a tenant has considerable protections in case the landlord violates the lease or certain circumstances arise that allow the tenant to terminate the lease early or to recover damages. None of a tenant’s rights may be waived or altered unless a statute allows some modifications.
Your lease must have certain terms with some optional ones that address situations that often arise in landlord/tenant relationships. You can also include “Nonstandard Rental Provisions” regarding expanded entry or allowing you to have a lien on the tenant’s property if rent is unpaid. These provisions must be explicitly stated and individually signed or initialed by the tenant.
Your Wisconsin residential lease agreement should contain the following terms:
- Name of property owner and property manager and address where rent is to be paid as well as where notices and other legal documents may be served
- Names of the tenants and other occupants who will be living in the unit
- Description of the premises
- Housing code violations that have not yet been fixed
- Term of the lease—weekly, monthly, yearly or other
- Automatic renewal clause—becomes periodic or monthly when fixed term expires unless tenant gives notice of intent to vacate within certain time before expiration date—written reminder to tenant required 15 to 30-days before tenant must give notice of intent to not renew
- Amount of rent, due date, and grace period before a late fee (state amount) may be imposed
- Returned check fees—whatever the bank charges
- Security deposit—no limit and no interest required
- Move-in checklist including list of current damages to be given to tenant with 7 days to review, comment upon and return to landlord
- Itemized statement of damages and expenses if deducting from security deposit
- Obligations of landlord regarding repairs and maintenance including maintaining common areas and being in code compliance
- Obligations of tenant to keep unit clean, make minor repairs and not cause damage or alterations
- Responsibility for utilities
- Major appliances that are being provided
- No unlawful use of premises by tenant or conduct that constitutes a nuisance
- Pet clause—a deposit may be nonrefundable. No deposit is permitted for service animals with some exceptions
- Subletting clause—allow or not
- Right of entry by landlord to make repairs, inspect and show to future tenants or purchasers—12 hours’ advance notice unless an emergency or include a “Non-Standard Rental Provision” that both parties acknowledge and sign where no advance notice is required before entry
- Notices regarding termination for nonpayment of rent and other lease violations
- Notice for increasing rent—28 days unless you state otherwise (may not be for a discriminatory or retaliatory purpose)
- Nonstandard Rental Provision allowing a lien on tenant’s property if rent is unpaid
- Disclosure of the presence of any lead-based paint or hazards on the property for rental property built before 1978—both landlord and tenant must sign an EPA-approved disclosure form and the tenant provided an EPA pamphlet entitled “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home.”
- Domestic Abuse Protections—victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking has right to terminate lease under certain conditions
- Notice to tenant of pesticide use—12 hours but 24 hours in Madison
Once signed, a copy of the lease must be provided to the tenant.
Be aware that there may be different or additional terms that must be included depending on the municipality where the leased premises is located. Check your local ordinances for these provisions.
Prohibited Lease Terms
Do not include certain terms in the lease that forces the tenant to waive certain rights or that alter essential obligations guaranteed by law. These would include:
- Waiving legal process to evict the tenant without a court order
- Accelerating rent payments if rent is late or unpaid after a certain time
- Waiving landlord’s obligation to mitigate damages to re-rent the premises
- Forcing tenant to confess judgment or to admit guilt without an opportunity to challenge a dispute
- Allowing landlord a lien on tenant’s property—unless it is a “Nonstandard Rental Provision” and initialed by tenant
- Waiving tenant’s right to sue landlord for damages caused by landlord’s negligence
- Allowing landlord entry onto leased premises at any time and without notice—unless it is a “Nonstandard Rental Provision” and initialed by tenant
Earnest Money Deposits
You can request that a tenant applicant submit an earnest money deposit, which is a sum to hold the apartment while the landlord considers the application. If the landlord rejects the tenant’s application or the tenant withdraws the application before the landlord accepts or rejects it, the full deposit must be returned one business day later. It must also be returned in full if the landlord does not approve the application within 3 days. Consideration of the application can be up to 21-days if both parties agree. If a lease is signed, the earnest money must be either applied to the rent, be part of the security deposit or returned to the tenant. Otherwise, if the tenant backs out after being accepted, the landlord can retain the deposit for damages or expenses incurred for lost rent or additional advertising expenses, if applicable.
There is no limit on how much a landlord can require as a security deposit to guard against damages to the premises that are the fault of the tenant and are beyond normal wear and tear and natural deterioration. Landlords have 21-days after the tenant vacates the unit to return it to the tenant’s last known address. As landlord, you cannot withhold a portion of the deposit for cleaning or painting purposes related to normal wear and tear.
Although a landlord can require prepayment of the rent when initially leasing the premises, any amount in excess of one month’s rent is considered a security deposit and must be returned when the tenant vacates or a written, itemized statement sent to the tenant with the damages found and the costs within 21-days. A landlord can also withhold the security deposit for unpaid rent or utilities for which the tenant was responsible.
Any other withholding of the security deposit is considered a “Nonstandard Rental Provision” and must be included in the written lease and initialed by the tenant.
A fixed term lease expires automatically but may be converted to a periodic tenancy if you include an automatic renewal provision. You should give the tenant time to notify you of an intent to not renew, which can be 60-days. You are required to give a written statement to the tenant 15 to 30 days before the tenant is required to advise you of an intent to not renew.
For a month-to-month tenancy, the landlord must give a 5 or 14-day notice of termination. The 5-day notice is for nonpayment of rent or breach of another lease provision but gives the tenant that amount of time to pay the rent in full or cure the breach. An unconditional notice to vacate or terminate the lease is 14-days. This might involve damage to the premises or illegal activity.
Should the landlord have previously given a 5-day notice within the past 12-months and the tenant fails to pay the rent or violates some other lease provision, then the landlord may give the 14-day unconditional notice to vacate. This notice must specify what provision was violated or what damage the tenant caused.
For leases that are more than one year, the notice is 30-days to terminate for nonpayment of rent or other lease breach.
A tenant who is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking may terminate the lease early by giving notice and providing a copy of an order of protection along with showing that there is an imminent threat of serious physical harm from another person if the tenant remains on the premises. In lieu of a protective order, the tenant can produce a copy of a criminal complaint or condition of release that orders the other party to not contact the tenant.
You also are not permitted to evict or terminate the tenancy of a tenant who is the confirmed victim of domestic violence. Such a tenant can also request a change of locks that must be done within 48 hours. The cost is borne by the tenant.
Servicemembers Civil Relief Act
A member of the armed services or National Guard who has been summoned to active duty for more than 30 days can terminate the lease 30- days after the day the next rent is due once notice is given. A copy of the deployment or relocation orders must be submitted to the landlord.
Duty to Mitigate
Wisconsin law requires landlords to take all reasonable steps to find another tenant if one abandons, breaks the lease and vacates or is evicted. The landlord may recover damages caused by the early termination and is not obligated to rent to another tenant for less than the fair market value. Any rent paid by the new renters is deducted from the remaining rent due from the old tenant. The landlord can recover expenses incurred in continuing to advertise a vacancy for the unit.
Tenants are not permitted to unilaterally withhold rent or to deduct and repair without permission from the landlord. A tenant may request that certain vital repairs be made and you are obligated to make the repairs within a reasonable time. If you fail to do so, the tenant may invite a housing inspector to review the conditions. If the repairs are necessary and material to the health, safety or security of the tenant, the inspector may send you written orders to perform the repairs. Your failure to do so can subject you to civil fines and even criminal penalties.
For emergencies or major conditions that are not remedied, your tenant may be able to vacate the apartment and terminate the lease with no further obligations.
There are numerous state laws affecting Wisconsin residential lease agreements and that govern your conduct towards tenants. Consult an experienced landlord/tenant attorney regarding the substance of your lease agreement and for any questions about your duties and obligations.