17 ways you're violating your lease (© SuperStock; Workbook Stock/Jupiterimages)

Remember that document you signed when you moved into your rental house or apartment? There was a lot more to it than how much you pay each month and how long you'll live there.

Your lease agreement is a legally binding document that contains a lot of do's and don'ts about where you live. And yet a lot of renters don't actually read their leases.

"It's not just that they're lazy," says attorney Janet Portman, author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." "A lot of leases, which are written by lawyers, are so full of legal jargon and incomprehensible jargon, so people just give up because they wouldn't understand them anyway."

Whether you understand what it says or not, you're responsible for abiding by the guidelines of that lease agreement. So take another look at it, checking to see whether any of these 17 mostly benign behaviors violate your specific lease:

1. You let your cousin Joe crash on your couch for a few weeks while he finds a new apartment.Most standard leases have a place for the landlord to set a guest policy, but tenants either don't read the lease or read it and forget it by the time Joe needs somewhere to stay. That's fine if he's there only a few days; your lease will specify how long a guest can stay before he is considered a tenant. Portman says a lot of renters don't realize they're in violation by letting guests overstay their welcome.

"(Renters) consider it their home," Portman says. “They're just amazed that the landlord would consider that a violation of the guest policy."

Why does a landlord care about guests? There are several reasons, according to Portman:

  • More people cause more wear and tear; if more permanent residents are living in the unit, landlords want to increase the rent.
  • It's harder for landlords to get unauthorized occupants to pay for rent or repairs.
  • Unapproved residents can create legal hassles in the event of an eviction.

2. You hang up family photos to make the place feel more like home.
Your lease likely specifies whether you are allowed to make improvements or alterations to the rental unit. Some leases prohibit any changes, including a change as small as creating nail holes to hang pictures on the wall. Double-check your lease before making any changes, and be sure to get permission before making a major improvement such as installing a dishwasher or hanging track lighting.  You also should make sure you understand whether a major improvement or alteration stays with the place or goes with you.

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"If you bolt something to the landlord's property, it becomes the landlord's property unless you've agreed otherwise beforehand," Portman says.

3. You set up shop in your spare bedroom as a freelance graphic artist.
Millions of Americans run home-based businesses. If you're one of them, you should make sure your lease doesn't specify that the rental is for residential purposes only.  Of course, it may also depend on what kind of a business you're running. If your business consists of you, your computer and a telephone, you probably have nothing to worry about. But if clients or deliveries will be coming on a regular basis, you'll want to discuss the issue with your landlord.

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4. You store a few weeks' worth of trash in your kitchen, with the plan to "take it all out at once."
Your lease or rental agreement likely says that you are responsible for keeping your rental unit clean, safe and in good condition. Yes, that includes taking out the trash regularly.

Jeffrey Taylor, author of "The Landlord's Survival Guide," and founder of MrLandlord.com, says tenants often are surprised that inaction can be considered a lease violation. Your lease may state that you are responsible for changing the air-conditioner or furnace filter every three months, for example.

"Not only are residents violating the lease by not changing the filters, their non-action could cost them several hundred dollars or more," he says.

Many state laws regulate the kinds of repairs and maintenance that a landlord can hand off to tenants. That's something you can double-check when you sign your lease.

If you're renting a home or property that has a yard, your duties may include yard maintenance. Mowing the lawn and raking the leaves are fairly common responsibilities. But if your landlord hands off all the landscaping duties to you and your thumb is less than green, he might have a hard time holding you responsible for any greenery you "overpruned." The landlord could try to withhold part of your security deposit, however, or charge you if you kill his valuable rosebushes, so make sure you understand your landscaping responsibilities (and think they're fair and reasonable) before you sign that lease.

5. You ignore the cracked and crumbling steps in front of your building.
This is another instance where inaction could be a violation. Your lease may say that you agree to alert the landlord immediately to the existence of dangerous conditions.

"The next time you notice something wrong in your home, do not simply ignore it because you think it's no big deal," Taylor says. "Not saying anything to the landlord may come back to haunt you."

Let's say you intend to let the landlord know about those crumbling steps, but you keep forgetting. Months go by and the problem gets worse, until one day you slip on a stair, fall and seriously injure your back. Because you didn't tell the landlord about the problem and your lease specified that doing so was your responsibility, your ability to recover money from the landlord goes down.

If there were a court case, any settlement might be reduced according to the judge or jury's estimate of how much you contributed to the problem, Portman says. They might reduce the award by 25%, say, if they think you were partly responsible to that degree.

If someone else is injured on those stairs, such as the UPS guy, you could be held liable because you owe a "duty of care" to those people who come on your premises for business purposes, Portman says.

6. You show your support for the local city council candidate by proudly displaying a campaign sign in your front window and another on the lawn.
It's not uncommon for a lease agreement to prohibit the display of signs in windows or elsewhere on the premises, particularly in larger, multiunit buildings. There must be a blanket rule in place, not just a restriction on certain types of signs.

"That means every household must refrain from putting signs on the lawn or hanging them in the window," Portman says.

7. You decide to go retro and buy yourself a waterbed.
One fairly common restriction in rental units that some tenants aren't aware of is a ban on liquid-filled furniture such as waterbeds. Landlords impose this ban for two reasons: The potential for immense damage and the hassle of trying to dispose of a waterbed if a renter leaves it behind. Some leases may allow for a tenant to have a waterbed, but will require an additional security deposit.

8. You get a new car and park it in the parking lot where you used to park the old one.
You may be required to register your vehicle with your landlord or property-management company when you sign your lease. This is common in multiunit buildings. If a vehicle that is not registered is parked on the premises, that's a lease violation. Don't overlook letting your landlord know when you get a new car.

Other common car-related lease violations include parking in an unauthorized manner and letting your car leak oil all over the apartment complex parking lot without cleaning it up.