QI just signed a lease for a one-bedroom English basement. After I signed the lease, the landlord informed me that I had to pay a $125 cleaning fee so the apartment could be cleaned before I move in. I don't want to start off on the wrong foot with this guy, since it's his house and he'll be living above me, but does this sound right? If I can find something in writing to send him that says it's his responsibility to clean and not mine, that would help. Of course, maybe he has the right to charge me the $125. Any advice? -- Alexandria

AYour landlord is entitled to charge extra fees, such as a cleaning charge, move-in fee or pet rent, but he should have listed these in the lease.

"I believe that a landlord can charge a set 'cleaning fee' or 'redecorating fee' provided that the terms of the written lease mention the fee," said Robert Duffett, a landlord-tenant lawyer in Falls Church.

"The Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act limits the amount of non-refundable application fees and security deposits. However, a fixed-sum cleaning fee would not be considered a deposit or application fee and is not prohibited," he said.

So your first step is to reread your lease and make sure you have not agreed to pay this fee. Then tell your landlord that you are not prepared to pay a cleaning fee because you had no idea he expected such a thing until after you signed the lease and that because this is the first you have heard of it, you do not plan to pay it.

To make sure you do not damage your relationship with your new landlord, approach the situation calmly. Be as friendly, open and honest as possible about what seems like a bait-and-switch move.

You might take a chance if you start "on the wrong foot" with your new landlord, but the fact is that he made a mistake by not telling you what he expected. Because you've already established your tenancy, it would be difficult for him to decide not to rent to you based on you not paying this fee. He also is not supposed to practice retaliatory behavior, so technically, you are in the clear.

My husband and I live on the second story of a three-story apartment building. All apartments have patios. The one on the main floor is made of poured concrete; ours and those above are made of treated lumber that is similar to a house deck. What is the etiquette for cleaning the patio? When the tenants above us sweep their patio, the debris falls down onto our patio and the patio below. I have gone out on several occasions and swept our patio, but I feel guilty about sweeping and knowing that debris is falling onto the patio below. I make sure that no one is outside and that their patio doors are not open. -- Falls Church

Number one in the etiquette department for cleaning your patio is to be conscious of what is going on below. Having regard for your neighbors is important, especially when you are sweeping debris onto their space. People use their patios not only for sitting in the fresh air but also for working on projects. Maybe your neighbors are drying clothes, tie-dying, staining furniture or cultivating small plants.

The patio and balcony are so much an extension of people's apartments that they are often calculated into the total square footage. You should remember that your balcony is part of your home and clean it as you would an indoor area. Resist the urge to sweep into the open air. Instead, use a dustpan and a trash bag to collect what you sweep up. Although it may seem overboard not to sweep dust into the air and let the wind carry it away, multifamily buildings require extra measures so that unrelated people can live happily with each other.

Because patio and balcony etiquette generally doesn't come up in apartment rule books (beyond restrictions of what not to store there), lead by example and talk to your neighbors about your new patio-cleaning technique. I hope they will understand that it's really about respecting one another and that they will follow suit.

Two weeks ago, I moved into a group house where I directly paid the outgoing person her amount of the deposit. Everyone who has lived in the group house has done this. I have no direct lease or sublease signed with anyone. Now I'm noticing more that needs to be fixed around the house. These repairs should have been paid from previous tenants' deposits, not the deposit I just gave to the outgoing tenant. Could you tell me what the consequences could be for not having signed a lease and having paid the deposit directly to the outgoing tenant? -- Washington

The consequences of not having a lease can be significant. Without a legal, written agreement protecting your current living arrangement, you are risking a lot.

A good lease usually protects the interests of both the tenant and landlord and establishes rules for both parties to follow. Not having one is like going on a road trip without a map -- when you wing it, you may have interesting experiences and you may even get to your final destination, but it's not the most efficient or safest way to go.

Leases cover basic issues such as how much rent is, when and where you will pay your rent, length of tenancy, who pays utilities and how much you put down as a security deposit. Since you gave a non-landlord a security deposit and do not (I assume) have some sort of written agreement stating that you paid it, how it will be used and how it will be returned, you should begin by documenting information in writing as soon as you can.

You could also find out from your housemates how the landlord handles maintenance. If your landlord is not holding any of the residents' security deposits or assessing damage as each person exits, then you might ask the other tenants the purpose of the deposit. If it's not paying for damages done by residents, then it is unclear it serves much more purpose than showing you were serious about moving in when you applied for a spot in the house.

Although informal, oral rental agreements that establish your tenancy can hold up in court, the basic issue here is that a written, signed agreement is much more reliable than someone's memory. As it is now, someone could claim that you did not pay a security deposit. You might lose any chance of getting your money, even from an incoming tenant.

But, on the other hand, you could get lucky and find a replacement tenant who will pay the security deposit to you.

Not having a written lease may be good for something. For example, you can more easily move on a whim. So why wait and worry about losing a chunk of money while you live in a place that seems to be falling apart? Look for a group house that is less informal, in better condition and makes official your tenancy by putting your name on a lease.

Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at aptlife@gmail.com or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.