Renting an apartment seems an awfully simple act: One merely picks a place that is affordable, attractive and conveniently located.

Then a sheet of paper, sometimes short, sometimes long, but always foreboding and replete with fine print, blank spaces and uncommon words, is presented for signature. With little hesitancy or question, the happy new apartment dweller is more likely than not to sign on the dotted line and move in.

Simple and safe? Not necessarily so. Unless the tenant fully understands the lease, that simple, safe and happy arrangement may only be the beginning of unwanted legal expense, time-consuming court appearances and embarrassment.

Lease arrangements are not to be taken lightly. Often, tenants fail to understand what the lease actually means. Or, they don't bother to ask questions because they don't wish to appear unknowledgeable or unsophisticated. No one expects the layman to be expert in this area, so don't hesitate to ask the landlord for explanation or clarification if necessary. If you're still uncertain, get additional advice from a lawyer or the local landlord-tenant affairs office.

Although some leases for less than a year are settled orally, it is prudent to have it in writing, as most rental agreements are. All terms and conditions should be clearly stated, understood, agreed to formally and subject to scrutiny by a third party.

In addition to common provisions covering such items as use of the premises, term of the lease, payment of rent and default, I would insist that other clauses spell out:

The landlord's responsibility for maintenance of the premises;

That the premises will be delivered in a clean, safe and habitable condition, in full compliance with applicable housing regulations, and, additionally, the purpose, use and return of security deposit, if any;

Charges for late payment and a grace period for same;

Understanding of the landlord's right to enter the premises and under what circumstances; understanding of rent and terms of occupancy if the tenant remains in possession after expiration of the original lease term (this is important because different types of leases are treated differently);

Release from further liability in the event the tenant's job requires a move from the area.

I would not agree to the following:

Waiver of notice in writing to vacate the premises for any reason;

Release of the landlord from liability for negligence or noncompliance with the law;

Waiving the right to a jury trial for disputes arising out of the agreement, including the right to possession.

Donald R. Brenner, an attorney, is associate professor of business law and real estate law in American University's School of Business Administration.