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Your Rights as a Renter

To fully understand your rights as a renter, we’ll have to address two sources: the lease and the law.

Lease

All leases are different. But in most cases, a landlord is required to give you a lease with clauses that include specific descriptions of the agreement between the two of you.

For example, the lease might include the duration of the agreement, when rent is due, when the landlord can enter your apartment, pet fees, or security deposits.

Before we go any further, we must emphasize the importance of the lease.

A lease acts as a binding contract between you and the landlord from the moment you sign, meaning that if you breach this contract, there will be financial and possible legal ramifications.

So, don’t sign a lease until you’ve read it fully and understand what you’re agreeing to.

Make sure to ask the landlord any questions or for clarification before you sign. If needed, ask if the lease can be edited to clarify certain clauses (for example, if it mentions a pet fee but doesn’t provide the exact dollar amount due, you can ask if your landlord would be willing to put those exact charges in the lease before you sign).

Keep a copy of your signed rental agreement.

Additionally, try to get any communication regarding your rental unit in writing.

Think of it this way: If it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen.

If you ever do have to defend yourself to the landlord or in court, you will not succeed with just your word. You must show proof, in writing, of notices, warnings, requests, and conversations regarding the property.

Law

The law has authority over your lease or any written agreement between you and the landlord.

Therefore, if the lease and the law contradict each other, the law comes out on top.

So what can we know about our renter rights as described in the law?

Laws that address tenants and landlords vary from state to state.

And while we will review a number of common issues tenants encounter, be sure to look into your state’s laws and statutes to understand more fully your rights as a tenant.

Here is a user-friendly site that can help you understand the specific landlord and tenant laws that apply to your state of residence.

Below, you will find a list of questions and answers that apply to most if not all states regarding your rights as a renter.

Question 1: Who is responsible for maintaining the property?

Answer: Generally speaking, the landlord is responsible for this upkeep. And you have the right to a habitable residence.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers information about what qualifies as a “habitable residence,” and exist to protect public health and the environment. They offer information about dangerous substances like poor drinking water, lead poisoning, mold, and radon.

In all states, landlords are required by law to maintain an environment that is safe to live in. If the building contains lead paint, this information must be disclosed to you before you rent.

Renters have a right to working plumbing, a pest-free and structurally sound unit, usable heat, utilities, and hot water. And the landlord is required to make any necessary repairs to keep your unit in reasonable condition while you live there.

Look for what requirements the lease includes regarding your upkeep of the apartment. For example, depending on the lease, you may be responsible for keeping up with the yard, and you will be responsible for keeping the unit clean. Almost all landlords collect a security deposit and the landlord can withhold that deposit from you if you damage the property.

So, when you move into a new place, make sure to take pictures of any damages already existing in the building, and submit them to your landlord at the beginning of your residency. This way, you have proof of what damages you did and did not create, and your landlord cannot use your security deposit to pay for all the repairs.

Try to develop a good relationship and open communication with your landlord. Report any repairs that are needed as quickly as possible, and try to offer your landlord the same respect you hope to receive.

Question 2: When can a landlord withhold your security deposit?

Answer: To cover unpaid rent or to repair any damages after you move out.

Your landlord will most likely require you pay a security deposit at the start of your lease (note that your landlord cannot charge different rates to different tenants, unless for understandable reasons, like an additional pet deposit).

But state laws also control how long the landlord has to return the deposit.

If the landlord does withhold a portion or all of your deposit, he/she must send you written documentation of the damage and purposes behind their withholding. 

Landlords can only use the security deposit to repair damages after the tenant has moved out or, on occasion, to cover unpaid rent. And the landlord must keep the security deposit in an account used only for those purposes. The landlord must also inform the tenant of the location of their security deposit.

Most leases have written clauses that specify what a landlord can and should charge for maintenance like carpet cleaning or repainting the walls, although some states require that the landlord make these updates without charging the tenants. If the security deposit doesn’t need to be used, most states require that the landlord returns your security deposit within 30 days. Some states allow 45-60 days, however.

If you and the landlord have a disagreement about the return of your security deposit upon your leave, make your disagreement clear and in writing, send it to your landlord, and get a copy of this letter. If the dispute cannot be resolved between the two of you, seek out an attorney’s help to see whether you can bring the issue to court.

Question 3: When can a landlord enter your home?

Answer: Only in an emergency or with notice

As a renter, you have a right to privacy.

Your landlord cannot come into your home without notice and your state may have specific laws about how much notice you must be given if the landlord needs to enter for repairs or to show the unit to other tenants when you’re in the process of moving out.

23 states require that the landlord give at least 24 hours notice. The other states specify that the landlord must give notice in a reasonable amount of time.

The only time your landlord can enter your unit without notice is in the case of an emergency. For example, Tennessee law states that the landlord can enter the unit without consent if there is a sudden, unexpected emergency or a situation that demands immediate action.

Question 4: For what legal reasons can a potential landlord deny your application?

Answer: For financial reasons or criminal records

The landlord can deny your application to rent their property if they find that you are unable to pay rent, or if you are a potential danger to the property.  

The former is checked through credit score, income, and references of previous landlords, however, the landlord is required to give you an Adverse Action Notice if they deny your application due to your credit score.

Regarding the latter, landlords can but are relatively restricted, due to the Fair Housing Act, in their ability to legally deny a potential tenant based on their criminal history.

Further, a landlord cannot deny your applications for reasons of discrimination. The law states that you have the right to a unitary housing market. Therefore, if you apply to rent a unit, you cannot be rejected based on race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin, family status, or mental or physical disability.

Additionally, if you are able to rent and you have a disability, your landlord is required to make accommodations for you, within reason. For example, the landlord must install ramps to enter the home or give you access to the lower units in the complex (HUD.GOV).

States are beginning to move toward non-discrimination regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. 19 states have laws that protect individuals from such discrimination. Additionally, the following cities have made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal: Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Seattle.

If you do or have experienced discrimination in renting a home, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Question 5: When can a landlord legally evict a tenant?

Answer: When a tenant breaks the lease or breaks the law.

Landlords are legally allowed to evict a tenant if the tenant breaches the contract, fails to pay rent, or commits a crime on the premises.

Upon eviction, the landlord must give you written notice and time to pay any unpaid rent or remedy your breach of the lease. The landlord can file an eviction proceeding in court if the tenant fails to comply with the eviction.

Question 6: When can a tenant legally terminate the lease?

Answer: When in danger, the lease has already been broken by the landlord, or when called to active military duty

Landlords and leases do not hold authority over the military. Additionally, a tenant has the right to break the lease if there’s significant damage to the property caused, for example, by a natural disaster or a fire, or if there are issues with the apartment (or landlord, for that matter) that make it unsafe or uninhabitable.

Question 7: How often can the landlord raise the rent?

Answer: At the end of the lease term

Landlords cannot increase your rent while you’re in the middle of your lease. Once your lease term is up, most landlords will increase your rent 2-4%.

On a month to month agreement landlords can increase your rent at any time. However, they must give you an average of 30 days notice.

As a renter, you have rights to privacy, advance and written notices, fair and unbiased treatment, and safety. It is illegal for your landlord to retaliate against you for defending or acting within your rights as a renter. But note that the law is on your side only if you’re up to date on your rent payments. So pay your rent in full. Also, foster a positive relationship with your landlord, get everything in writing, know your rights, and seek out help from an attorney. 

 

Header photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

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