A Guide to Tenant Rights
Understanding your rights can help you become a better tenant and resolve situations before they escalate. This guide will also show you what steps to take if a conflict between you and your landlord has taken a turn for the worse.
The federal Fair Housing Act protects current or prospective tenants from being discriminated against on the basis of their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, familial status, national origin and disability. It’s important to know about this because you can be discriminated against from the very beginning of the rental process. However, a tenant can be legally denied based on poor credit, inability to pay rent or other information in their credit check.
Grace periods on your rent can’t be assumed. Rent payments are legally due on the date specified in your lease agreement, usually the first of the month, and in the form of payment accepted by your landlord. Landlords are also legally free to establish a different monthly, weekly, or bimonthly payment date, or to make the rent payable each month on the tenant’s original move-in date.
If you don’t pay your rent on time, your landlord is within their legal rights to do the following:
- Call, email or otherwise contact you to ask for the rent
- If there is a late fee provision in your lease, they can calculate and request late fees on top of rent
- Send you a termination notice, which serves as an ultimatum: pay the rent within a certain number of days or eviction proceedings will be initiated.
Here’s what you should do if you can’t pay rent on time. You have options:
- Be transparent with your landlord and explain your plans to budget better moving forward—if it was an unexpected expense, show your landlord how you plan to build up a reserve so that you won’t be late with rent again
- Give your landlord as much lead time as possible—let them know as soon as you know you’re going to be late with rent, so that they have time to move other money around and meet their expenses
- Be aware that corporate landlords outline their rules for handling tenants who are late with their rent, and that it may be more difficult to negotiate terms or a grace period
- Know your state laws and the window of time you have for making a payment before your landlord is legally permitted to evict you.
Breaking Your Lease
If life circumstances require you to break your apartment lease, first review your rental agreement and look to see if there is an opt-out clause. Also, what it provides if you must break the lease.
If this clause isn’t in place, talk to your landlord about your situation and give them as much notice as possible before you move out. Offer to find someone to sublet from you. Your landlord may be understanding, if you have maintained a good relationship with them, so open up lines of communication as soon as you can.
Parties to a lease can mutually agree to rescind the lease or settle the matter. An attorney can provide consultation, document review, and assistance with negotiations and documentation.
Right to Privacy
Your landlord at times may need to access your rental property to do a repair or to check on something related to the building (such as inspecting for damage), but they are required to give you advance notice, excluding emergencies such as fire or severe water leaks. Landlords do have the right to conduct reasonable background checks into a prospective tenant’s credit history and crime records.
As a tenant, you can’t unreasonably deny a landlord entry into your apartment, as long as all of the applicable requirements for entry are met. You can request to have an entry rescheduled to a different date.
Habitability and Repairs
As a tenant, you have the right to a livable, safe and sanitary apartment. This right is implied in every written or oral residential lease. A breach of habitability includes the failure to provide heat or hot water on a regular basis, or the failure to eliminate an insect infestation. Not every uninhabitable condition caused by the tenant or persons under the tenant’s direction or control constitutes a breach of habitability—there are cases where it is up to the tenant to remedy the condition.
The landlord is required to keep the building’s public areas in good repair, clean and free of vermin, garbage and offensive material. Maintaining electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating and ventilating systems and appliances installed by the landlord (refrigerators and stoves) is required as well – the landlord is required to ensure that everything is in good, safe working order, and that all repairs are made within a reasonable timeframe.
Check your state laws for clauses on safety, which includes smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, crime prevention, door locks, mailboxes and other important provisions. Utility service laws are also precise when it reaches heating season, but vary depending on state law. State law will provide any notice that may be required for a tenant to give if any of these conditions exist.
Tenant Rights for Disability Accommodation
If you have successfully applied for tenancy and have a disability, your landlord must make reasonable accommodations for you, so that you can enjoy equal access to and use of housing accommodations.
A reasonable accommodation is a policy that relates to your specific disability. Some examples include building a ramp or installing grab bars in the bathroom, or leasing you a lower unit.
When you rent, you are usually asked for a security deposit to protect the landlord against damage you may cause. Your landlord is required to treat all renters the same and not impose a higher deposit within reason, though there are some exceptions to this (a pet may be a reason for a higher deposit). State laws control how long the landlord has to return the deposit and if interest is accrued; most importantly, if some of your deposit is kept, you are entitled to written documentation of the damage it is being used for. State law will provide the time a tenant may have to request a refund of their deposit. Be prepared it must be in writing and you should always retain a copy of all documentation. A lawyer can provide important assistance related to these issues.
Fostering a good relationship with your landlord while you are living in the apartment usually ensures that misunderstandings don’t escalate into major disagreements that are taken to court. An initial inspection before you move out can help minimize problems—request an itemized list of anything the landlord believes you need to fix before you move out, which gives you a chance to remedy or dispute the landlord’s claims. Have evidence of the condition the dwelling is in before and after you move out. Do a walk through with the landlord and have a witness if possible.
If your landlord doesn’t give you your security deposit back or fails to return the deposit within the legal length of time, or if you dispute charges that your landlord deducted from your security deposit, reach out to your landlord or their agent. Let them know what the problem is and ask for a refund, followed by a letter sent via certified mail.
If all forms of compromise and mediation fail, you may have to file a lawsuit through small claims court to get your security deposit back. Seek assistance from a lawyer who may be able to assist if a demand letter or litigation is needed.
Your landlord is permitted to evict you if you breach the lease, including if you fail to pay your rent or any number of conditions that are stipulated in the lease you agreed to and signed on. You are entitled to a notice of a claim of eviction and time to pay the unpaid rent, or to amend or reverse what you have done to breach the lease.
If you don’t do this, the landlord is allowed to file an eviction proceeding against you in court, though you must receive notice of this and have a chance to file an answer with the court and appear to present your side of the case. If your landlord wins the case, you could be required to pay back rent and attorney’s fees and a writ will be issued for your eviction, such that you will be removed from the rental unit.
Unlawful retaliation occurs when someone in a position of authority punishes an individual for making a legitimate complaint, such as concerns about leaking pipes or a broken heater. If your landlord tries to evict you after you raise legitimate concerns, keep in mind that most state laws provide certain protections for tenants.
Ultimately, what is considered landlord retaliation depends on your state laws. Most states consider the following retaliatory:
- Refusing to renew a lease
- Filing or threatening to file an eviction notice
- Raising rent
- Not fixing the problems as requested
If you have complained to your landlord about repairs or a legitimate request for your apartment, and you’re concerned that you are possibly experiencing retaliation from your landlord, consult with a local lawyer.
Landlord-tenant disputes are common. Here at LegalShield we can get members help with landlord-tenant conflicts and a legal claim if you need it. Our experienced lawyers are available to take the stress and guesswork out of the process.
This is not intended to be legal advice. Each state has different laws governing tenant rights. Please contact a qualified professional attorney for further information.