In general, landlord-tenant laws will typically apply to all stages of the rental process associated with a commercial or residential property. Each state also has its own set of laws that cover different aspects of a landlord-tenant relationship. For instance, state and local landlord-tenant laws will outline the legal requirements for the rental process, such as rules regarding lease terms, security deposits, and various other basic tenant or landlord rights.

Both landlords and tenants would be wise to review the applicable laws in their state since there may be other legal rights they are entitled to and/or legal duties with which they must comply.

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Landlord

The term “landlord” refers to the owner of a residential or commercial property that is rented to tenants. A landlord can either be a corporate entity or a single individual that owns residential or commercial rental property. As discussed above, a landlord may be afforded certain legal rights as well as may be required to perform certain legal duties for tenants under federal, state, and local landlord-tenant laws.

Some basic rights that landlords possess include the following:

  • The right to be paid rent installments on time;
  • The right to legally evict a tenant; 
  • The right to collect security deposits;
  • The right to enter the rental premises in the event of an emergency;
  • The right to use security deposits to pay for necessary repairs or unpaid rent; and/or
  • The right to conduct a background check on prospective tenants in a lawful manner. 

How the Eviction Process Works for Landlords

As previously mentioned, a landlord may not evict a tenant from a rental property on their own. Instead, they must either file an eviction lawsuit or an unlawful detainer case in court. Landlords must then use the eviction process defined by the laws in their state or county to lawfully evict a tenant for cause or without cause. 

The eviction process will also require the landlord to give the tenant advance notice of the eviction, serve the complaint that was filed in court on the tenant, and to call a sheriff in the event that a tenant refuses to vacate the rental property.

Termination with Cause

When a landlord is evicting a tenant for cause, it means they are filing the eviction for a particular reason. Only certain reasons are allowed to be claimed when filing an eviction for cause. There are three main ways that a landlord can terminate a tenant’s lease with cause. These include when:

  • A tenant fails to pay rent;
  • A tenant breaches or violates the terms of their lease; or
  • A tenant fails to cure an issue or a defect of which they were given notice.

For example, if a tenant was told to quiet down and continues to throw parties every night, then the landlord can terminate their lease with cause based on violating the terms of their lease or failing to cure the issue after being notified by the landlord.

Termination without Cause

A landlord can also terminate a lease agreement without cause as well. However, a landlord must provide proper notice of the termination or eviction beforehand. In most instances, this means that a landlord must notify a tenant at least thirty or sixty days in advance that their lease is ending or that they are being evicted. It should be noted that not every state permits landlords to terminate rental agreements without just cause.

Although a landlord will not need to provide a reason in this scenario, they will have to comply with the proper legal procedures in their jurisdiction, which may include notifying the tenant within the proper time frame and using the appropriate legal forms. 

Unlawful Detainer

Briefly, a landlord may file an unlawful detainer lawsuit when there is a dispute that involves a tenant who refuses to vacate the premises. A landlord may file an unlawful detainer lawsuit for various reasons, such as to obtain a legal declaration on who legally has possession of the rental property in question or to formally declare that there was a violation of the lease agreement.

A landlord can also use an unlawful detainer action to determine whether a lease requires a tenant to pay for the cost of attorneys’ fees or to acquire a judgment that orders a tenant to pay the full amount of unpaid or past due rent. 

In certain instances, a tenant may be able to raise an affirmative defense against an unlawful detainer action. If the tenant’s affirmative defense is argued successfully, then the landlord will not be able to take whatever action they were initially requesting when filing the unlawful detainer lawsuit. 

Removal of the Tenant

There are several issues that may arise during the removal of a tenant. Thus, landlords must be sure to abide by the eviction or unlawful detainer laws in their state or else they can be held liable for unlawful removal of a tenant. Some issues that can occur when removing a tenant after a court rules in favor of a landlord may include:

  • Ejecting a tenant by changing the locks (i.e., a self-help eviction); 
  • Removing all of a tenant’s personal property from a rental unit without their permission and putting it on the street; and/or
  • Physically getting rid of a tenant themselves, as opposed to calling the local sheriff’s department to remove the tenant. 

Tenant Selection

As will be discussed in further detail below, there are certain legal rights and duties that a landlord must adhere to when selecting a tenant to rent the property. For example, a landlord cannot discriminate against a prospective tenant because of their race, religious belief, or sex. A landlord also cannot harass a tenant for any reason. If a landlord has a problem with a tenant, they must go through the proper legal channels to resolve it. 

In addition, a landlord cannot require a prospective tenant to submit a copy of their marriage certificate, a medical report, or a photograph of themselves in order to start the rental process. A landlord also cannot use discriminatory ads to list a rental property nor can they hire a broker to do so on their behalf. Such acts are considered to be illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act.

Discrimination Law

As mentioned above, a federal law known as the federal Fair Housing Act prevents landlords and brokers hired on their behalf from discriminating against tenants who possess traits that are protected by civil rights laws. Each state may also have their own fair housing laws that prohibit discrimination against tenants and prospective tenants as well. 

Some additional examples of actions that constitute discrimination under the law can include:

  • Refusing to rent property to an interracial couple;
  • Refusing to rent property to an unmarried individual;
  • Refusing to rent property to married persons who identify as the same sex; and/or
  • Refusing to rent property to a prospective tenant because they wear religious garments. 

Residential leases

Residential leases typically provide more rights to tenants than their commercial counterparts. In contrast, commercial leases offer little to no rights to their tenants since they are usually signed by businesses, which the law views as being savvier than individual residential tenants. Tenants with residential leases also tend to be harder to evict for this reason than commercial tenants. 

In addition, residential lease terms are often shorter than those assigned under the terms of a commercial lease agreement. Lastly, the goal of a residential lease is to provide temporary housing for an individual, whereas the goal of a commercial lease is to rent property for business-related purposes (e.g., office space). 

Duties of the Landlord: Repairs and Maintenance

Landlords of residential rental units have a general duty to repair and maintain the premises for tenants. Under the implied warranty of habitability, which will be discussed in further detail in a below section, a landlord has a duty to fix problems with hot water, electricity, heat, and vermin or rodent infestations.

Depending on the circumstances, a landlord may not have to repair minor property damage. This is especially true if the tenant or one of their guests deliberately caused the damage.

For instance, if a tenant punched a wall and created a hole, it would most likely be the tenant’s responsibility to repair it. If a tenant fails to make minor repairs before they move out, then the landlord may be able to keep their security deposit or sue for any subsequent damages caused by the initial harm. 

Local Rent Control Ordinances

Rent control is the term used to refer to the fixed rate of rent on a unit. For instance, if a tenant signs a lease for a rent-controlled apartment, it could potentially mean that they can pay the same amount of rent year after year. However, rent control ordinances often vary widely by jurisdiction. Thus, there may be other requirements involved with properties that are labeled as rent controlled.

For example, tenants who live in rent-controlled apartments in New York City may be subject to a rent increase or a maximum base rent system. This means that a landlord will be allowed to increase the cost of rent on a rent-controlled property up to a specified maximum amount each year. 

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Tenant

Tenants who rent commercial or residential property from a landlord and/or property manager are afforded certain legal rights and protections in connection with that property. For example, it is illegal for a landlord to discriminate against a prospective tenant during the rental application process. This means that a landlord cannot refuse to rent a property to a tenant on the basis of their race, religion, sex, gender, marital status, or disability. 

Some other rights that a residential or commercial tenant may hold include:

  • The right to a lawful eviction;
  • The right to possess a habitable home;
  • The right to privacy;
  • The right to be refunded their security deposit within a certain time frame; and
  • The right to quiet enjoyment of the rental property without interference.

Tenants Right to Have a Habitable Home

The most important right afforded to a tenant when renting property is a tenant’s right to a habitable home. This right is formally known as the implied warranty of habitability and refers to a tenant’s right to live in a home that is safe, in habitable condition, and is equipped with basic utilities like heat, hot water, and electricity. The right may also apply if a rental property has poor wiring, exposed electrical wires, holes in the floor, and/or is infested with bugs or rodents.

If a home is uninhabitable or a basic utility is broken, then the landlord will be required to make repairs until the rental unit is restored to reasonable living conditions. If the landlord refuses to fix any issues that are covered by this right, then the tenant can legally refuse to pay rent or move out without risk of liability. 

Tenants Right to Privacy

Despite not being the true owner of the property, a tenant still has some basic rights to privacy when renting property from a landlord. For instance, a landlord is not allowed to enter the rental property without obtaining permission from the tenant first. However, there are two exceptions to this rule. The first is if there is an emergency, such as if a pipe burst. The second is if law enforcement has a warrant to enter and search the premises. 

If a landlord needs to enter a tenant’s rental property for any other reason, then they must provide advance notice and get permission from the tenant first. For example, if a landlord has to make repairs on the rental property, then the tenant must give consent and be notified as to when such repairs will occur. A landlord must also get a tenant’s consent to enter the premises for the purposes of showing the rental unit to a prospective tenant.

All other privacy rights and requirements for tenants can be found in the state-specific and local tenancy laws in a particular jurisdiction. Thus, to learn more about a tenant’s right to privacy, the tenant should review the relevant laws in their area or consult a local real estate attorney for further legal advice.

Tips for Protection of Tenants Rights

There are a few steps that a tenant can take to help protect their legal rights when dealing with a landlord-tenant issue. Some of these steps may also be used to help a tenant to avoid legal liability. 

Regardless of whether a tenant is attempting to protect their legal rights or to avoid legal liability, the following list provides some potentially useful tips for tenants:

  • Reviewing all relevant federal, state, and/or local laws that pertain to the landlord-tenant issue at hand;
  • Taking videos or pictures both before and after moving into a rental unit;
  • Notifying a landlord about any problems or damages immediately after they happen or before moving into a rental unit;
  • Documenting or recording any conversations that the tenant had with their landlord regarding the issue;
  • Saving all receipts and documents in a safe place (e.g., physical folder, filing cabinet, digital copies, etc.) if a tenant is forced to repair the damages themselves; and
  • Retaining and reading through all rental documents that the tenant received when they moved in or during their stay (e.g., leases, renewed leases, extensions, etc.).

What Are Some Examples of Acts That May Constitute a Wrongful Eviction?

A claim for wrongful eviction may arise if a landlord does not follow the proper legal procedures set out in their jurisdiction when evicting a tenant. This is also sometimes referred to as an illegal or a self-help eviction. 

Some examples of actions that may constitute a wrongful eviction include when:

  • ​​A landlord threatens or endangers the health and safety of a tenant;
  • A landlord shuts off a tenant’s utilities (e.g., gas, heat, electricity, water, etc.);
  • A landlord harasses or discriminates against a tenant;
  • A landlord changes the locks on a tenant’s rental property without their permission;
  • A landlord removes all of a tenant’s personal belongings from a rental property without their consent and places it on the curb; and/or
  • Any other act that is deemed to be illegal under state law or local housing ordinances.

Should I Consult a Real Estate Attorney?

Although not every case involving a landlord-tenant issue will require the assistance of an experienced real estate attorney, there are many benefits to working with a lawyer for landlord and tenant disputes. Thus, you may want to consider hiring a local real estate attorney for further legal advice on the best way to resolve your landlord-tenant issue or dispute.

Some examples of benefits that your real estate attorney can provide may include:

  • Giving you important legal advice about the current landlord-tenant laws in your area;
  • Informing you of any legal rights or duties assigned to landlords and tenants under federal, state, and/or local real estate laws;
  • Performing legal research and gathering evidence that can help to support your case;
  • Assisting with filing a landlord-tenant lawsuit against the offending party; and/or
  • Providing legal representation in civil or housing court. 

In addition, your attorney can review any real estate documents at issue, such as a lease or other housing agreement.