An illegal unit or illegal tenancy is one used for residential purpose that is not legally established with the local municipality. A search of public files can be made at the county’s housing inspection department to determine whether a unit is legal.
Usually, a tenant of an illegal unit has the same rights as a tenant renting a legal unit, including rent control in some situations. Also, if a tenant needs repairs to the unit and her request is ignored by the landlord, the tenant may be able to make the repairs herself and receive an appropriate rent reduction.
Ultimately, a tenant living in an illegal unit has more options, since the owner of illegal unit exposes himself to a greater amount of liability.
If the unit is cited as illegal by the local municipality, some states find that the parties¿ rental agreement is unenforceable. This does not mean however, that the tenant has the right to remain on the premises or to withhold rent. It just means that the agreement may not be used against a tenant as it stood when it was signed.
The citation of an illegal unit can require the landlord to cure any violations either by bringing the unit in compliance with the current code, or to demolish the unit. In the event that the landlord is unable to cure the violation, the unit may have to be removed and the tenant evicted. If the tenant is evicted because the unit cannot be brought to code, the landlord can be liable to the tenant for the cost of finding and relocating to a new residence.
Even though renting illegal units is a common practice, it has substantial risks that should not be ignored. Future tenants can secure themselves by checking with a knowledgeable real estate attorney before signing a lease to find out what rights are available to them in their area.