In legal terms, a tenant is a person who is occupying or possessing land by renting the property from a landlord. A tenant has obtained the right to use and occupy specific rental property because of a rental agreement or lease that has been established and signed by the property’s owner (the landlord). Tenants are allowed this right as long as they adhere to the terms and conditions set forth by the lease, which includes paying rent.

Knowing your rights as a tenant allows you to be a better tenant while asserting those rights if necessary. Each state has specific laws regarding tenant rights, as well as landlord-tenant relationships. Tenants may believe they do not have many rights, since the property does not belong to them; however, tenants are actually entitled to a wide variety of rights. Although the negotiated lease is what determines many of the rules of the landlord-tenant relationship, state laws also play a part in tenant’s rights. 

Some examples include:

  • Eviction protections, such as if the landlord goes into foreclosure;
  • Discrimination protections, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protect tenants from being discriminated against when renting based on their protected status (age, disability, religion, etc.);
  • Property standards, such as the requirement that your unit must be kept in habitable conditions and the right to minor repairs;
  • A proper eviction process should the need arise; and
  • Return of appropriate security deposits, meaning only reasonable deductions taken from the initial security deposit payment, and in a timely manner.

Although you may be renting or leasing someone else’s property, you do have a right to privacy. Your landlord cannot enter the premises whenever they please. Rather, your landlord generally must provide you with some sort of advance notice. Each state determines the amount of time in which the landlord must notify the tenant.

What Rights do Landlords Have?

It is important to understand what rights your landlord has been granted, in order to better understand what is and is not appropriate during the course of your landlord-tenant relationship. 

Once again, landlord rights will vary by state, but there are a few general rights to be aware of:

  • Although your landlord cannot kick you out for no reason, landlords do have the right to evict a tenant from their property when it is proper and legal. This is typically due to the tenant failing to pay rent, or the tenant has violated some other term of the lease. Regardless of why the landlord is evicting the tenant, they cannot physically “throw out” the tenant, and they are prohibited from changing the locks while the tenant is away from the property; and
  • Landlords maintain the right to collect rent. This includes any agreed upon late fees for rent payments made past the agreed upon due date. Additionally, landlords maintain the right to raise your rent according to your specific lease.

Another right landlords have is the right to select tenants. Obviously, landlords cannot legally engage in housing discrimination against potential tenants if they belong to a protected class. However, landlords are legally able to make an informed decision and select or reject tenants based on the following:

  • The tenant’s past credit and bank accounts;
  • The tenant’s previous landlords, such as asking for references;
  • The tenant’s past criminal history; or
  • The approximate length of time the tenant wishes to inhabit the landlord’s property.

It is important to note that although landlords maintain the right to raise your rent, many metropolitan areas have enacted local rent control ordinances. The ordinances place a limit on the amount the landlord may increase the rent, and landlords must adhere to these ordinances. Additionally, rent control ordinances limit the reasons for which a landlord may evict a tenant.

What Else Should I Know as a Tenant?

When you are entering a landlord-tenant relationship, it is important to be prepared. This could include gathering references from previous landlords when pursuing a rental property, and providing your potential landlord with a recent copy of your credit report. Being prepared with the necessary documents can give a good impression to the landlord. It also may help establish a smooth and positive relationship, which will be essential as long as you are renting from them.

In the event of criminal acts of strangers, landlords may sometimes be held responsible. As such, it is important to find out about any crime or security risks in the area surrounding your potential future home, as well as what the landlord has done or is willing to do in order to reduce those risks. Ask if the landlord has met any security requirements. Landlords may also be held responsible in the event of criminal acts of tenants.

When you are given a lease or rental agreement to sign, it is important to read the document thoroughly and ensure you understand it well before signing it. This document is essential to protecting your rights as a tenant, and will outline what to expect from the landlord-tenant relationship. The proposed lease may have clauses that you do not wish to adhere to, in which case it would be in your best interest to pursue another property.

It is important to protect yourself and your valuable belongings from liability. If there is a fire or a flood, the landlord’s insurance will not cover your losses, whereas renter’s insurance generally will.

Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with Tenant Issues?

In the event of a dispute between you and your landlord, you may want to contact a skilled and knowledgeable real estate attorney. Landlord-tenant laws vary greatly from state to state, and an experienced real estate attorney can ensure your rights are being protected according to those laws. Additionally, the attorney will represent you in court, as needed.